There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class last Wednesday. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.
Me and Fred are in a Costco.
Fred: What are you here to buy?
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.
Everything you ever needed to know about comedy
by Ken Levine
Dan O’Shannon is one of the executive producers of MODERN FAMILY. He was a showrunner of FRASIER and an executive producer of CHEERS. The man knows funny. Recently he wrote a terrific book called WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT? A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO THE COMEDIC EVENT. Somehow he managed to explain comedy, which to me is harder than trying to describe the color red over the radio. As insane as it is to plug someone else’s book when I’m still shamelessly hawking mine (available here — go buy it), I really recommend Dan’s book (which you can order here). Recently, I had the chance to talk to him about it.
What possessed you to write this book?
Like many who actually create comedy, I occasionally see books and articles that academics write about humor. And like many who create it, I find most of it tone deaf. It’s like reading about bicycle riding from someone who’s never been on a bike. One day I asked myself how I would define and analyze comedy, if I was so smart?
It seems like such an enormous undertaking. Explaining the world might’ve been easier. How did you go about organizing this bad boy?
A lot of people start right in analyzing joke structures. I chose to analyze the comedic event, which includes the study of context, as well as structure, content, and transmission. And I relentlessly asked myself questions: What changes in social context or delivery might enhance or inhibit the laugh? How does being part of an audience make you laugh differently than when you’re alone? How does being in the presence of the source of the comedy enhance or inhibit response? How can a joke be funnier through repetition and then stop being funny and then start being funny? Why do things cease to be funny? Four years of stand-up followed by twenty-seven years in sitcoms provided me with thousands and thousands of hours of experimentation.