Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Writerly Life

The Great Jane Espenson has an interesting post on the difference between writing jokes for 30-minute sitcoms and hour-long shows:

Half-hour comedies favor what are called "hard jokes." Here's an example of a hard joke, which I adapted from an old episode of Family Ties:

JENNIFER: I told you to run a down-and-in. You were supposed to go to the pole and stop!

SKIPPY: I did. I stopped when I hit the pole.

You'll notice that it's very structured, very lean, and it's all about the words. The set-up HAS to have the words "pole" and "stop" for the punch line to land.

The distinction between this and a soft joke isn't as clear-cut as some writers would have you believe. The same punch line, if spoken with a self-aware wince, would be at home in many comedic hours.

Take out the constructed-sounding wordplay to soften it further. Now can you imagine it in an episode of House?

INJURED PLAYER: I was supposed to stop at the goal post but I didn't.

Dr. HOUSE (examining contusion): Actually, I suspect you did.

The simple fact that House makes a dry joke of it makes it softer. This is another example of that general principle which I've laid out before: broadly comedic characters tend to be serious in their intent. More complex, "dramatic" characters are often consciously making a joke. It's my favorite writing irony.

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