The good, the bad, and the ugly

I’ve always maintained that improvisation workshops are great training for comedy writers. They teach how to be more spontaneous, how to develop a scene, create characters, and appreciate just how difficult real acting is.

Lots of today’s sitcoms are room written. Rewrites (and in some cases, first drafts) are done by a team of writers sitting around a conference table filled with junk food. Everyone is expected to pitch in, which usually means jokes. It’s a unique talent and there are few opportunities to learn and practice it. Improv classes are ideal.

You have to be quick. But like all skill sets, the more you do it the better you get. I’ve been taking Andy Goldberg’s improv workshop for years. And one of the true delights is seeing people grow and blossom over time. You may have ability you don’t realize.

And if nothing else, you laugh your ass off for three hours a week.

Andy had us do an exercise recently that I thought was a great tool for comedy writers. It was called, “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Three people lined up on stage. The audience would ask for advice (like “What can we do about Global Warming?” or “Where’s the best place to meet girls?”) The first person gives good advice, the second gives bad advice, and the third gives truly terrible ugly advice.

Example: “How can they improve the Oscars?”

Good: Let Louis CK host.
Bad: Let Seth MacFarlane host.
Ugly: Let Bill Cosby host.

This exercise teaches you a lot about writing jokes. The “good” is the straight answer. The “bad” is the absurd joke answer. And the “ugly” is finding a better joke.

All too often comedy writers will come up with a joke and just settle for it. The fact that they came up with a joke at all is at times a relief. But you need to get in the habit of asking yourself, is this the BEST joke?

What I found with this exercise is that there always seemed to be a better joke. The person having to come up with the “ugly” punchline generally had a surprisingly easy time of it.

Try it yourself.

How do you cure insomnia?

How do we stop ISIS?

What’s the ideal wedding gift?

How do you get chickens to lay more eggs?

What’s the best way to save money in the supermarket?

What can you do to get noticed by the opposite sex?

How do you get a cat down a tree?

What’s the best way to break up with your lover?

Now do it with your script. You might surprise yourself.

Improv training can be invaluable. I still can’t do accents for shit, but it’s a great way to hone my craft. And I don’t care how long you’ve been doing something, you can always get better.

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