Comedy Writer Jokes


george meyerI promised to write a post about why I think certain jokes on The Simpsons and Futurama and some other shows are “comedy writer jokes,” that appeal more to comedy writers than to people who aren’t comedy writers. I’m a little reluctant to give examples, though, because any example I will give is absolutely certain to be funny to some (or maybe even most) people who aren’t comedy writers. So when I say these jokes don’t appeal to “people who aren’t comedy writers,” what I really mean is that they don’t appeal to me.

What got me back on this subject was the release on DVD this week of season 12 of The Simpsons, the last of four seasons run by Mike Scully. Scully gave almost unmatched power to one of The Simpsons‘ longtime writers, George Meyer, who by season 10 or 11 was so influential in the rewrite room that its whole comedy style was his more than any other person’s, including Scully. (On the commentaries you can sometimes hear the writers saying either that a joke came from Meyer ,or that it was inspired by his style, or that they’re just proud that the joke made Meyer laugh.) To me this is a partial explanation of why most of the Scully episodes are hard for me to watch, because Meyer specialized in a type of joke that is often more appropriate for his underground comedy magazine Army Man than a TV situation comedy. It’s sort of a joke about a joke, where the humour is supposed to come not from the characters and their reactions to their situations, but from the writer’s attempt to put his own ironic twist on the thing you might expect to hear in that situation.

The example I always use from season 12 of The Simpsons — I don’t know if Meyer came up with it, but it certainly is a Meyeresque joke — is when Grandpa Simpson says that he was such a great grifter in his youth that “They used to call me Grifty McGrift.” The line is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, because in a spot that normally calls for a funny turn of phrase, the writer could not come up with any turn of phrase at all, and just repeated the word “Grift” twice. Another favourite George Meyer joke technique is to have a character describe a plan as “Operation ______” and then fill in something that’s just a straight, prosaic description of whatever he’s going to do: “Time for Operation Mail-Take.” “Now for Operation Strike Make-O Longer.” “Now for Operation Christmas-Remind-Her-Of-How-Good-Is.” (A George Meyer line that was cut from an early episode, according to a commentary, was “You couldn’t find Mr. Burns’ inner goodness with a Mr. Burns’ inner-goodness-finding-machine.”) It is not really a joke, it’s, as someone else put it, a parody of bad writing. And that’s why I think of it as comedy-writer comedy, because it references their own struggles in coming up with jokes and their own intimate knowledge of old joke structures. It never once sounds like anything an actual human being might say. This also applies to jokes that are based on the assumption that it’s funny to hear a deliberately awkward turn of phrase, like “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo,” or “She changed her name to Appleseed and her family changed theirs to Buffalkill.” The main joke there is just that it sounds a little weird.

These jokes are fine in small doses, surrounded by bread-n’-butter character, situational and un-ironic jokes. (And in the good years of the show, Meyer came up with lots of lines that are just funny because of the character saying them, like Homer watching the Three Stooges and saying “Moe is their leader!”) But by the Mike Scully era, every episode was wall-to-wall jokes like that. It’s not just a George Meyer thing, because he’s not involved with Futurama, and that show has pretty much always consisted of nothing but jokes-that-aren’t-really-jokes (I’ve come to the conclusion that Futurama really is a pretty weakly-written show much of the time).

30 Rock has a lot of jokes like that too (most of them coming from Tracy, like “foxy boxing combines my two favorite things, boxing and referees!” — see, it’s funny because it makes no sense!), but manages to make up for it by including lots of simple, effective and even corny jokes. Writer-type jokes are fine, in moderation. When they take over, there’s not a moment when you’re not being reminded that someone is writing this thing.

I actually find The Simpsons more tolerable to watch now, when Meyer is no longer on the full-time staff, than I did in the Scully era; the actual quality of the jokes isn’t better — mostly consisting of really lame-o puns — but I find a pun to be a more acceptable than constant lines like “put down that science pole!” and “hey, what’s with the attitude? I just wanted some dealies.”

Update: The next-to-last paragraph originally ended in mid-sentence, as pointed out in comments. I’d like to say this was conscious performance art, but it was not. Fixed.

Update 2: Lots of interesting comments. I should add that back in the ancient 1990s, I would usually cite my favourite Simpsons line of all time as Bart’s “My God, he is like some kind of… non-giving-up… school guy!,” which is perhaps the ultimate, textbook example of the self-reflexive, joke-about-not-making-a-joke construction I’m talking about here. And when I see that episode, that line still makes me laugh a lot. Which means: a) It all depends on context b) These jokes are fine in moderation c) I’m a hypocrite d) All of the above, but with special emphasis on the hypocrite thing.

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Comedy Writer Jokes

  1. I stopped reading at the first paragraph. Basically you lured me in to think I was going to read something at least moderately constructive, then you revealed to me (thankfully early on) that it's really all about you and nothing to do with what you claimed just a moment ago.

    And you need journalism degrees to do this job??

    • Actually, if you had kept reading you might have learned about different types of joke-writing styles and why, in Mr. Weinman's opionion, certain types of jokes only work in moderation.

      I found it informative for a subject that isn't so important in the "earth-shaking news" scheme of things.

    • then you revealed to me (thankfully early on) that it's really all about you and nothing to do with what you claimed just a moment ago.

      So you're upset because blog/opinion posts exist in the world, or what?

      And you need journalism degrees to do this job??

      I don't have a journalism degree, but that might not answer your question.

  2. Blackadder used this sort of thing before the Simpsons. Every once in a while, instead of using one of Blackadder's clever turns of phrase, they'd throw in a "fake" one instead.

    Disease and depravation stalk our land like two giant stalking things.
    By the time I'm back, I want that dining room table to be so clean I could eat off it.

    I do agree that it can be funny in moderation.

    • Yes, Blackadder is surely the textbook example of both the type of joke and how to make it work really effectively. Blackadder actually had two meta-jokes going on at once: firstly, one to see how elaborate and funny Curtis and Elton could make Blackadder's analogies and insults; and secondly, every so often one that cut against that expectation. Each reinforced the other.

      Of course, Blackadder was helped by a cast that knew how to turn simply the sound of words into jokes, which meant they could make even non-jokes hilarious. The example (mentioned here before I think) of the poem "The German Guns" (Boom! Boom! Booom! Boom! Boom!) or the way Blackadder says the name "Bob." That's really not relevant, I guess, except that I think a comedy writer might defend "Grifty McGrift" on the basis that "Grift" just sounds funny.

  3. Your penultimate graf ends mid-sentence. Kinda funny (in a mild way) given your concern about Meyer's style of jokes, which make a joke out of their unsatisfactory nature.

  4. I sort of disagree, and I think it's not exclusively a personal preference issue. Your reference to Tracy Morgan jokes suggests that the humor comes from its not making sense, whereas that specific joke (boxing and referees) is a fairly obvious subversion of expectation, which is where most comedy comes from (I think? I'm right about this, right?). One would expect Tracy to say that foxy boxing combines his love of boxing with his love of women doing activities, but the joke knows what the audience is anticipating and gives us something else. This is actually better exemplified in the episode The Source Awards, where Alec Baldwin introduces Wayne Brady as working for the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum, and Livingston. It's definitely a Simpsons-style arch-joke, but I'd say there's nothing wrong with that for most audience members (UNLIKE YOU).

    • I think the boxing/referees bit is both a subversion-of-expectations joke and a nonsensical joke. It's a subversion-of-expectations joke for the reasons you mentioned, but it's also playing on the weirdness of his talking about "referees" as if it's something unique and special (and also associating Foxy Boxing with two things you can get at regular boxing).

      If he were to say "boxing and [something unique to Foxy Boxing, apart from women]", then it would be a pure subversion-of-expectations joke, but as it is, it's also supposed to play on the idea that nothing Tracy says quite makes sense.

      • Perhaps a similar combination in this exchange between Jack and Tracy:

        Jack: We're just on opposite sides of a feud.
        Tracy: Oh, I get it. Romeo and Juliet. Capulets and Romulans. Mm, hmm. I been there! I'm black, she's white. I'm black, she's light-skinned black. I'm black, she's 17.

  5. Hm. I actually like the line "Grifty McGrift" out of context, though I have no idea which episode it comes from and may not like it so much IN context.

    That said, even as I've become more convinced that 30 Rock has big problems that solid gag writing covers up much of the time, I'm more and more convinced that Futurama is a terrific little show. Though I'll admit the recent direct-to-DVD projects kind of undercut this assertion.

  6. In fact, I would argue that the foxy boxing joke is kind of a riff on the kind of overly simple "Grifty McGrift" self-reflective joke construction. If you are schooled in that ironically simple joke structure, you might expect Tracy to say, "Foxes and boxing," or "boxing and foxes," or something ridiculously lazy, and then he almost does but it takes a left turn and subverts it.

    • On second thought, maybe there is something more deliberate about "referees" not being something appropriately unique to foxy boxing, but it's probably more about getting out in front of the joke — even if viewers are expecting a left turn, they are probably still expecting something foxy-boxing-specific. By jumping two steps away, the punchline is that much more surprising. It's probably splitting hairs to argue over whether this constitutes something "nonsensical" or not, but that word makes the choice sound arbitrary, and finding the perfect non-sequitur is often very precise work.

  7. I love this kind of joke, but I'm a comedy writer, so what do I know? For me the satisfaction is in definitely in the subversion of expectation. The previous commenter's 30 Rock law firm joke is a perfect example. 30 Rock does it really well. I don't think the Tracy line would be particularly different if it were "…boxing and protective headgear," as I don't think a typical viewer is likely to process the joke to the point of considering whether the second item is unique to foxy boxing or not; they will mainly be reacting to the fact that it is not what they expected. Also, "referees" happens to be a funny word and has just the right rhythm to catch you off-guard.

  8. Back to my defense of the comedy-for-comedy-writers joke, it's also flattering to feel that the writers trust you to be ahead of the joke. I think jokes like this would be equally satisfying to avid comedy fans as they are to writers. I disagree that it depends on referencing the writer's struggle; it could just as easily be referencing a viewer's familiarity with joke structures. My very favorite is the one cited in the linked Meyer article ("I told those idiots to slice my sandwich!"). Meyer's influence on The Simpsons was so strong I see this as a house style, not a flaw. Though I will admit the arch stuff gets tiresome on Futurama.

  9. My comment was too long, sorry.

  10. Also, I think current episodes of The Simpsons still do this, only not as well and these days it's not as fresh, so it's much worse. I feel much more like these days everything on The Simpsons is so arch you don't care, except when it's about Homer and Marge having a fight, which I don't care about because it's the only serious conflict on the show and they've done it to death already. I'm thinking of the recent Halloween episode where Moe is crushed in an iron maiden and his blood spells out the titles, and Moe says, "Hey, my blood's a genius!" All the show does is comment on itself, but it's so hollow there's nothing left there.

  11. I think, to risk being immodest, that I like some of these jokes because I *do* understand where they're coming from. I can see the writer writing, but I assume that the writer is letting me in on this extra level of comedy, rather than that they're just writing stuff that comedy writers find funny.

    (But "Grifty McGrift" is a yawner.)

  12. Seems like much of what made the Simpsons stand out early on was its fondness for jokes that depended on its audiences' gut-level expert knowledge of so many conventions of (sit com) comedy writing and structure, and I have a hard time telling the difference between that and "comedy writer jokes" that are particularly knowing about the conventions of comedy writing. My favorite Simpsons gag (and one I've heard others single out as well) may well be the stepping-on-the-rake gag in the Cape Fear parody years back, a joke that depends entirely on letting a familiar visual gag obviously go on too long, and then go on even further (and then continue in the background sound through an additional scene) — making it into a joke that is not only "meta" about the original rake gag but about the writers knowing when to give up on the gag.

  13. Great post. I think a lot of this humor came from the fact that many of these writers (Meyer specifically) were bored with working on The Simpsons, so they turned their efforts to making fun of the writing process itself. Mirkin talked a lot about how much he loved the "screw the audience" type of jokes, but this comedy-writer-focused writing of the Scully era is far less playful than season 5 and 6's tendency to play with audience expectations. The later scripts of the Scully years seem to be a strange study into the frustrations of writing a long-running hit TV show, though far less explicitly than episodes like Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie. I got this sense that the writers were being mean-spirited if only to show their audience they could do whatever they wanted to our beloved characters.

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