x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Comedy rule: you can’t milk money for laughs

All sorts of things can be funny – except, perhaps, home finances, says Rob Long.

A dear friend of mine, an enormously successful comedy writer, once took me to lunch to tell me something important. We were working on a project together and she wanted me to know that she was going to step away from the production because she had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

It was sad and shocking news – I knew she had been ill; I didn’t know the extent of it – but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to make jokes about it. She was a comedy writer, after all. So when the bill came, and I instantly grabbed it, she asked: “So this makes us even? You get lunch, I get cancer?”

I nodded. But she took the bill.

“Let me get this,” she said. “Chances are, I’ll be dead before the American Express bill arrives.”

Some things, like death, can only really be faced with laughter. Other things, like money, never seem terribly funny.

I know a team or writers who wrote an episode of a TV comedy in which the main characters, a married couple, hire a business manager to manage their money. The business manager puts the husband and the wife on a strict budget, and that’s where the conflict erupted – and, as we all know, it’s conflict that drives comedy. If you want laughs, you must first have some yelling.

That should be a universally understood rule of comedy – and drama, too, for that matter – but you’d be surprised. I have a writer friend who called me up a year or so ago, right in the middle of his first day on the writing staff of a new series.

“Are any shows out there hiring?” he asked. “I’m going to need a job. This show is going to die.”

“But it’s your first day,” I said. “You’re still in pre-production. How could you possibly know that?”

“Because,” the writer told me, “the creator and executive producer told us all in our first meeting this morning that he wants to do episodes without any conflict between the characters. He thinks the whole ‘conflict thing’ has been done.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably dead. I’ll ask around.”

My friend was right: the show died early in its run.

In the episode my other friends wrote, the husband and wife struggle with their new-found business manager, chafe under the rules of the imposed budget and fight with each other about which one of them is better with money.

The episode, according to every­one who was there when it was filmed before a live studio audience, died on stage. As in zero laughs. The entertainment industry term for this is “crickets”, which is all you can hear out there in the darkness when a joke or a story falls flat.

“They sat there like Easter Island statues,” my friends said when they recounted the story. “We’d look up into the audience and see 300 stony, slightly uncomfortable ­faces. Like someone had given them all a really greasy meal before the show and they were all wondering when and how the alarming stomach contractions would end.”

So the rules of comedy needed to be amended. Yes, you need conflict. And yes, some things – even painful things like lung cancer – can be sources of truly deep laughter. But money, for some reason, is a highly problematic area for jokes. Money – either in lack or surfeit – divides people. It makes them insecure and nervous, and because it’s a way some of us measure our worth and status, it’s a dangerous topic to fool around with.

Which is why the show about the married couple who hire a business manager to handle their finances fell so flat. In the first place, having a money manager is something most ordinary people do not do and cannot fathom.

But there was something else at work here, too. And that’s that money is funny when your characters have a lot of it, or when they have absolutely none. But when they’re in the middle – when it matters if they stay on budget, matters if they can pay their mortgage – it’s awfully tough comic territory.

Most people spend most of their day thinking and worrying about money. Most people spend most of their day with a greasy-meal-tummy-turning face on. Making that funny is tough work. It can be done, probably, but it’s tricky. It’s probably easier, in the long run, to stick to cancer. Cancer is OK to joke about. Money, though, is way too important.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl