We Don't Have a Phone

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

First, a little background:

Once, a long time ago, a joke in a script fell flat.

This happens every now and then, of course, Well, more than every now and then. But the key is, fixing it. When you're in production, and you've got a few rewrites ahead of you, and a joke falls flat at a run-through, you try to come up with something better. You try to fix it.

But if you're in the middle of shooting a show, and there's an audience there and cameras and an entire production unit, the smart thing to do is nothing. You move on.

Because if you're smart, you always produce a show that's a bit long, you always shoot a little more than you need, so you can cut the stuff that doesn't work. And a everyone knows, cutting is a lot easier than fixing.

But one time, we weren't long, and a joke fell flat on shoot night, and a bunch of the writers gathered in a corner, as the audience and crew and cast waited patiently for us to come up with a better line.

The joke was pretty simple: Parents have come for a surprise visit to their daughter. They're worried about her. The setup was: "We were very disturbed to get your last phone call." And then she says, "Why?" And then they say…well, I can't remember what they said, but whatever it was, it didn't work. So we gathered in our circle and started pitching new punch lines.

Now, the best way to pitch a new line is to say the whole joke – set up and all – and then add in your pitch. So there were maybe eight writers, in a circle, all murmuring "We were very disturbed to get your phone call?" "Why?" And then they'd pitch.

One writer pitched the following. "We were very disturbed to get your phone call." "Why?" "Because we don't have a phone."

Which didn't make any sense, but did make us all laugh -– silly non-sequitors almost always do –- and unfortunately everybody saw us laugh – the actors and the crew and the director and the audience, so they all thought, "Okay! They've got one!" and I think the warm-up guy actually said, into the microphone, for the audience, "Well, it looks like the writers have come up with a terrific joke to replace that last one that didn't quite work. Let's listen and see what they came up with."

So we had to shrug sheepishly and wave everyone off and come up with something else, something that was both funny and that made some sense. Which took a while.

But the truth is, sometimes it's best to go for the funny, wherever you find it. Neil Simon, a pretty funny guy, had a character in his play "The Sunshine Boys" explain that the funniest words in English were "k" words -– words that had a hard "k" sound in there somewhere. And he's right: k's are funny. L's, not so much.

So, there are funny sounds, and there are also funny rhythms. That same writer once walked into men's room down the hall from our office and shouted, "Good Lord! It smells like Nell Carter's summer home in here."

Now, I have no idea if the late Broadway and television star Nell Carter had a summer home, or if she did, what it smelled like. But for some reason, the cadence of the line -– and of course the "k" sound in "Carter" –- just made us all laugh.

My current all-purpose favorite is "cinnabon." Which is almost always funny, no matter where you put it, despite having no "k" sound.

So, today or tomorrow, try it yourself. If you're stuck on a joke or just want to say something funny, stick a "cinnabon" in there. It's easier than actually writing a new joke, let me tell you.

And that's all for this week. Next week, it'll never work.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long