Let’s talk about comedic timing for a bit. I’m not talking about the kind of timing that actors and actresses need to have, in which they deliver their funny lines with sufficient timing that it maximizes comic effect and gets the biggest laugh. I’m more talking about the placement of the joke itself within the story.
You can’t just have a joke any old place. You have to plan these things. If you put a joke in your story’s most emotional moment, it has to be good, and it has to allow for a certain release of the tension of the BIG MOMENT. But I’m not talking about this, either.
What I’m talking about for a minute or two is the joke itself, and when it can happen. Sometimes jokes occur to writers outside of the confines of the story’s timeline, and it’s tempting to throw them in wherever. But you can’t do this. You have to think about a joke, and where it’s going, and why.
Basically, the story itself has to support the joke.
I have a good example here, from the 1987 movie Broadcast News. (This is one of my favorite comedies of all time, by the way.) The movie is about the news division of a television network in the late 80s, and the challenges faced by one producer (Holly Hunter) and one reporter (Albert Brooks) as the times change toward budget cuts and flash over substance. The story isn’t important for the point I’m making, but the relationship between Jane (Hunter) and Aaron (Brooks) is.
These two have been working together for years and have the kind of relationship where they can speak to each other in shorthand, where they can anticipate each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. They are close enough that it’s amazing that they’re not a couple, a possibility which hasn’t even occurred to Jane until she falls for a new reporter (William Hurt), and has to have things spelled out for her in one of the best declarations of love in a movie ever.
The joke isn’t there either, though.
As the movie progresses, obstacles arise left and right, and it gradually becomes clear that events both internal and external are going to force Jane and Aaron apart. They are going to go different ways professionally, and when they realize that their hearts are simply not going to align anymore, we know that while their friendship might not be specifically ending, it will never be as close as it’s been again.
And then, near one of the film’s last scenes, comes a throwaway joke, a single line, that is very easily overlooked. Blink and you’ll miss it…but everyone I’ve ever known who knows and loves this movie knows this line. Jane calls Aaron and asks if they can meet to talk, and Aaron says this:
“OK. I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”
And she gets it.
This is a great joke and a great line, even though it’s over so quickly, precisely because of where it happens in the movie. If this exchange happens in the first half hour, sure, it might get some laughs, but it wouldn’t be memorable. It wouldn’t be–it wouldn’t feel–true. And that’s what’s great about it: it feels true.
A line like that gives a little hint to us, watching this friendship get slowly pulled apart, that there’s still a little life there, that these two people do still share some kind of connection where they can innately understand one another and comprehend this sort of shorthand that only the very closest of friends can have.
The story supports the joke, which could come any time in the script but which comes when it does because our writer, James L. Brooks, knows exactly where this joke has to come. The joke helps us maintain optimism that Jane and Aaron can still be friends, and the only way the joke can do that is if we’re already invested.
So when you have a joke that serves a specific purpose, you have to be careful about where you put it in your story. Your jokes help create the tone in your story, but your story has to support its jokes too.
And that’s all I have for today. See you around the Galaxy, folks!