Chapter 5: Bringing The Funny



It takes many bad jokes to find a good one. Comedy writers will often use “placeholder jokes” to fill up a script while they’re trying to get the story and the basic comic situations down. Then they’ll go back in a “punch up” pass and, hopefully, replace the placeholder jokes with actual funny ones. On a sitcom, the entire writing staff will typically go through the script together, in the room, and pitch replacement jokes for every gag in the script. On shows with smaller writing staffs, the script might just get passed around from writer to writer.

As with all other rewrite situations, don’t defend your jokes. If someone’s offering a replacement line that you feel is off track, you can explain what you were going for and ask for help to get a joke that does what you wanted your joke to do. But if your fellow writers don’t think your joke is funny, it’s not. That’s the beauty of comedy: if they’re not laughing, it’s not funny.

If you’re writing on your own, it’s much harder to be sure you’re replacing a weak joke with a stronger joke. You still need to pitch yourself a dozen replacement gags for every gag you have in your script.

But you need to be careful not to toss out a good gag for a new one. One of the hardest things about writing comedy is that it depends on surprise for its effect. You’ll read your comic writing over and over again, until all the surprise is gone. Any joke you’ve written will get less and less funny until you can’t remember how you ever could have thought it was funny. It will seem like the stupidest, lamest joke in the world. You’ll replace it with something new that seems funnier to you. The new joke may not actually be as funny. But you’ve lost your perspective. That’s why so many comedy writers are partnered up.

If you’re not in a partnership, you just need to develop what the best editors have: the ability to forget you’ve seen or heard something. Until you have, use time. Time gives you perspective. Write up your replacement gag pitches. But don’t replace any of your jokes yet. Hide the script for a few days. Then read it again with your pitches handy. See if the new pitches are still funnier than the original joke. Only then should you swap out the old jokes for the new.

When many writers in a writing room pitch progressively unfunnier jokes for the same spot, it’s a joke spiral — think of an airplane caught in a stall/spin. That’s why some rooms enforce the concept of first blurt: the first funny joke pitch is the one that stays.