Rewriting practice – putting way too much thought into a dirty joke.

The other day, my friend told me a dirty joke:

There’s an old man and an old woman and they’re married. One day the woman says, “we never made love like we used to. Remember we used to make love by the old fence?” So they go to the fence and they make intense love. After, the fall to the ground, exhausted and sweaty. A passerby comes by, he’s seen this, and he says “Wow, how do you keep your relationship so passionate?” The guy said, “Last time we we were here, it wasn’t an electric fence.”

I was drunk, it made me laugh, but even in my boozy haze, my inner writing critic clicked in:

WHAT IS THE PLOT OF OF THE JOKE?

The plot is what literally happens. It’s the who/what/where of the story. The plot itself isn’t funny. It may seem fraught, but it’s the delivery system, not the payoff?

What is literally going on in this story?

An old man and an old woman go to a fence to make love. The fence is electric and it complicates their lovemaking, which they then have to explain it to someone else.

WHAT IS THE GENRE?

This is a corny old joke with a setup and a punchline. It may not be a good joke, but it is recognizable as a genre of joke, the kind told by corny uncles at bad parties. Professional comedians don’t tell jokes like this in their act, it’s self conscious, stagey. You could make this more of a standup bit by cloaking it in personal narrative, but it’s most organic structure is that of a party joke.

Conceptually, the story works on a reversal of expectations. We expect that the lovemaking comes from passion, but we are surprised to learn that the behavior that most closely resembled passion was caused by an electric shock. It’s very self conscious, but it works within a specific idiom that we all know.

WHAT IS THE PAYOFF?

They say explaining comedy is like vivisecting a frog. You kill it by analysis. Fuck them. There’s a difference between plot and entertainment. Plots themselves aren’t entertaining, they entertain by engaging the emotion and imagination of the audience. Some might call this “entertainment value.” You could call it the goods, the heart, or anything else. In improv, this is often called “the game” of the piece. I call it the magic. So where does the magic come from in this joke? It comes from a number of places:

The joke causes a shift in expectations. It sets up a pattern and subverts it. This is humor at it’s most primitive. Even dogs and monkeys seem to get this – we thought one thing would happen, but then another happened.

Evolution did this to us. This is the way our advanced mammal brains reward pattern recognition. If you see a break in pattern, your brain releases chemicals that lead to laughter. We like the buzz, so we look for more patterns. Sexy stuff, I know. But if this was all their was to humor, humor wouldn’t have evolved beyond this point.

Much of the humor comes from the mental picture this creates: it’s two old people having sex. You don’t make this funnier by making it “sexier,” you make it funnier by making them older, more feeble. For instance, it’s funny if the old man starts fucking the old woman like a cat in heat. you could heighten this joke by previously describing the old man carefully lifting the old woman out of her wheelchair and, with shaking hands, applying astroglide to her withered pussy.

The magic is often in the specifics – the base form of the joke requires too people with a stale relationship – they don’t have to be old, but old is a good choice because it’s more specific and creates a clearer picture.

HOW CAN WE REWRITE THIS?

We rewrite to make things more personal, more specific. We rewrite to reduce setup and increase payoff. We write to heighten what we specifically find funny. We have a lot of options, not limited to:

We could sharpen the specifics. We could make these a very old couple, describe their shambling walk and withered and seemingly useless floppy genitals.

We could change the specifics. A racist might like this more if it were about an ethnic couple performed in a hilarious minstrel show accent. A homophobe might like to see an LGBT couple get punished for their sin. A guy with an electrocution fetish might like a sexier couple. There’s no right answer, but the specifics of the joke make it more specific and personal.

We can invest in the color. Much of the joke is in the details. Is ‘he fucks her like a yak in heat’ funnier to you than ‘the old man struggles at first, but like an old motor, once he starts going he really starts going?’ Same thing, different flavor.

We can focus on different parts of the plot. Two old people struggling up a hill on crutches so they can fuck is funny in a different way than focusing in on the guy who’s watching them.

We could change the plot or the framing. This joke could also be:” A guy walks through the woods. He sees an old couple fucking by the fence with animalistic passion. After, he goes to them and asks how they keep the spark. The old man explains…”

We could change the idiom. You could rewrite this as a personal anecdote, a comic strip, or a New Yorker piece. It’s important to ask why the chosen idiom is the best way to tell the story.

We can rewrite to subversion. Given the pattern of the story, the more the language and framing sells the illusion that the lovemaking comes from passion and the magic of recovered youth, the harder the reversal will land.

IN CLOSING

The joke I heard was like an early draft of a final product. It needs rewriting, but it can be rewritten in a number of ways.

So it is with screenplays. A lot of people charge right into the notes, desperate to please everyone at the cost of their personal vision. If you know what you’re trying to say and what you want to specifically heighten, rewriting becomes way easier.

Fixing the unfixable: my hypothetical client notes on THE ROOM

Let’s pretend that I was hired to write story notes for THE ROOM back in 2003. I transcribed a script excerpt of the first scene and I wrote five pages of hypothetical constructive criticism.

NOTES LINK

SCRIPT PAGES LINK

If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out. You can find it online.

If you’re wondering why I did this, read on.

+++

Many consider THE ROOM the worst movie of all time. Admittedly, it’s a perfect storm of bad direction, bad acting, and a bad script.

That said, I’ve read way, way, worse. Seriously.

When I first watched THE ROOM, my hipster friends oversold me on how titanically bad it was, that Tommy Wiseau was some kind of anti-genius who set words to paper in an order that no one can match. It’s not so (1).

THE ROOM is bad in an ordinary way, underfed, anemic, unfocused. It reads like a lot of first drafts I’ve read from foreigners. Unpolished, cheesily sincere, struggling with a lack of introspection as well as a lack of familiarity with English. (2)

The truth is, THE ROOM is what you’d get if you shot any weak first draft with amateur actors. Say what you will, the author presented his vision, told the story he wanted to tell, finished a draft, and fundamentally gave a shit. It takes courage to put your work out there, and I’m always saddened by the naked glee people put into ripping down other people’s creative work. I may be cynical, but I try not to be mean. (3)

Any idiot can point out when something’s not working. It’s much harder to give notes. Most notes are either vague, or too specific. By that I mean that they reflect the note givers personal taste. It’s actually really hard to give notes that are both helpful and agnostic. You want to point out what’s working, but you don’t want to give notes that make it sound like you’re the soul arbiter of good taste. Trust me: you’re not.

So let’s pretend that Tommy Wiseau approached me for notes in 2003 (4), a few weeks prior to shooting THE ROOM. I quickly identify this as a bad script, but he’s shooting this either way, and I don’t want to be the jerk that says “learn to write better dumbass.”

These are the notes I would have given. (5)

NOTES

(1) Also, it’s unfair to Ed Wood, who was brilliantly, gleefully bad in a wonderful way. He was an anti-genius. Talk to me when Wiseau gets a Tim Burton movie.

(2) Cynics may note that I’m being a complete, douchy contrarian here. They have a point.

(3) I fail at this all the time. I apologize.

(4) Let’s also pretend that I had a coaching business then, and that I had the competence of 2014 me. I was a fucking idiot 12 years ago.

(5) See my services page. You can get notes like these for $100 if you want. (6)

(6) Oddly, even though these are pretend notes for a pretend client, I feel a pang of guilt for violating pretend client confidentiality. (7)

(7) Yes, I put footnotes in footnotes. What of it?

The Point of a First Act

All a first act has to do is set up a main character (1), make me care about them, given them a goal, and set them off on a journey. (2)

That’s it. It’s simple. And it’s difficult.

People have a tendency to over-complicate their first acts, or to make them vaguer than they need to be.

If the story is about an unhappily married linebacker who finds love with a rodeo clown, that’s the part the first act needs to sell. If the script spends 5 pages following the linebacker’s goofy quarterback friend, it distracts the attention, so there’d better be a good reason for it.

Scenes and stories need to start a who/what/where. I need to see that a scene is about a man and a woman arguing over cat food in a store before I can invest in the how and the why. It’s hard to deconstruct something that isn’t properly constructed.

The first act sets up the who/what/where of the script. We need to get a sense of the main character in what the hacks like to call “the ordinary world.” This can exist for a split second, it can simmer for the entire first act, but we need to see it to get a sense of the dude.

It’s why the oft tumblr’d Pixar advice works well: Once upon a time there was __. Every day, _. One day _. Because of that, _. Because of that, _. Until finally __.

Making us like a character is harder, but we must like him. The script illustrates a world, the character is like the vehicle that we navigate the world in. Given that nothing on the page really “exists,” we need an emotional point of reference to ground ourselves in (3).

The main character is our guy, our avatar in the story, our player character… or more simply, us. We humans are good at identifying with things. When someone hits our car, we don’t say “He hit my vehicle,” we say “He hit me!” (4)

Thus, the first act has to do double duty. Set up the main character while also making us identify with them them. That’s the hard part (5), the part where the real business of writing comes in, the part that needs a canny understanding of human nature, audience assumptions, common sense, and all the hard stuff that our work as writers leads us to gain.

Notice, I said “identify.” The character doesn’t need to be normal, nice, or likable, simply… and this is such a lame word… relatable (6). It’s not enough to present JOHN (20’s, handsome, relatable), the script has to illustrate his nature via behavior in a way that makes the audience say, “Okay, I get this dude. I’m willing to empathize with him for 100 minutes or so.” If that doesn’t happen, the rest of the script won’t hold us.

I’m still feeling out my thoughts on how to do this. This might be one of those things that doesn’t lend itself well to procedural advice. But this is something a writer must be aware of. So when you write a script, consider the audience. Consider what they literally are picking up from your first 10 pages, what impression of the hero they’re likely to form. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage… of our imaginations and understanding.

FOOTNOTES (1) Or, less commonly, a group of characters.

(2) In this paradigm, the second act is the journey, metaphorical or actual. The third act is the resolution of that journey.

(3) [Alex Berg calls this the orienting effect.](Alex Berg calls this the orienting effect.)

(4) Stolen from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is a must read.

(5) Blake Snyder considered this so fundamental, he named his book SAVE THE CAT after this need. Sadly, he neglected to provide any practical advice on HOW to do this. Also, his tone was so smug he turned off a generation of young screenwriters to any form of screenwriting advice. Ironically he didn’t save the cat in his own book.

(6) I hate this word, but in my decade of writing coverage, I’ve used it more than any other term. Slate has a great article on its etymology.