8/30/11 - to be funny - go for what's real

In today's excerpt - the lessons of a veteran television situation comedy writer on what to do if a script isn't funny enough. In this case, the writer is star producer, director, playwright and comedy writer Walter Bennett, whose work includes writing for The Cosby Show and producing The Steve Harvey Show. Here in an interview with authors Peter Desberg and Jeffrey David, he also reflects on "writer's rooms":

Desberg: "How do you go about making stuff funnier when you get feedback that you need more laughs?"

Bennett: "First I'd look at what the original joke is, and a lot of times when it doesn't work, it's because there's no surprise in the joke; it's expected. If it's not funny, it's usually because it's not the worst thing that can happen. There's something worse that could happen. [You need to make it so that] you can't get any worse than this. Let me give you an example: 'Well, the camera fell over.' And I go, 'Wow, now that's bad,' but where did it fall? It's not specific enough [to be as funny as it could be]. And a lot of times, it will be something specific that plays into the fear of your character that you've built up. You can get comedy out of that.

Desberg: "How did you get schooled in comedy writing?"

Bennett: "My first school in comedy writing was television. Watching Norman Lear at the time Good Times was on, and Maude, it was the heyday of half-hour comedy. I used to think of half-hour sitcoms as a play. Whatever I thought was funny I would put down on paper. ... And a lot of it I learned along the way. It started to turn into a curiosity because I started to get my own books on comedy. In theater, for some reason, drama is king, and you're trying to be Oscar Wilde. I was drama all the way to Yale. I was known for writing drama and social criticism. And then I wrote a piece in New York called Snapshots: An American Slide Show, and it was done as part of a performance at Lincoln Center and Alice Tully Hall. I had to direct this thing, and I just said it was social commentary. I thought it was kind of funny, but I think the worst thing for a writer to hear is laughter. Live laughter.

Davis: "Did Norman Lear mentor you?"

Bennett: "No, actually we worked together for a brief time on the show 704 Hauser. I've spent time with Bill Cosby. Cosby said, 'Let me help you out here.' And so he would talk about his take on comedy. I remember what he told me. He said, 'Don't go for the joke'—that's what he kept saying. 'Don't go for the joke. Go for what's real. If it's real, you can always build off something that's real. But it's more difficult to try to build off a joke, because that's not real. And everybody laughs because they relate to it—it's something real to them.' A problem I had in the beginning was trying to emulate a joke I'd seen on television, and it wasn't very good. But when I started to learn it's like Cosby was saying—it's real, it's real, keep these people real—you can keep coming back to the well."

Davis: "What are your feelings are about writers' rooms, and the politics of a room?

Bennett: "I like the writers' room; I hate the politics. When I first went to The Cosby Show, I had never written for a sitcom—never. In fact, it was embarrassing. I didn't know how a sitcom script lined up on the page. I only knew plays and screenplays. When I got the job, I told one of the writers' assistants, 'Can you get me a script? Between you and me, I don't know what one looks like.' And they laughed [because they worked through improvisation more than scripts]. What they said to me was, 'Do you know what it's like to be at a table?' And this is my interview, and I go, 'Ah ... yeah, yeah ... no, no, no ...' It's writers who sit around the table and they explained it to me. And I went, 'You mean like improv, you mean working off somebody.' And they went 'Yeah.' And they hired me. I really loved working off the other writers."

Bennett: "Another anecdote from a writer's room: You make an incredible pitch, and everyone goes, 'Oh, no, that's not it,' and then someone else says the exact same thing that you said, and someone says, 'That was brilliant,' and then you say, 'I just said that.' [And they respond] 'Oh come on now, let's not get that way.' "


Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis


Show Me the Funny




Copyright 2010 by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis


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