Script Coverage Chronicles – January 2015: Why Is That Joke Not Working?

Did you ever have a comedic bit in your screenplay not perform as well as you think it should have?  It happens to everyone, and it can be really frustrating.  Based on my experience reading hundreds of scripts, I’ve put together a list of possible reasons a joke may be missing the mark – a checklist you can tick through to diagnose your ailing gag.  The list may help you tweak a comedic moment to make it work, or at least understand why it didn’t.

Out Of Character

Sometimes a character says something in a script that makes sense in the situation and has potential to be really funny, but:  It isn’t really something that character would be likely to say.  That kind of disconnect can suck the punch out of your humor.

The Obscure Reference

You’ve come up with the most hilarious gag based on Raul Castro, the current leader of Cuba.  Cuba has been in the news lately, so people should know about this guy, right?  Some do.  Many don’t.  Even if you’re being really clever, if the reference isn’t familiar, your joke will clunk. 

Tonal Rupture

When you establish your tone in a screenplay, one thing you do is set the parameters for how broad (i.e., silly/goofy/implausible/outrageous) the humor will be.  Even if a joke is genuinely funny on its own, if it doesn’t fit the tone of your script, you’ll probably be disappointed with its performance.

Upsetting Subject Matter

In a prior blog entry, I talked about how some dramatic subjects evoke negative emotions in your audience, which can turn people against your story.  The same is true for jokes.  If the subject matter upsets people, they may refuse to laugh.  Yes -- I know -- famous comedians sometimes get huge laughs out of controversial material.  True, but it’s a dangerous minefield, and medium-funny jokes about upsetting subjects are at great risk of blowing up in your face.

Wrong Audience

You’re writing a family movie, and you come up with the most acerbically witty piece of dialogue about the bitterness of divorce. You know it’s not for kids, but parents watch these shows too, right?  Even if it’s sharp and insightful, your readers may be too focused on the poor “audience fit” to laugh.

Not Organic

If you want to make things easier on yourself, mine your comedy directly from the main concept of your story.  If your story is about aliens, most of the humor should involve aliens.  Many jokes underperform because -- while they’re kind of funny – they leave the reader thinking (often unconsciously): “I thought this script was about something else.  Why isn’t the writer writing about that?”

General Logical Flaws

If the reason for a particular funny line to be said -- or the set up for a bit of physical humor -- isn’t plausible, then the humor will suffer.  If the believability isn’t there, even though you’re on your comedic game, you’ll be wondering why people aren’t guffawing.

It’s Been Done Before (By You)

I won’t even talk about humor that is stolen from prior works.  That’s too obvious a problem, and most experienced writers avoid that trap.  What I do see a lot is a writer repeating the same basic original comedic idea multiple times, trying to get additional laughs from the same thought.  Once in a while, repetition can compound the humor, as with a well-executed running gag, but most of the time, less is more, and it’s best to use a joke just once.

Two Or More Of The Above

Sometimes the problem consists of two or more of the above issues combining to undermine your hilarity.  Maybe your funny line is just a bit off in tone and it’s not entirely believable that your character would say that. 

Comedy can be tricky and sometimes hard to analyze, but being aware of these basic guidelines can help.