Jeffrey Davis, Author/Screenwriter: So I went to this evening once at the Paley Center (it was quite a number of years ago) because Larry Gelbart has sadly been gone for awhile, creator of the TV show M.A.S.H., a billion plays and the book for A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum and Mel Brooks (who I had first met on Sid Caesar’s show of show in the fifties) were doing an evening and a talk and then at the end of the talk there was a Q&A as there always is and the guy got up and he said Can you illustrate the difference between a joke and wit? And Mel Brooks took a glass of water and poured it over his head and he said That’s a joke. And there was a long pause and so the guy said So what is wit? And Larry Gelbart said Wit is dry.
Peter Desberg, Author/Screenwriter: It’s a great line.
Film Courage: Speaking of which…the structure of a joke versus the structure of a screenplay. Similar, different?
Peter: Well, can I tamper with the question and edit it a little?
Film Courage: Sure, please do.
Peter: Well, the way I see it is looking at the structure of a joke and you work it into a screenplay. Because jokes have to meet two criteria to work in a screenplay. They have to either advance a story and they have to totally come out of character. If they don’t meet those two criteria, excise them, they are expendable you don’t want to keep them. So that’s always the rule and so I’ve seen writers with tears in their eyes saying That’s so funny, I hate to let this go…but it’s not coming out of character, it’s not moving things along. I’ve got to dump it. So you have to have those two elements in there.
Film Courage: Is there a joke quota? All kidding aside.
Jeffrey: There used to be. I don’t think there is anymore. I mean I hope there isn’t. There are two shows on Netflix, one is called THE RANCH and I forget the other one, it just came on it’s with Kathy Bates (it’s about a woman who owns a pot store) and they’re both like those sitcoms in the 80’s (some of which I wrote for) where it was like joke…joke…joke..joke…joke…joke…Oh, look what you’re wearing… What was the one in THE RANCH where he is wearing Uggs this guy who used to be a football player is wearing Uggs and everybody is making jokes about Uggs (it has nothing to do with the story) they are just looking for jokes for shooting in front of a live audience and someone told us this morning that those two shows are not doing that great on Netflix and that doesn’t surprise me. It’s really old fashioned, there’s a rule, three jokes a page when I started and lots of times the producer would give you the joke.
One joke I had to put in the joke Oh, look at Barbie Cantrell on a beach almost wearing that bikini. Having nothing to do with the story. Terrible joke and not even really a joke.
“Really all it comes down to is setting-up and paying off. If you don’t do that, you don’t have something properly structured.”
Peter: Elliot Shoenman told us a story, he told us I was working on MAUDE and MAUDE was a very sophisticated comedy where jokes are very difficult to come by because the characters weren’t very broad. And he said We had our office right across the hall from ALL IN THE FAMILY, he said the characters there were so broad that you could always get a joke if you needed it, we’d be there until seven or eight every night and at five o’clock they all left and they said and they said if they needed a joke they would take Archie Bunker and they’d give him a malaprop. So they’d say Edith, I think I’ve got a hernia. I’ve got to see a groin-o-cologist. And you’d have the joke because he’s just such an easy character to write jokes for.
And again, I keep saying my favorite sitcom is still BIG BANG and those characters are so well-drawn and the characters have so many traits that are identifiable that there’s always a joke when you need it. There’s always something about one of the characters that is going to fit. So whether it’s a short joke or an OCD joke or an autism joke or a foreign language joke, there’s always something because the characters have so many traits that you can come out with jokes about.
Film Courage: Anything to add?
Jeffrey: No, I’m not a really good joke writer, I’ve never been. My humor comes out…
Peter: But he’s a very good joke critic when we talk.
Jeffrey: I mean, jokes have never been my strength. I’ve written them but they usually come out of what a character is doing, so I wouldn’t really consider them the kind of jokes Peter is talking about. I love jokes. I don’t like joke-jokes and I studied with Danny Simon who said never set up a straight line to accommodate a punch line. And that’s what kind of annoyed me about THE RANCH. It had all these wonderful actors in it and instead of using them to develop character they were giving them joke after joke after joke and it just seemed kind of old-fashioned to me. But I admire good jokes.
Peter: When you can see the jokes coming, it’s not a good joke. There’s an old saying in boxing You never see the punch that knocks you out. That should work for jokes as well.
Jeffrey: But I think that in order to go back to where we started with this (jokes versus wit) I think one of my biggest influences is Noel Coward. Noel Coward did not write jokes. Noel Coward wrote situations that was inherently funny to people who on their second honeymoon go out to their respective balconies in the South of France and who do they run into but their ex-spouses and everyone has stolen that situation and PRIVATE LIVES was the play. But at the time it was kind of risqué and of course what are they going to do, they are going to fall back in love. They are going to fall back in love, fight, break up and get married, and break up and get married and that was the premise. But you can see that really witty stuff would come out of that. But very few jokes…he had jokes like (I’m going to butcher this) because one of them had been on a trip How was Egypt? Very dry. That’s not a joke, that’s wit. And how were the plains of Spain? Very, very wet. You know the kind of thing, that’s not really joke writing.
Peter is talking about constructed jokes. But what’s nice about that (and I butchered it a little) but the nice thing and the Noel Coward example, there’s a rhythm (just like in a joke) there’s a set up and a pay off. If you say very, very wet and you don’t say very, very dry, people will unconsciously be waiting for it and if they don’t hear it, they’ll be disappointed in it and they’ll wonder why. One of the movies that works great for me is the first and the second BACK TO THE FUTURE because everything, by the way this is what structure is…oh! I’ve got a new question. May I?
Film Courage: Please do.
Jeffrey: This comes a lot from my childhood and my training. My dad and his friends always said All structure really is is set-up and pay off. Some things you set-up and pay off quickly. Some thing you set-up halfway through a script, pay if off later. But if you set up something and don’t pay it off people are going to notice that the film or the play…
Peter: Something is missing.
Jeffrey: Something is missing. So really people for a long time have over-complicated the idea of structure. Really all it comes down to is setting-up and paying off. If you don’t do that, you don’t have something properly structured.
Peter: And set-up is all conflict.
Jeffrey: So for example I set up the mother moving in with her daughter and I don’t pay off that something bad (bad funny or good funny) is going to happen, I haven’t written a whole premise. I haven’t written a whole story.
Peter: If they get along well, it’s really boring. Unless the two of them have to unite against something else.
Jeffrey: Well Charlie Peters always said…well Charlie’s an old friend of mine, he’s always said one of the hardest thing to explain to students (Charlie taught at USC for many years) and for us [LMU] he said the hardest thing to explain to a student is because in life we all want to get along. We don’t want conflict, we want it nice and easy. But that makes for a dull drama.
Peter: He gave us a great quote in the book [Now That’s Funny]. He said The hero of every movie wants the script to end on page two.
Film Courage: What were you going to say about BACK TO THE FUTURE?
Jeffrey: Oh! Short-term memory loss is a b*tch? That everything they do in BACK TO THE FUTURE, everything they set-up, everything! And they went through 20 drafts before it was shot. Everything they do is paid off. Everything. So you feel really satisfied when you come out of that movie. You may not know why. Every joke they set up is paid off.
Peter: No loose ends.
Jeffrey: And that’s really great writing and you’re waiting for the sequel because at the end of the movie he says Where we’re going… He takes the Stinkin’ badges line, what the famous movie…
Peter: SIERRA MADRE.
Jeffrey: SIERRA MADRE, Roads what about Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need no stinkin’ roads. And it’s right out of another movie and it sets you up, you have to see that sequel now. But the third one…nah…don’t watch that. The western, it’s not very good.
Question For The Viewers: Any wisdom you can share about writing jokes into a screenplays?
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