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.
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.