x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

In a tight comedy spot, always reach for a K

Comedy writers are taught to be funny, not to ask if we are offending the right people. That may be a mistake.

Words that have a "k" sound in them, famous comedy playwright Neil Simon once suggested, are funny words.

So, that means the following statements are true: "Cleveland" is a funny city. "Duluth" is not a funny city. "Paris" isn't funny. "Kraków" is hilarious, two times. A funny fruit is not a banana; a funny fruit is a cantaloupe.

Try it out for a day. It really is true. There's something about that aggressive "k" sound that's just funny. When you're trying to punch up a joke, always look for the "k". If you're looking for a punchy ending to a statement to really give it some lasting effect, always go for a "k" word.

But here's the problem: "cancer" has a "k" sound to it, too. So do "psychopath" and "Kierkegaard", and none of those three is a particularly funny word, especially that last one, which is about as unfunny and ponderous as you can get. So you have to be careful - especially in the United States, which has a tripwire poised to be offended at almost any kind of joke - not to assume that all "k" words are fair game.

In fact it's almost impossible, if you're in the media business long enough, not to offend someone. There are huge industries of outrage and offence in the United States these days. For some, it's a pretty lucrative business: if a television show or movie offends your ethnic or personal sensibilities enough, you can make some seriously remunerative trouble.

A few years ago, I woke up to discover that a certain congressman was making a speech in Congress at that very minute, mentioning me and a television show I had on the air in a highly offended tone.

We didn't have enough African-American characters on our show for this particular politician, and he was more or less correct about that. In fact, in the first episode at least - which was the only one that we had actually produced at the time - we had no African-American characters.

You see, the series was a simple little Upstairs, Downstairs style romantic comedy. Boy, the young superintendent of a swanky apartment building on 5th Avenue, falls for girl, the young heiress who lives in the penthouse. Girl's father, imperious billionaire, hates the idea; boy's father, the doorman of the building, is convinced he's about to be fired. Girl's mother, zany socialite, secretly thinks the whole idea is perfect.

The dilemma, though, is simple. We only have 21 minutes to tell a story in television comedy. (The rest of the time is spent trying to sell the audience a bunch of stuff they don't really need.) But once you decide that the girl and the boy are white and that the show is about two families — well, pretty much everything else falls into place.

On some level, I suppose, the boy and/or the girl could be African-American, but then you've got another thing going on, which really wasn't the series we were doing. The series we were doing was a simple little romantic comedy about two young people in love and the disrupting effect of their families.

I'm certain that if we really pushed, we also could have made it about race, in the sense that everything in America these days is about itself and also about race. But times are tough in the television business and a clear, funny idea is the best way to keep a show on the air.

As it turned out, we failed at that, too. Our show was cancelled a few weeks later, before we could even turn the incipient protests into a publicity stunt. So we failed on three counts: we weren't diverse enough, we weren't successful enough, and we didn't even exploit our brief notoriety.

We did, though, use a lot of words with the "K sound in them. Because as comedy writers, we're taught that the chief - maybe the only - criterion for our success is, is it funny? Not: are we offending the wrong people? Or, worse: are we offending the right people? And that may have been our mistake.

In the media business these days, you need to do more than deliver a few solid laughs. You need to capture a zeitgeist, you need to connect to an under-served audience, you need to be about something larger than just entertaining an audience.

It's a lesson I still have to relearn with every show I produce. Because when I'm really out of ideas and I need a great punchline to end a piece of dialogue, I'll always rely on the old standbys. I'll always reach for a "k" word.

Except, of course, Kierkegaard.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rbcl