Tuesday 22 November 2016

Hack Joke Amnesty

This blog post should be Part 3 on the The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms but there's been a bit of action on Twitter about hack lines that should be avoided in scripts. Splitsider put out a post based on a tweet by John Quaintance, exec producer of Workaholics.

I've blogged on this before here and here after I listened to John August and Craig Maizin talk about 'clams' on Episode 52 of their Script-notes podcast. They we reading out a list from Go Into The Story and were also referring back to Jane Espenson's blog, including this one from 2007 which says:
A joke that has outlived its shelf-life is consistently referred to as a "clam." I've talked a little about these before, I believe. You know a clam when you hear it. Here are a few of them: "I'm switching you to decaf." "Check please." "Who are you and what have you done with ___?" "Did I say that out loud?" "Too much information!" and its brother (hand over ears) "La la la". Also we have "Was it something I said?" And "That didn't come out right." Or "That came out wrong." And finally "That went well," and its sister, "He seems nice". 
This is 2007. That's nine years ago. And I'm still reading scripts with these very hack, tired, unfunny lines in. And it's really important that if you're an aspiring writer and want to stand out from the crowd, you have to create new speech patterns and ways of talking. You can't just write the first thing that comes into your head, because that has probably come into lots of other heads before yours - and onto a page. So let's have a final Hack Joke Amnesty. Let's hand in all these jokes and lines and allow them to be humane destroyed.

As I write here, the reason these lines come so naturally is because in real life people do sometimes speak in 'sitcomese', saying things like 'Well, that went well' after a disaster or the most irritating 'I could tell you but I'd have to kill you'. Essentially, when people like your uncle and aunts are saying these things, thinking they're jokes, it's time for you realise that these lines are not original and that you need to write better jokes and lines for your characters.

So, as a public service, I'm gathering up all of these that I can find from Scriptnotes, and my other blog posts and John Quaintance, and the writers of Workaholics as a handy reference guide with Jane Espenson's caveat first:
Another way is to use the lines in unexpected way. A character who has been sitting silently and suddenly blurts, out of the blue, "Did I just say that out loud?"-- that's pretty funny. (I bet it's been done, but still, funny.) "That didn't come out right" is pretty funny, too, if it's Dr. House saying it while removing a tissue sample. 

But with that in mind do not use any of the following (although a few of these lines I'm not aware of!):

And here's the list from Scriptnotes - which has a lot of hack action movie lines in:

John: So shall we do this? “Are you ready?”
Craig: “I was born ready.”
John: “Are you sitting down?”
Craig: “Let’s get out of here!”
John: “_____ is my middle name.”
Craig: “Is that all you got?” “I’m just getting started.”
John: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Craig: “Don’t you die on me!”
John: “Tell my wife and kids I love them.”
Craig: “Breathe, dammit!”
John: “Cover me. I’m going in.”
Craig: “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”
John: “No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not going.” Cut to them going.
Craig: “No, come in. _____ was just leaving.”
John: “You better come in.”
Craig: “So, we meet again.”
John: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Craig: “Well, if it isn’t _____.”
John: “I’m just doing my job.”
Craig: “You give ______ a bad name.” / “Calling you a ______ is an insult to ______.”
John: “You’ll never get away with this.” “Watch me.”
Craig: “Lookin’ good,” said into a mirror.
John: “Now, where were we?”
Craig: “What the…?”
John: “How hard can it be?”
Craig: “Time to die.”
John: “Follow that car!”
Craig: “Let’s do this thing!”
John: “You go girl!”
Craig: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
John: “Yeah, a little too quiet.”
Craig: “If I’m not back in five minutes get out of here,” or, “blow the whole thing up,” or, “call the cops.”
John: “What part of _____ don’t you understand?”
Craig: “I’m not leaving you!” “You have to go on without me.”
John: “Don’t even go there.”
Craig: “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
John: “Ready when you are.”
Craig: “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
John: “Oh, ha, ha, very funny.”
Craig: “Did I just say that out loud?”
John: “Wait. Do you hear something?”
Craig: “It’s…just a scratch.”
John: “How is he?” “He’ll live.”
Craig: “I’m…so…cold!”
John: “Is that clear?” “Crystal.”
Craig: “What if…nah, it would never work.”
John: “And there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
Craig: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
John: “Note to self.”
Craig: “Honey, is that you?”
John: “What’s the meaning of this?”
Craig: “What seems to be the problem officer?”
John: “What’s the worst that could happen?” / “What have we got to lose?”
Craig: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
John: “Leave it. They’re already dead.”
Craig: “Don’t you think I know that?”
John: “Whatever you do, don’t look down.”
Craig: “Why won’t you die!”
John: “I eat guys like you for breakfast.”
Craig: “Oh, now you’re really starting to piss me off.”
John: “We’ve got company.”
Craig: “Hang on. If you’re here, then that means…uh-oh.”
John: “Oh, that’s not good.”
Craig: “Awkward!”
John: “What just happened?”
Craig: “We’ll never make it in time!”
John: “Stay here.” “No way, I’m coming with you.”
Craig: “This isn’t over.”
John: “Jesus H. Christ!”
Craig: “It’s no use!”
John: “It’s a trap!”
Craig: “She’s gonna blow!”
John: “Okay. Here’s what we do…” And cut to a different scene.
Craig: “Wait a minute. Are you saying…?”
John: “You’ll never take me alive.”
Craig: “Okay. Let’s call that Plan B.”
John: “I always knew you’d come crawling back.”
Craig: “Try to get some sleep.”
John: “I just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Craig: “Leave this to me. I’ve got a plan.”
John: “No. That’s what they want us to think.”
Craig: “Why are you doing this to me?!”
John: “When I’m through with you…”
Craig: “Impossible!”
John: “Wait! I can explain. This isn’t what it looks like.”
Craig: “Showtime!”
John: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Craig: “If we make this out alive…”
John: “That’s it! You’re off the case.”
Craig: “How long have we known each other?” “We go back a long way.”
John: “Well. Well. Well.”
Craig: “Ah-ha! I knew it!”
John: “Done and done!”
Craig: “Leave it. He’s not worth it.”
John: “In English please?”
Craig: “As many of you know…” and then a bunch of exposition.
John: “Too much information!”
Craig: “Yeah, you better run!”
John: “Unless…” “Unless what?”
Craig: “What are you doing here?” “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
John: “So, who died? Oh…”
Craig: “You’re either brave or very stupid. “
John: “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?”
Craig: “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
John: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
Craig: “It’s not you. It’s me.”
John: “This just gets better and better.”
Craig: “This is not happening. This is not happening!”
John: “Make it stop!”
Craig: “Shut up and kiss me.”
John: “I’ll see you in hell.”
Craig: “Lock and load!”
John: “Oh, hell no!”
Craig: “Not on my watch!”
John: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Craig: “I have got to get me one of these.”
John: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Craig: “It’s called _____. You should try it sometime.”
John: “That went well.”
Craig: That did go well.

For further evidence on You Just Don't Get It, Do You?...

And here are some other offerings to my blog via Twitter:

My esteemed co-writer Richard Hurst pointed out the gag when people are looking at porn then turning the picture (or their head) sideways at which point it 'makes sense'. Agreed. Hacky.

Relate to this:
Porn films in sitcoms are always of the Hollywood pornification 'Edward Penishands' variety. @MontyBodkin

Here are some other lines and bits that simply have to go (credited by twitter handle):

"Oh God. Did we...?" Checks under covers to see if clothes are on or off. @ElizabethBower & a variation by @JakeTrusler

I'd never dare do something like that... *Hastily hides the thing they didn't do* @zanPHEE

I'm tiring of 'whole...thing', as in "I hate being stood up" becoming "I hate the whole being-stood-up thing" @simonblackwell

How about a line referencing something bizarre/wacky that happened in the past, what happened to show not tell? @tonycowards

...look up the definition of [a bad thing] in the dictionary; know what you'll find? A picture of you. @philiplarkin

'That's going to leave a mark/that's gotta hurt' and variants... @tobydavies

'You had me at [insert something incongruous that isn't hello]' @ScriptwritingUK & @The_ODonnell

"Who *are* you and what have you done with the real X?"@danblythewriter

"Penny for your thoughts" @RobGilroy Ugh.

"That's what she said. Am I right or am I right?"@AndyGilder

When character drinks frothy coffee and puts cup down to reveal hilarious comedy tache. @ingridoliver100

Not strictly a line, but I don't ever need to see another sitcom character do a doubletake.@revgerald And add to to that the nighttime security guard who sees an odd thing then looks at the cup/glass/bottle in his hand.

When talking about something other than sex: "Tell me one thing, was s/he better than me" @TheSarcasticOwl - I like this observation. They did it in Friends quite a lot (eg. shopping together in Bloomingdales) and it worked for them. But it's done now.

"At least things couldn't get any worse." (Ceiling collapses/thunderstorm starts/etc.) @sleezsisters

"So, you knew? [nods] So, all the time...? [nods] And I was never...? [shakes head]" @mcmwright

I'm here all week. Try the veal. @paultrueman74 Yes, funny in Shrek when you're an ogre who's just beaten up soldiers but that was some time ago now.

A: hi I'm Tom
B: Nice to meet you Tim

A: it's Tom
B: WHATEVER TIM @Direlogue

A character storms out of a room straight in to a cupboard. They stay there. @johnfromsoho

"Why can't X do Y?" "Because (he's) a useless etc. etc. etc. who couldn't etc. an etc." PAUSE "But apart from that?" @SimplerDave

Are we done with all these?

If you'd like some help writing a better script that you're proud of, let me help you out.

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  1. A: (curiously, fearfully) Just like that?
    B: (steadily, seriously) Just like that.

  2. "There's no way I'm doing that, not a chance, over my dead body"
    Cuts to scene of character doing 'that'.

  3. Proposals:"I don't know what to say" "Say yes!"

    "It's not what you think!" (and it's close relative, "I can explain" followed by silence)

    Also, my family's favourite: "We're not so different, you and I."