How to Write a one liner (or God’s Approval Hits Record Low )

If you ever listen to Simpsons DVD commentaries, you’ll hear the recurring complaint that one liners, sign gags, and the like take the longest to write, even with a full team of really funny comedy writers. I agree with this. Most comedy is character based, characters are set up with traits, and we see them behave in scenes where they fulfill or subvert that pattern. Homer does Homer stuff, Frasier does Frasier stuff, Peter Griffin does Peter Griffin stuff, etc.

One liners are a different breed, they’re lines that have to be funny on their own. It’s relatively easy to write jokes to to a character premise. It’s easier to write a funny tweet to a novelty account like “Shit a medieval knight says” than it is to write a legitimately funny tweet absent of a character.

Here’s a situation that came up on my last Screenwriting Live Stream (www.twitch.tv/storycoaching).

THE SCRIPT: A supernatural action/comedy.

STORY RECAP:

  1. Open on Arc City, where a douchey businessman is killed by a supernatural serial killer/angry ghost.
  2. Meanwhile, in heaven, God reads a newspaper as one of his staff tells him that hell is overfilling.

Leaving aside the daunting world building elements (fictional city, high concept monster, fictional heaven that may or may not conform to what we commonly expect from heaven), the story’s problems begin with two headlines on the newspaper that God reads.

1) Ryan Gosling kidnapped by a Jinn 2) Exclusive interview with Angel turned atheist.

It’s awesome that the script in question attempted one liners. The problem is these aren’t particularly good.

PROBLEMS WITH THE FIRST ONE:

  • Esoteric language. You and I may know that a Jinn is an alternate term for genie, but most people do not.
  • Raises more questions than it answers. Wait, we had a fictional city, a ghost, God, and now there are genies? This world seems like a hole without a bottom, what’s next? Multi-dimensional techno-badgers?
  • Random: You could fill in any creature and any celeb and the joke still works as well as it does now, which isn’t very well at all. It doesn’t trade on the expected traits of either.

PROBLEMS WITH THE SECOND ONE:

  • Ungrounded. An angel not believing in god would be like a worker not believing in his boss. Even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be front page news, not even on a slow news day.
  • Too clever by a half. Rather than use any of the mythos established by the first two scenes, this introduces a completely tangential comic premise, “wouldn’t it be funny if…”

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PUNCHING THIS UP:

  1. Comic premise of heaven: once this is setup, one liners like this become easier to write, justify. ex. “All the newspapers in heaven are written by madmen with literary degrees.”
  2. Establishing world building. I have no ordinary world. It’s not like this is playing in the world of the mundane, or even an established genre milieu like “generic fantasy kingdom.” For this to work, the world needs to be contextualized for the audience rather than introduce more fantasy bullshit to a world that’s unclear, the paper should tell us something about the world that’s already been established.

MORE INFO FROM THE WRITER:

When pressed for details, we learned that the major problem is that hell is like a mine but it’s run dry. That’s good to know, it sets up the whys and wherefores of the story, and also hints at why we saw the supernatural weird thing in the first scene (economic trouble in hell? Let’s migrate to earth!). We also learn that god is an impotent figure head.

That would be good to know up front, and even if we don’t, the headlines ought to hint at that.

As I said up above, one liners are a bitch to write, and they’re even harder when they have to carry world building. These are the best the room could come up with.

  • God’s Approval Numbers Hit Record Low – The best I can do give the restrictions. The idea of God being polled like a politician is inherently funny, and becomes even moreso if you know a bit about the universe. And if you don’t, it immediately frames God’s situation in a memorable way.
  • Economic trouble in Hell – have we reached peak damnation? Peak oil is a thing in the real world, peak damnation suggests that hell is like a mine. This is probably too esoteric to be funny.
  • Ryan Gosling kidnapped by infertile Goose – Another esoteric one – it relies on someone knowing that a gosling is a baby goose. A line like “infertile” to implies that the poor goose is baby crazy, not just lonely. I’m not sure if that makes this better.
  • Ailing God’s Surgeon’s Desperate plea: Believe harder, he’s dying! Another way of implying an impotent deity, grounded in the hyperbolic tone of a real-world tabloid newspaper.

Overall though, I don’t think this is the place for a one liner, unless you happen to have one in your pocket that’s really, really good. Otherwise you’re buying yourself hours of work that you don’t really have to do, I’d much rather understand the universe first, so I can then enjoy jokes that stem from it, not get hit with a slew of jokes that make it hard for me to orient myself in the world.

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