Sitcom writer/producer Ken Levine (veteran of MASH, Cheers, Frasier, Becker
) was kind enough to spend some time chatting about my arcane comedy questions. (He has his own blog
CTVW: There seem to be a lot of jokes on sitcoms that aren't funny. Somebody called them "like-a-jokes." What's up with that? Are these jokes funny for other people?
KL: I have found that it has more to do with the quality of the writers. I've done some directing, and saw different writers at work--
CTVW: --excellent way to spy on the opposition--
KL: --and in some cases you'd see problems after a runthrough. You'd discuss it with the writing staff. They'd listen, go off and do their best. But they didn't really have the chops. They wound up doing the thing they were planning on doing before.
Not that they don't want great material. They work hard. Earnestly. They tell the best jokes they know how. They're just not that good. There are not that many really really good comedy writers.
But then you also get so many factors that can make a show unfunny. Interference by networks and studios ... actors ... managers ... non writing producers. In fairness, you wonder sometimes, what was the first draft like? What did they have to take out because somebody didn't like it? Or it bumped the non-writing producer? Things can get homogenized. It's easier just to lose a joke that offends someone.
CTVW: Why do non-writing producers interfere with the jokes?
KL: Because they can. Because they have opinions on everything. I don't know. They're marking their territory? Anybody can give notes. "This doesn't work for me." They don't have to pitch a solution, just the problem. "I really don't like her when she does this." Then they go off and have a nice dinner.
Jokes are so subjective. They'll say "I don't think this is funny."
CTVW: You shoot each scene twice in front of the studio audience. Do you ever try a couple of new jokes in the second time around?
KL: Sure. But that is a little deceiving because the second time the audience is familiar with everything -- they'll laugh better at any new joke. That can be fool's gold.
It's a tricky thing. I don't know how to explain. There have been times when a show on the stage kills, the audience is roaring with laughter, and you look at it on film and go, what were they laughing at? Other times when it played just fair on stage, and you put it together and the performances and the reactions and the editing come together and it's a great show. And this time you're wondering, "Why weren't they falling off their chairs?"
Sometimes it's magic, of course. The first time I went to see a show, Dave and I were writing a spec Mary Tyler Moore Show
. And we had a friend who knew someone who knew someone who worked on the show, and hounded him all year. We had real good seats, second row. The show happened to be "Chuckles Bites the Dust." One of the greatest sitcom episodes ever. There was something unbelievably electric about that night. We walked away, didn't know whether to be inspired or go, who are we kidding? And when you saw it all put together and it was every bit as great.
The onstage audience reaction depends on a lotta things, remember. Not just the material. Also, having a good audience. The air conditioning. What night of the week it is. We're big proponents of shooting live audiences on Tuesday night, not Friday -- more energy.
CTVW: Is that rare?
KL: No. A lot of shows film on Tuesday nights. It allows two shows to share the same crew. The same crew shoots Monday, Tuesday for one show and then Thursday-Friday for the other.
The two writing staffs work the same five days. They both take the weekend off. But some writers prefer working Monday to Friday because your weekend can't get interrupted. If you're working Wednesday to Tuesday, you might get calls during the weekend.