Writing Jokes Into A Screenplay by Jeffrey Davis & Peter Desberg

Writing Jokes Into A Screenplay by Jeffrey Davis & Peter Desberg


Peter Desberg, Author/Screenwriter: Did you
see the little puppet up there? There’s a little Freud puppet up there? Film Courage: Oh, yes now I do see it. Jeffrey Davis, Author/Screenwriter:: Do you
let your patients hold it? Peter: I go up there and say “Why do you
hate them?” Jeffrey: Whenever you’re ready? Film Courage: Oh, we’re rolling. Jeffrey: So I went to this evening once at
the Paley Center (it was quite a number of years ago) because Larry Gelbheart has sadly
been gone for awhile, creator of the TV show M.A.S.H., a billion plays and the book for
A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum and Mel Brooks who I had first met on Sid
Ceasar’s show of show in the fifties were doing an evening and a talk and then at the
end of the talk there was a Q&A as there always is and the guy got up and he said can you
illustrate the difference between a joke and wit? And Mel Brooks took a glass of water and board
it over his head and he said “That’s a joke.” And there was a long pause and so the guys
said “So what is wit?” And Larry Gelbheart said “Wit is dry.” Peter: It’s a great line. Film Courage: Speaking of which…the structure
of a joke versus the structure of a screenplay. Similar, different? Peter: Well, can I tamper with the question
and edit it a little? Film Courage: Sure, please do. Peter: Well, the way I see it is looking at
the structure of a joke and you work it into a screenplay. Because jokes have to meet two criteria to
work in a screenplay. They have to either advance a story and they
have to totally come out of character. If they don’t meet those two criteria, excise
them, they are expendable you don’t want to keep them. So that’s always the rule and so I’ve
seen writers with tears in their eyes saying “That’s so funny, I hate to let this go…but
it’s not coming out of character, it’s not moving things along. I’ve got to dump it.” So you have to have those two elements in
there. Film Courage: Is there a joke quota? I mean all kidding aside. Jeffrey: There used to be. I don’t think there is anymore. I mean I hope there isn’t. There’s two shows on Netflix, one is called
THE RANCH and I forget the other one, it just came on it’s with Kathy Bates (it’s about
a woman who owns a pot store) and they’re both like those sitcoms in the 80’s (some
of which I wrote for) where it was like joke…joke…joke..joke…joke…joke…”Oh look you’re wearing…” What was the one in The Ranch where he is
wearing Ugs this guy who used to be a football player is wearing Ugs and everybody is making
jokes about Ugs (it has nothing to do with the story) they are just looking for jokes
for shooting in front of a live audience and someone told us this morning that those two
shows are not doing that great on Netflix and that doesn’t surprise me. It’s really old fashioned, there’s a rule,
three jokes a page when I started and lots of times the producer would give you the joke. One joke I had to put in the joke “Oh, look
at Barbie Cantrell on a beach almost wearing that bikini.” Having nothing to do with the story. Terrible joke and not even really a joke. Peter: Elliot Shoeman told us a story, he
told us I was working on MAUDE and MAUDE was a very sophisticated comedy where jokes are
very difficult to come by because the characters weren’t very broad and he said we had our
office right across the hall from ALL IN THE FAMILY, he said the characters there were
so broad that you could always get a joke if you needed it, we’d be there until seven
or eight every night and at five o’clock they all left and they said and they said
if they needed a joke they would take Archie Bunker and they’d give him a malaprop. So they’d say “Edith, I think I’ve got
a hernia. I’ve got to see a groin-o-cologist.” And you’d have the joke because he’s just
such an easy character to write jokes for.  And again, I keep saying my favorite sitcom
is still BING BANG and those characters are so well-drawn and the characters have so many
traits that are identifiable that there’s always a joke when you need it. There’s always something about one of the
characters that is going to fit. So whether it’s a short joke or an OCD joke
or an autism joke or a foreign language joke, there’s always something because the characters
have so many traits that you can come out with jokes about.  Film Courage: Anything to add? Jeffrey: No I’m not a really good joke writer,
I’ve never been. My humor comes out… Peter: But he’s a very good joke critic
when we talk. Jeffrey: I mean, jokes have never been my
strength. I’ve written the but they usually come out
of what a character is doing, so I wouldn’t really consider them the kind of jokes Peter
is talking about. I love jokes. I don’t like joke-jokes and I studied with
Danny Simon who said never set up a straight line to accommodate a punch line. And that’s what kind of annoyed me about
THE RANCH. It had all these wonderful actors in it and
instead of using them to develop character they were giving them joke after joke after
joke and it just seemed kind of old-fashioned to me. But I admire good jokes. Peter: When you can see the jokes coming,
it’s not a good joke. There’s an old saying in boxing “You never
see the punch that knocks you out.” That should work for jokes as well. Jeffrey: But I think that in order to go back
to where we started with this (jokes versus wit) I think one of my biggest influences
is Noel Coward. Noel Coward did not write jokes. Noel Coward wrote situations that was inherently
funny to people who on their second honeymoon go out to their respective balconies in the
South of France and who do they run into but their ex-spouses and everyone has stolen that
situation and private lives was the play but at the time it was kind of risqué and of
course what are they going to do, they are going to fall back in love. They are going to fall back in love, fight,
break up and get married, and break up and get married and that was the premise but you
can see that really witty stuff would come out of that. But very few jokes…he had jokes like (I’m
going to butcher this) because one of them had been on a trip “How was Egypt?” “Very dry.” That’s not a joke, that’s wit. “And how were the plains of Spain?” “Very, very wet.” You know the kind of thing, that’s not really
joke writing. Peter is talking about constructed jokes. But what’s nice about that and I butchered
it a little. But the nice thing and the Noel Coward example,
there’s a rhythm (just like in a joke) there’s a set up and a pay off. If you say very, very wet and you don’t
say very, very dry, people will unconsciously be waiting for it and if they don’t hear
it, they’ll be disappointed in it and they’ll wonder why. One of the movies that works great for me
is the first and the second BACK TO THE FUTURE because everything, by the way this is what
structure is…oh! I’ve got a new question. May I? Film Courage: Please do. Jeffrey: This comes a lot from my childhood
and my training. My dad and his friends always said “All
structure really is is set-up and pay off. Some things you set-up and pay off quickly. Some thing you set-up halfway through a script,
pay if off later. But if you set up something and don’t pay
it off people are going to notice that the film or the play… Peter: Something is missing. Jeffrey: Something is missing. So really people for a long time have over-complicated
the idea of structure. Really all if it comes down to is setting-up
and paying off. If you don’t do that, you don’t have something
properly structured. Peter: And set-up is all conflict. Jeffrey: So for example I set up the mother
moving in with her daughter and I don’t pay off that something bad (bad funny or good
funny) is going to happen, I haven’t written a whole premise. I haven’t written a whole story. Peter: If they get along well, it’s really
boring. Unless the two of them have to unite against
something else. Jeffrey: Well Charlie Peters always said…well
Charlies an old friend of mine, he’s always said one of the hardest thing to explain to
students (Charlie taught at USC for many years) and for us [Loyola Marymount] he said the
hardest thing to explain to a student is because in life we all want to get along. We don’t want conflict, we want it nice
and easy. But that makes for a dull drama.  Peter: He gave us a great quote in the book
[Now That’s Funny]. He said “The hero of every movie wants the
script to end on page two. Jeffrey: Jack does not want to go to Skull
Island and find King Kong. That’s the last he wants to do. Film Courage: What were you going to say about
BACK TO THE FUTURE? Jeffrey: Oh! Short-term memory loss is a brat? That everything they do in BACK TO THE FUTURE,
everything they said up, everything! And they went through 20 drafts before it
was shot. Everything they do is paid off. Everything. So you feel really satisfied when you come
out of that movie. You may not know why. Every joke they set up is paid off. Peter: No loose ends. Jeffrey: And that’s really great writing
and you’re waiting for the sequel because at the end of the movie he says “Where we’re
going…” He takes the “Stinkin’ badges line, what
the famous movie… Peter: SIERRA MADRE. Jeffrey: SIERRA MADRE, “Roads what about
Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need no stinkin’
rhodes.” And it’s right out of another movie and
it sets you up, you have to see that sequel now. But the third one…nah…don’t watch that. The western, it’s not very good.

14 thoughts on “Writing Jokes Into A Screenplay by Jeffrey Davis & Peter Desberg

  1. Great video… and always love the comedy discussions!

    Certainly I agree that fitting jokes into a screenplay (or any written work, for the matter) is about them coming from within character and still moving the story forward.

    I would (however) posit that writing a joke is actually fairly similar to the structure of any other story, so for a screenplay, we can cover a three-step form…
    Establish character/setting… You've got to know the rules and theme… That's where the joke is coming from. I can tell you about my "wire biter" friend, and you'll just shrug… or even ask about it, but it's not funny… Until you learn about it being from a military (Navy) slang, often a diminutive term used BY Electronics Tech's to refer to Elextrician's Mates… ET's are also often called "twidgets" (jokingly) by just about everyone, since they handle all the highly sensitive electronic stuff, circuit boards and components… EM's on the other hand are very much the same electricians as you'd contract to wire a house, just on a ship… and we often called them "wire biters" for the same reason I was called a "knuckle dragging deck-ape"… BUT you still have to establish the character(s) and set themes, surroundings, etc… Jokes aren't funny in a vacuum.
    Build tension… This functions in one of two ways. Either it makes a play at something trope-ish, so you see the obvious conclusion, and like a train-wreck, you expect your delivery with the cringe or anxiety that relating to the character brings out… "There but for the grace of God…" and all… OR the tension sets up a kind of parameter set, where the most obvious solution is taken away, assumptions are reversed on the audience, and exactly what you did NOT expect is what you got, resolving the whole thing, but far from where you expected to be when you get there…
    AND Pay Off… That punch line. It's often at the most clever that a punchline is what you never see coming. It's the back-hand FULL of knuckles added to an otherwise stellar compliment, taking away your hope that the protagonist was finally healing and able to just "let it go" so he could move on… BUT nope, resentment and vindication, a heaping helping… served stone cold amid a crowd washing over the sight with wide eyes, rose-colored faces, and truly horrified twists curling every lip in the room… a glib smirk on top is also nice.

    This is where it's "Fitting into a screenplay"… Because a screenplay should be considerably more than one joke. It's okay to deliver a screenplay that IS one big joke, of course… It's risky, but not some kind of civil violation. Yet, there still has to be more to the thing… SO taking it from the first step, Character and setting in the screenplay CAN already be established, so you don't have to establish all that again… trim out the fat and redundancy, and/or just tweak the originally established character to fit (as part of the development arc, perhaps) and let the joke proceed…
    Even if a joke (or a gag) is only adding a dash of humor to help establish a character in a role on screen, it's still doing something for the story, and with that humor-wrapper, it's easier to relate and remember… SO long as you're not OVER using that particular approach… Life is drama, but nobody's life is just a nonstop factory of jokes every minute or so… NOBODY…

    I know of a joke, "The 'Tis Bottle"… that can take upwards of an hour to tell. The thing is, it's not funny at all… not inherently. It's a terrible pun… that's scarcely qualifies as a pun. BUT told correctly, drawn out to such a degree, it's hilarious to watch those people who have never heard the thing before… A good storyteller can deliver it over about two or three hours… AND it's only best told in very small audiences, because it risks a crowd stampeding the stage to kill the guy (or gal)… SO just to be sure, yes. I probably could write and construct a screenplay on exactly ONE (1) joke… You'd hate me for it, but it certainly can be {has been} done. ;o)

  2. Jokes haven't been my thing but a I find when you allow your characters to live somehow they begin to say things that are "out of character" and you find yourself laughing along.

  3. Back To The Future III not very good? stfu lol "Eastwood. Clint Eastwood." "What kinda stupid name is that?" lmao

  4. I agree, that pot shot on netflix seemed very cheesy (I've only seen first episode) Not suprised it is not doing well, all that canned laughter can ruin things sometimes. Shame as I want it to do well, for what it stands for.

  5. No matter how clever you may think it is, if it doesn't make you laugh, it won't make the audience laugh. Just because it's true doesn't mean it's funny. Interesting does not equal funny. It shouldn't end with "You had to be there." Comedy's main ingredients are the uncalled for and the unexpected. The longer you invest in a joke the larger the payoff must be.

  6. These two must be an absolute delight to interview. They are generous with their answers and your only job is to help them stay on track.

    I could listen to these guys for hours.

  7. Omg! Such honesty / shameless bigotry. "Big bang theory is my favorite show cause the characters are so well drawn and easy to make a joke about. You can always make an OCD Joke or an Autism Joke or a foreign language joke" … like, wow.

  8. I hate most sit-coms because they insult your intelligence.  My favorite movie laugh line?  Hot Shots Part Two: These men are celibate like their fathers and their fathers before them.

  9. This is insightful! I am able to get good laughs out of random people throughout my day to day life but have yet to figure out how to capture that same comedic ability in my screenplays. It's a skill and an art all in one. GEEZ!

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