Monday 20 June 2011

Writing those lines that, you know, the audience laugh at...

... what are they called, again? Oh yes. Jokes.

I like jokes. I like laughing. Out loud. I quite like smiling. And I quite the like feeling of having spotted something really subtle. But I think I like laughing the best.

I fully appreciate that some people don't like laughing. Somehow, some of them are TV critics. It's understandable to some extent. Most comedies wouldn't seem all that funny when played on a preview disc at 11am in a brightly lit lounge on a Tuesday morning. Also, some critics simply consider laughing to be beneath them. AA Gill is one, as I pointed out here. Let us remind ourselves of why he liked TV series Lead Balloon:

This series is part of a new trend of comedy shows that don't make you laugh; you just nod your head and mutter, "That's really funny." It's a Darwinian improvement on the tyranny of the set-up-gag guffaw, and I approve of it. Laughter is ugly and common.

Thanks, Mr Gill. I'll bear that in mind for all your futures reviews about comedy.

I mention all this because I'm in the throes of writing another radio series with Milton Jones who, apart from being a most delightful and kind human being, writes some of the best jokes in the English-speaking world.

The show we write for Radio 4 is called Another Case of Milton Jones which can you sample/buy here. In general, it is a show that will go anywhere or do anything for a joke. But the show has a strong narrative, as well as some regular characters, and it's far from a case of connecting up a series of Milton Jones' superb one-liners, although they are extremely useful to have in the armoury.

Writing the show is always a bit of a work-out for me. I have to be at the top of my game to keep up with Milton, joke-wise, but my main skill is seeing beyond the next joke, to the next scene, and all the way to the end, shaping the story and ensuring the whole thing makes sense, so that when the Czech Grandmaster is trapped inside a cage made of Twiglets and fed to an angry mob of penguins, we know why it's happening, and therefore why it's funny. (Confusion is the enemy of comedy)

Odd Conversations
During the course of writing the show, Milton, the producer David Tyler, and I end up having bizarre conversations about jokes, working out specifics about what colour or which animal is funniest, whether a scene should take place in Mexico or Panama, and what words should be omitted. It takes hours. We ensure that each script is given our full attention for two whole days (with the script having been broadly written and reworked before we start that process). Some days we're there for 12 hours, meaning some scripts after given 24 hours of careful attention from three of us. And then Milton has another pass at the script, filling in gaps, and deleting stuff he's only 50/50 about. In short, it takes ages. But at the same time, it's great fun because at the end of it, we've got some really funny jokes that make us laugh in the room - and we're excited about telling them to the audience so they can laugh too. This is comedy, remember.

Let us note, then, that writing comedy is hard. It's not just a question of natural ability. It's natural ability plus graft. The British love the idea of an effortless genius. It's broadly a myth. There was of course Peter Cook. But that was it. The rest of us just have to take our talents and work our guts out.

Writing Jokes
In the process of the above, however, there are a few things that crop up when trying to write or polish a joke that I pass on to the possible benefit for reading several. Three things as a starting point.

Clear a space - make sure the joke isn't being compromised by things around it. The audience are expecting jokes. Don't give them the jokes they expect. But at the same time, don't confuse them or make their life harder. Earlier, I mentioned about whether to set a scene in Mexico or Panama. In the room, we might say 'Oh, let's not do Panama. They'll be expecting a joke about a hat or a canal, and we're not doing those jokes. Can't it be Mexico?' It's all about expectation and stereotype. These can help you when they're part of the joke, but they can get in the way if the joke's about something else. Remove words in the set-up to the joke that are in themselves funny-sounding, if they're not the joke. In short, clear a space for your joke. No distractions.

Rhythm and Bounce - make sure the joke is sayable and has a natural rhythm to it, (unless of course the joke is about jarring words, or expectations). Shakespeare's so memorable and easy to say because of the iambic pentameter. He did okay. Discordant, jerky sentences tend not to work. Let us not forget some of the all time great one-liners from Blackadder eg. 'Your brain, for example, is so minute that if a hungry cannibal cracked your head open, there wouldn't be enough in side to cover a small water-biscuit'. 'Water biscuit' much funnier than 'cracker', which is shorter, but not as nice in that spot. Also, cracker can mean other things, lik Christmas cracker, and a cracker is also a sort of joke. Delete cracker. Use water-biscuit. Think about rhythm and flow. Say it out loud. If you can't say your line, why should the actor be expected to?

Zing and Sting - make sure the funny bit is at the end, so it zings. Sounds silly, but I watch plenty of comedy where the funny bit is drowning in a soup of words around it. The funny line, the punchline, the pay-off, should come last, so the audience can then laugh. They won't laugh if you're still talking. They're very polite. They'll wait 'til you've finished, by which time the laughter will have dissippated. This is the bit our American friends are really good at. (I always say that 'American English is the natural language of sit-com' Discuss)

Also, make sure it is actually a joke. Some lines feel like jokes, because of their shape, clarity and rhythm, but, on inspection, there's nothing there. It's an ersatz-joke. It's just someone talking. It may get a laugh, but it doesn't help you. Cut it. Or turn it into a joke. Or use it as a set-up to a new joke.

Some would say all of the above is against the principles of 'naturalism' that you get in comedy now. Shaky cameras and people mumbling, stopping and starting. It's quite fashionable at the moment. But that kind of comedy hides the fact that when that stuff is done well, you don't notice that jokes are clear and the lines are sayable. You're thinking 'people don't talk like this in real life' because it's all flowing well and you're too busy enjoying it.

All of the above takes time, especially if you do it on every line in every scene. But that's okay. You're a writer. It's what you do. And always remember - it beats real work.

1 comment:

  1. Although all the comedy (certainly all the wit) in Shakespeare is in prose: iambic pentameter's too limiting for jokes. Your point about rhythm stands, of course, but outside of the verse you can vary the rhythm more.