Writing Comedy for the Screen is a Risky PropositionPosted: June 13, 2016
You read that headline right. Writing comedy for the screen is a scary business in this day and age, when every time you open your mouth, or your characters’ mouths, you risk offending someone, somewhere. Seriously.
Last semester, for my original pilot series, I created a series that takes place in a backwards fairytale land, where the fairytales are all wrong, called Unhappily Ever After. My main character, Cassandra, who is stuck there, tries to fix the fairytales in hopes that by doing so, she will find a way to get home. In my pitch, I listed ideas for several more episodes to show my idea could be sustained for thirteen episodes, or at least one season. In the notes my instructor sent back, he pointed out that I could be in trouble with my idea for my second episode, where one of the things that must be fixed is that a prince falls for Cass’s geeky sidekick and she has to find a way to make him fall in love with his princess, so the story can end with its happily ever after.
My instructor felt that I would be portraying a gay relationship as something that “needed fixing”, and that it might be offensive, although it would be clear that the reason it was “wrong” in the episode wasn’t that they were gay or bi, but that the prince and princess must marry, because that’s the way the fairytale goes. It’s funny, but it’s not intended to make fun of gays, or saying anything negative about being gay.
The episode ideas I listed flowed from one episode to the next and this second episode was designed to follow off the story line from the pilot episode, picking up right where we left off the week before, and the third episode would pick up from the second episode. To change that one idea would be to change the entire series story line, and I didn’t want to change it. My response to him was that no matter what you say these days, someone will be offended.
And I meant it. It’s true.
Not long after that, I saw a t-shirt advertised on Facebook that said, “You find it offensive, but I just think it’s funny”, and I realized that shirt summarizes the whole problem. I grew up with blonde jokes, and I loved them. Does that mean I believe the stereotype about blondes being lower on the IQ? No. I like blonde jokes because I find them to be funny. Now days if I tell a blonde joke, it’s almost certain that somewhere out there, there will be a blonde who will be offended, and then watch out. And half of those who are offended are likely to be bleached blonde, but they’ll identify as blonde and be offended, just the same.
In the past, bigoted characters like Archie Bunker endured because he was funny. You didn’t have to agree with his character to laugh at his jokes. Archie’s humor may even have helped to break down many stereotypes and biased thinking, because the Archie Bunker character was so extreme, that the ridiculousness of the opinions he expressed was apparent. Today, they broadcast things on television that would make my grandparents cringe, but when it comes to humor, you have to walk a thin line, for fear of being offensive.
In Hollywood, we’re hearing cries for more diversity in the industry, but as a writer, I hesitate to create a diverse character, for fear that when I reference them, it will be politically incorrect, especially when the politically correct terms change from day to day. When I was growing up, those with darker coloring were called Negros. In my twenties, the term to use was black. Now, I think it’s African American, but it may have changed again and I just haven’t got the memo. I’ve never been much for political correctness anyway. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. According to my instructor, that needs to change or I won’t sell my script. The studios may not be willing to take a chance on something that might be offensive.
My point is that, no matter what term I use or how I portray my character, there’s no offense meant. It may be easier to write comedy for a stand-up routine than it is to write comedy for television, because stand-up comedians can poke fun at themselves and that’s okay. Nobody will be offended if a Jewish guy gets up on stage and jokes about what it was like to grow up in a Jewish household, or a Latino woman pokes fun at the Cinco de Mayo festival. If I go by that rule, I can only poke fun at poor white trash and starving artists.
The thing about writing for television though, is the audience can’t tell if the writer of the low rider joke is Latino, and therefore immune to public scrutiny. Where I might use it to my advantage is in writing diverse characters. When the Asian characters of Fresh Off the Boat fun at Asian culture, or the African American characters of Black-ish joke about being “brothers”, no one gets offended. It’s okay for Max and Caroline to make jokes about the female anatomy because they’re female, even though the persons writing the jokes may not be. We don’t see the writers, so it doesn’t matter. The humor is funny, so we give ourselves permission to laugh. The characters are joking about themselves, so it’s okay.
It seems to me the basic problem here, is we, as a society have become so over-sensitive about stereotypes, that we are now limited as to what it is acceptable to laugh at. For a culture that prides ourselves with open mindedness and acceptance of other cultures, it seems to me that we’re pretty uptight. In order to embrace our differences, don’t we have to be able to laugh at them, and ourselves?
I think, as writers, we have to realize something. No matter what you write or what your characters say, somebody somewhere is going to be offended. Unfortunately, the people in the business who make the decisions about which shows get made and which don’t need to realize this, too. Right now, they are all so afraid of offending, that they may be passing up shows, like mine, which may be genuinely funny. As a society, we need to lighten up and give ourselves permission to laugh again, at ourselves and at each other. We need to get our collective sense of humor back.