Diagnosis: Not Funny
What To Do When Your Comedy Pilot Isn’t Funny
Cracking my most recent pilot has been a bear. I wrote a first draft, started a revision. Then everything came screaming to a halt.
The rewrite was a slog. It was difficult to pinpoint why because everything felt off. Time to take a step back and figure out what the hell was going on.
To start, I opened a clean doc and made a list of everything I liked and didn’t like. I focused on what I was feeling. More than likely this is what a reader would be feeling.
I looked for the scenes that felt off. Was I keeping them because I thought I needed them to progress the story? Did they not work because I was too lazy to figure them out? Or did they just not work? As I went through, a pattern emerged: I lost track of what I thought was funny.
Scenes fail comedically for many reasons but usually it’s because I’ve outlined a scene or dynamic that I think will be funny. But unless it made me laugh initially, it almost never is.
A colleague once told me about a show he was on where the show runners intellectualized the “comedy.” They said things like, “this joke is funny because it’s so satirical.” And yet no one ever laughed. Because it wasn’t funny.
Laughter is an involuntary emotional reaction. Crafting jokes and funny set-pieces is the magic a comedy writer must wield.
And you’re not always going to have the best read on what people will laugh at. It’s why TV shows have table reads and movies do test screenings. You might feel satisfied writing down a joke you think is funny but you’ll never know until you offer it up for appraisal.
My main character was not funny or fun to write. I didn’t know what the comedic dynamic was. I didn’t know what was funny!
This happens more than I’d like to admit. I tend to favor “interesting” ideas that I “make” funny. But it’s harder in the long run to back into comedy this way.
The show idea needs to be both interesting and funny from the start. To test this out, I tell people and see what they think. If no one is around, I imagine telling them. Am I bored telling it? Excited? Do I laugh? What’s the reaction I want? “Huh. That’s interesting.” Interesting without a laugh? Kiss of death. But a laugh and interesting. Maybe I’m on to something.
It’s not always going to be this way. Friends and Seinfeld don’t scream interesting or funny in their most basic pitch. But they are relatable and that recognition will take you a long way. Those shows are sustainable because their characters have clear and funny reasons for existing. Their inteactions with each other and the world are funny and relatable.
Analyzing, my list I realized I was focusing on the wrong character. He was a creep. Unlikable. Only sort of funny. Kind of cross between Michael Scott and Leslie Knope.
Creeps are a tricky needle to thread. Their behavior is funny but off-putting. For them to work we need to get them on some level. Something about who they are and what they do needs to be understandable, recognizable, relatable, even if you would never act or think that way yourself.
We laugh and like Michael because he reminds us of so many sad terrible people. His behavior is so absurd it becomes laughable.
I love characters like this but I don’t have the confidence to pull them off. They always feel too much like Michael Scott. I’m sure writers in the 90s had this problem with Seinfeld and Ted Danson???
I pondered re-centering the show on my protagonist’s mother. She’s a much more rootable character. Her morality and drive are more relatable. She has a clearer, more specific POV. All great ingredients for a fun character.
And yet, after a morning of kicking her around at the center, I went back to my original protagonist albeit with some of the sauce that makes the mother character fun.
I put him in the middle of two worlds and gave him a more rootable personal life. Less a buffoon, more an everyman. A potential trap for passivity but for this story it’s what I need to do. He’s already been more fun to write.
I’m diving into a re-break of my pilot so we’ll see how it feels in a couple days.