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Timing

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

I was having dinner with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago. He works in features, so he has that "feature attitude" about television that would be more justified if, say, movies these days were any good. It's sort of a lofty, airy perspective that he has. He likes to talk about indie films and niche dramas when he talks about the feature business, and Dancing with the Stars and the Game Show channel when he talks about television. Of course, when I talk about features I usually talk about Seriously, Dude, Where's My Car and when I talk about television I like to talk about, say, House or The Sopranos. I guess each one of us uses the best of our little corner of the industry as a cudgel to attack the worst of the other guy's corner of the industry. I didn't say it was a good friendship.

But something he said -- somewhere after a lengthy exegisis on Ang Lee's lyrical use of wheat -- struck home. "The problem with TV comedies," he said, "is that they're not really...like, funny?"

A joke, see, has two crucial parts: it has a set-up -- Norm, from Cheers, walks into the bar and everybody says "Norm!" and then someone says something like, "Hey, Norm, what's shaking?" or "Hey, Norm, how's it going?" -- and a punchline -- Norm says something like, "Two cheeks and a jowl" or "It's a dog eat dog world and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear." Or something. Memory fades. The point is, a joke has to have those two parts or it isn't really a joke. Maybe it's a little witty statement or a wry observation or an irritating pun, but it isn't a joke. You won't laugh at it. You'll smile at it, and you'll do it silently, which means someone has to add the laugh for you, electronically.

On my first day of my first job in television, a young staff writer on the long-running show Cheers, I was told that any beer joke would have to be filmed twice, once for the audience and once again after the audience left the soundstage. The trouble was, any time the word "beer" was mentioned in a set-up-ish context, the audience would start laughing, anticipating that the Norm character, a beer-loving layabout, would have something funny to say. So were getting laughs on the set-up part of the joke, which would drown out the punch-line part, which meant we needed to film them twice, for the soundtrack and the timing. In a way, it's a good problem to have -- an audience so tuned into your characters that you no longer have to do any real joke writing. It's all just set-up. The audience plays the punchline in their heads.

But that was a long time ago. These days, people don't spend too much time on the punch line part of the joke. It's too hard, or too old fashioned, or just too "done" for people to really sit silently in a room, for hours and hours, trying to come up with a way to cap off a set-up. A couple of days ago, I saw a show on the air -- and a popular one, too -- in which one character says something provocative to another character -- I can't remember what, exactly, something really set-up-y like, "How do you expect me to do that?" or "How many puppies do you have in that sack" -- something, I don't know, I can't remember, and the other character did a kind of a slow burn -- which served as a drumroll to the punch line that was on its way, right? It's a classic film comedy sequence: a mildly insulting set-up, cut to the guy, simmering with rage, build up the anticipation, and then he says the punch line. Which was, in this case, "Don't make me say it!"

Say what? I mean, memo to the writers, five more minutes please. Get an actual finish to the joke. It would be like when we were on i>Cheers, if Norm comes sauntering in, and everybody says "Norm!" and then someone says, "What's the news, Norm" and Norm says, "Don't make me say it!"

Well, the machine would laugh. Which often is enough. Which is why my feature friend had a point. A set-up without a punch line isn't much of a joke. And if the sitcom is ever going to come back, I'd suggest starting with that.

Of course, there's one additional thing I haven't mentioned. It's probably the most important part of any joke. Done wrong, it can ruin a fantastic piece of writing. Done right, it can make something that's not really funny sound really funny. I'm talking, of course, about...

Timing. That's it for this week. Next week, we'll epater le bourgeois.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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