So we’re thinking about being a writer and working on someone else’s sitcom. How does it work? What normally goes on. Last time, it was Ideas Generation. This time, The Gag Pass.
What is a Gag Pass?
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A ‘gag pass’ or a ‘punch up’ sounds like some dangerous game that squaddies play, but really it’s quite straight forward. It’s just a day or two of making a script as funny as it can possibly be.
The script is probably going to be shot in a few weeks, and overall it’s in good shape, but the writers just want one more pass at the script before it gets locked down. Maybe there’s just been a read-through and some jokes seemed to work and others fell flat, so there are patches that might need special attention. So a few writers are hired for a day or two to sit and go through a script - or a bunch of scripts – to make sure every joke is as funny as it can possibly be.
Some sitcoms do this by correspondence. The script is emailed to a chosen few who write down alternative gags or lines. This has never been an especially satisfactory way of going about it, but it saves schlepping into a stuffy windowless room and trying to be funny.
The more traditional way is that stuffy, windowless room with hard copies of the script printed out so you can jot or doodle on it, and pitch your ideas for new lines. You probably haven’t been sent it in advance and you’re not expected to have done any homework.
In my experience, you need to rely on your instincts for the actual jokes. You need to react to a duff line with a better one, at least in your head, and then make a note of it so you can pitch it when the time comes. When I’ve run gag passes, we’re read a scene aloud amongst ourselves and then stop at the end of that scene to look for improvements.
In general, the rules of ideas generation apply. Don’t pitch something more than once, even ironically.
Pitch lines they can actually use, rather than lines that just make the room laugh – which is worth doing once or twice, but can get out of hand.
Laugh at other people’s jokes and mean it. Don’t be a jerk. If you’re feeling grumpy, fake it. It’s only for seven hours.
Also, it’s okay to defend a joke or bit or moment in the existing script that you really like. It may be the original writer has gone off the joke and just needs some gentle encouragement to stick with it – especially if you don’t have a better one.
You can also pitch sight gags, improvements to props, and anything which adds comedy to the show but doesn’t make it longer. Usually, the script is a little long and needs cutting, so jokes need replacing rather than adding, but a sight gag takes no time at all.
Know the show. It sounds obvious but don't go into a room where you're meant to be pitching jokes and you're a little hazy on the characters and their names. Watch more episodes. Make a little diagram or chart if it helps you. Get into those characters and you'll be able to see scenes from their perspective which will help you come up with characters jokes, rather than just 'funny lines'.
Keep the tone of the show in mind. If it’s not a sweary show, don’t pitch sweary lines. If it’s not a goofy, silly show, don’t pitch goofy, silly jokes or props. If you’re not sure pitch it, maybe with a caveat of ‘This may be too dumb but…’ Or pitch the line and then say ‘Does that work with the show?’ etc. Let the show runner or creator be the judge if you’re not sure. But don’t pitch lines that obviously don’t fit because it wastes time, and shows comtempt for the show and the process.
Work out what the scene is trying to achieve, and make some suggestions for lines that don’t derail that intention. It’s too late for picking apart the scene – unless you’re told otherwise.
So that’s Ideas Generation and The Gag Pass. What about being part of ‘The Table’? If you’re part of one (or 'a room' of writers), most of your work is Ideas Generation at start, with some episode plotting (or ‘story breaking’) and a Gag Pass on each draft that comes in front of you. Maybe you’ll be part of a discussion about fixing the script if it didn’t quite work at a readthrough. But you may end up writing and episode, so we’ll look at that next time.
But in the meantime, it’s worth pointing out that most British shows don’t have tables – mainly because of expense. After all, why would you spend a penny more than you have on the content of what you’re actually filming and the stuff the actors are going to say? That makes no sense at all. We don’t do tables or rooms.