Transcript: Crying Outside the Studio Gates
No one wants to hear it. But Rob Long says every script, joke and rough cut should be shorter
This is Rob Long with Martini Shot for The Ankler.
Not all jokes work, which becomes very clear when you tell one in front of an audience.
Audiences laugh or don't based on a series of mysterious brain functions, and when they don't laugh, and you're the writer, you have a couple of choices. You can fix the joke, which is something every writer tries to avoid, because, well, it's work — that's not because we're lazy — or, I should say, it's not just because we're lazy.
Rewriting a joke on the fly, during a show, entails rewriting it on the stage and having the actor say the new lines in front of an audience that knows exactly what's happening. Not a recipe for success.
My preferred method for dealing with a joke that doesn't work is simple:
You cut the joke.
I actually have a little hand gesture for that. When a joke falls flat on the stage — or not even flat, it just doesn't pop the way I wanted it to — and everyone, inevitably, looks to the writer — cast, director, assistant director, second assistant director, script supervisor, the assorted flying wedge of studio and network executives arrayed behind the monitors like a toxic Greek chorus, — on all of their faces is the same question, what are you going to do about this?
I always make the same gesture.
I make a scissors gesture with the fingers on my left hand and a scissors with the fingers on my right and I snip them in the air like I'm cutting a rope in two places.
Meaning: we're going to cut this. Meaning: It's gone. Meaning: Move on. Meaning: stop looking at me.
I can do this with confidence because the show is always long. An old timey network comedy is about 21 minutes long, allowing for nine minutes of commercials and interruptions — but if you shoot an extra four or five minutes you get to do what we call "take the air out of it"—meaning, make it sprightlier and faster — faster always equals funnier — but it also means that if a bunch of jokes, or even sometimes whole sequences, don't work the way you'd like them to, you just snip them out. Chop chop.
What happens to a joke that falls flat if no one sees it? It didn't happen is what.