A friend of mine told me that a certain legendary television writer once dispensed this bit of wisdom, which for my money is the single best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about how to succeed in show business or anywhere else. As my friend walked nervously into the writers’ room on his very first day in the television business, the old pro took him aside and said to him in a gravelly murmur, “Keep it shut.”
I wish someone had given me that advice on my first day, about 30 years. I was pitching a joke in the writers’ room of TV’s long-running, phenomenally popular comedy Cheers. The actual joke is forgotten—it wasn’t a good one. I didn’t pitch anything good, or even decent, for a while. But I was young, and it was my first real job, and so I knew about what someone who was 24 knows, which is to say, nothing.
I didn’t know I knew nothing, of course, until the guy sitting next to me, David Lloyd—a legendary comedy writer, the lion of the writers’ room—pointed it out.
“Try putting the funny word at the end of the sentence,” he said. “And then try writing a funny sentence,” he continued, not bothering to add, “you idiot.”
I sat there, stung and embarrassed, and I thought, Man, that guy’s mean. Which wasn’t true. He was a professional. And by the end of the day, I had learned three important rules about writing television comedy.
The first you already know: Put the funny word at the end of the sentence. The second: Every time a character enters or exits or moves across the stage, and every time a scene begins or ends, there must be a joke. In a classic television comedy, everything turns on the joke.
Which just isn’t fair! Dramas in film and on television routinely just cut away to the next scene or linger on a character as he or she ambles along spouting dramatic dialogue without a funny word anywhere, let alone at the end of the sentence.
Not to mention, characters in dramas—and people in real life, for that matter—are perfectly comfortable entering and departing rooms without first thinking of something funny to say as they walk in or out. But comedy is more demanding than either drama or real life. Every scene needs a button; every walk across the stage needs a laugh. People who do comedy just have to work harder.
The third lesson is: During every rehearsal, check to see if the crew is laughing.
“Is the crew laughing?” is one of the questions we ask all the time on a comedy shoot. Because unlike the writers and producers and studio executives, they’re not paid to laugh. Or, to put it more honestly: They’re not paid enough to pretend to enjoy something they’re not enjoying.
The most expensive laughter in Hollywood is the fake kind. You get it from your agent and your manager and your lawyer and your wife or husband. But the crew is paid to lay dolly track and pull focus and lift stuff and plug stuff in, to build living rooms and hang exterior trans lights and try not to get electrocuted. Fake laughter is way, way down on their list of services.
So when the camera operator laughs, it matters. When the guy moving cable waits a few moments to watch the end of a scene, believe me, it means the scene is worth watching.
I haven’t been to any of the rehearsals for NBC’s new smash-hit comedy, a reboot of the sitcom Night Court, which originally ran on the network from 1984 to 1992. But I’m pretty sure the crew is laughing.
The new Night Court is pretty much the same as the original. It takes place at a Manhattan arraignment court and co-stars John Larroquette, who reprises his role from the original as an attorney. The collection of characters is also revived: There’s a wisecracking bailiff, a court stenographer, and assorted lowlifes and petty criminals.
In fact, the revived classic is about as traditional as they come: It’s an ensemble multi-camera sitcom filmed before a live studio audience. And it’s the biggest hit on broadcast television, with a weekly audience of nearly 7 million.
“Absolutely stunned,” is how Channing Dungey, the chairman of Warner Bros. Television, one of the studios behind the series, described her reaction to the gigantic audience that greeted the show’s premiere.
“Positive memories” of the original is what Susan Rovner, the chairman of Entertainment Content at NBCUniversal Television, the network home of Night Court, guessed was responsible for a big part of the show’s success.
I’d suggest, on the other hand, that it’s a lot simpler. The rebooted Night Court is obeying the rules I learned 30 years ago: The show is filled with funny words (always at the end of the sentence), and there are jokes to cover the action. In other words, it’s a comedy that wants to be a comedy, instead of what’s on a lot of other networks, which are comedies that want to be rueful and wry meditations on the broken relationships we all have with one another, our colleagues at work, and ourselves.
And at which the crew most emphatically is not laughing.
I also haven’t been to any of the rehearsals for the upcoming reboot of Frasier, one of the most honored television comedies ever, but a friend of mine who is working on the crew of the new series sent me this terse assessment: “Frasier reboot v. fun and v. v. funny.” Which is a very good sign.
At a rehearsal a few years ago, we realized we needed a better button to end a scene. But before I could suggest one, the lead actress in the project—and the principal player in the scene—waved me away. “I got it,” she said. “We don’t need a line.”
And she proceeded to play the scene until the time came for her exit, at which point she stood by the door, delivered her last line, popped a piece of candy in her mouth—I think it was a mint, or possibly a licorice drop, and I have no idea where she got it—and walked out.
The crew loved it. Which meant that later in the week, the audience loved it, too.
Some people, like Julia Duffy, the actress who ate the candy, are funny. They can pop a piece of mint into their mouth at just the right tempo and with a precisely calibrated glance, and then we’re laughing, and the exit is covered. If you tell a dramatic actor you’re working on the button or give him or her a joke to cover the cross, they’ll look at you with withering contempt. But a comic actor knows these things instinctively. A comic actor knows how to pop a piece of licorice into her mouth and exit to exploding laughter.
The title character of Shakespeare’s Othello, for instance, is the least funny—and let’s be honest, the least interesting—character in the play. The real star, as everyone who has read it knows, is Iago. He has the funniest lines, the cleverest speeches, the most darkly comic dialogue of the play. And it’s why—as every actor who has ever played Othello can tell you—it’s Iago who gets the most thunderous applause at the curtain call.
And the baffled look on the face of the actor playing Othello is exactly like the look on the face of a studio or network executive with an unexpected hit comedy on his or her hands, trying to fathom the mystery of why the audience loves the funny guy, when it’s really about sticking to the three rules: Put the funny word at the end, get a joke to cover the cross, and check to make sure the crew is laughing. Everything else is just unnecessary drama.
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