Five Overused Comedy Bits to Avoid
Naturally when writing a comedy, the writer will want to lampoon certain trends in our culture. The best satire is always a commentary of the times. That being said, the shelf life of a fresh joke isn’t particularly long. What might seem funny to you now might be played-out by the time anyone gets to read your spec. So how do you stay current without regurgitating what everyone else is doing? Watching contemporary comedies (whether feature or TV) is the easiest way to know what jokes keep rearing their timely head. It’s a also a good idea to pay attention to social media, the most immediate telltale of the comedic zeitgeist. What memes are trending? What snarky comments do you see coming up again and again. And if you notice certain jokes and topics appearing ad nauseam, then it’s probably best to not put them in your script. Comedy thrives on a surprise or shock factor. If something is overdone, then it’s going to lose much if not all of its punch. Below are five overused to avoid.
1.) “Seriously!?” (Formerly “Really!?”)
The scenario should be all-too-familiar now: A character is faced with a bewildering statement or situation and exclaims, “Seriously!?” Sometimes there’ll be a slight variation (e.g. “Are we seriously doing this!?”). Remember that time around ten years ago when every other character in a comedy feature or sitcom exclaimed “Really!?” SNL even had an entire segment of Weekend Update devoted to it (when Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers were the anchors). Soon cartoon characters were exclaiming it in family films and nothing said overused bit more than “Really!?” Really, “Really”!? Yep. Really. Around five years ago this became so apparent, a new exclamation had to replace “Really!?” And thus sprung “Seriously!?” It’s used exactly in the same place and manner as “Really!?” was used. I’m not suggesting you never use the word again, but if you’re using it as a punchline, it might be better to go with something else. Right now a brave and industrious comedy writer is trying out “Sincerely!?”
2.) People Over 40 Being Clueless About Technology and/or Social Media
We’ve seen this bit a lot in recent years: an older or middle-aged character not having any idea what Twitter is. Thankfully their snarky teenaged daughter will hip them to what it is and their lame dad can finally be with it. And everyone has problems grasping the Cloud. Not just older people. The only difference is only older people care about not grasping it. Regardless, these jokes are not only inaccurate, they’re played-out. Nothing says hack joke more than someone’s dad being perplexed by what is simply everyday, commonly used technology. I don’t seem to recall Billy Wilder writing jokes about Dad not knowing how the TV worked. I don’t even recall Ward Cleaver being baffled by the TV.
3.) Ironic Singing or Rapping
You know the bit: A character in the passenger seat of a vehicle suddenly starts singing a pop song we wouldn’t expect them to sing. Whether it’s Melissa McCarthy singing Heart’s “Barracuda” in Identity Thief, Mike Tyson miming a legendary Phil Collins drum-roll in The Hangover, or Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel busting moves to Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” in This Is The End, this oft-used bit plays for laughs and nostalgia. It’s also been done frequently with hip-hop. 1999’s Office Space was very influential when we saw three white-collar guys “beat down” a malfunctioning printer in step to the Gheto Boys’ “Still”. Perhaps the most successful version of this bit is Will Poulter belting out TLC’s “Waterfalls” in We’re The Millers. But once you remove the novelty, you also remove the irony. Now I’d be surprised if I didn’t see a comedy with some singing or rapping.
4.) Of Man-Childs & Man Caves
I attribute the origins of this comedy trope to Homer Simpson. The suburban man-child, constantly reigned-in by their sensible but hopelessly bewildered wife. From Peter Griffin to Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell’s characters in Old School, we’ve been receiving a steady stream of men who just want to let loose, party and get one over on their “nagging wife” (another played-out archetype). As comedies became more grounded and focused on suburbia, it was only natural that man-childs and man caves would be explored. After all, it’s an effective way to mine absurdity from reality. This brand of comedy arguably reached its peak with the fourth season of Eastbound & Down in which Danny McBride’s Kenny Powers shakes off the shackles of his suburban existence and indulges in unbridle machismo that involves digging himself a swimming pool and buying his children a wolf. It’s hard to imagine where you can go after this while maintaining a semblance of likability for your protagonist. It might finally be time to take a break from the man cave and find another way to satirize the frustrated suburban male. And simply flipping the gender (e.g. Bad Moms) will only payoff for so long.
5.) BAD [Insert a Type of Person That’s Not Usually Associated with Being Bad]
Speaking of Bad Moms, one of the most played-out bits in comedy today is writing an entire project around the word “BAD”. Back in 2003, Bad Santa was a trailblazing, dark comedy (its title being a spoof of 1992‘s Bad Lieutenant). Years later in 2011, Bad Teacher was a surprise hit and its success lead to a whole slew of comedies playing on the whole “Bad” thing: Bad Judge, Bad Grandpa, Bad Moms and bringing it full-circle with this year’s Bad Santa 2. Obviously the “Bad” reservoir has been severely depleted. Any writer who dares to pen Bad Librarian does so at their own risk. When that producer, agent or manager reads that title page, it’ll more likely elicit a groan than a laugh.
Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.