CS: Jane Espenson divides comedy writers into those who make jokes instinctively and those who construct them analytically. Which are you? Do you find there are certain techniques for generating a joke that you use?
ES: I am completely instinctive. I look at the situation, the character, the circumstances, and try to see what's funny there. I have an improv background, so it just sort of comes. There are people who can construct a joke from nothing. Jokemeisters. I am in awe of them. But at the same time, they want to write to the joke. I want to write to the character. They can pitch ten jokes on one spot. Two or three jokes a minute. They don't have to think too much. But they need me, because you can't write everything to the joke, just as I need them. Hey, you should interview them. Anyone who works on The Daily Show, or Jay Leno.
CS: How do you know something's funny when you're writing alone? Can you ever judge your own scripts without prejudice?
ES: Well that's why comedy is so often group-written. Things you think are hilarious are barely amusing, and things you think should be funny just don't play, and people think some things are great that you don't think are that funny. So it's always good to work in a group. Funnier things occur to you when you're competing with other people to make a joke.
CS: Okay, but that's easy to say when you live in LA. If you're in Schenectady, how do you find people to work with?
ES: Everybody should have a writer's group. And you can always find writers who want to get together with you. [Ed. Note: Ellen has never been to Schenectady.]
CS: But obviously if you're working on your own on a comedy spec, how can you compete with real sitcom scripts, where the punch-up is done in a room full of a dozen writers competing to come up with the best joke? Is it just a question of time and reworking it endlessly?
ES: You're never going to be as funny on your own. You can get a bunch of friends together, though, and have them pitch jokes to replace the jokes you've got -- or the placeholders, the like-a-jokes, the "jokicles" I call them, that are holding a place where you think a joke should be. But what's really most important is that the story has to work. If you have the funniest jokes in the world on page 6, but the story doesn't work on page one, no one's going to read page 6. Showrunners want to know you have a comic sensibility, yes, but the most important thing is, can you tell a story
with jokes. If your story flows and you have some comic abilities, it will be funny.
CS: How do you judge someone else's joke when you've been living with the current joke too long?
ES: That's tricky, because different will be funny. Personally, I like to read the jokes out loud. Or you can have actors get together and have a reading. I have a whole chapter in my book about actor readings.
I think, too, pick the joke that serves the character, the relationship, or the story best
. If one joke moves the story forward, and the other doesn't, or not as much, then you know which one to choose.
Also, in a spec script, don't depend on a visual joke. It might play, but it might not read. And since your script is going to be read, go for the verbal joke in a spec.
Labels: books, comedy, Crafty TV Writing, interviews, reading