One of my favourite Simpsons moments is from the episode “Bart the Fink”, where Krusty the Clown’s tax evasion is discovered. They call his Banker, a fat man in a panama suit, who gives a rich chuckle before answering ‘I’m sorry, I can’t disclose any information about that customer’s secret, illegal account.’ He then puts the phone down with a smile. Except that wasn’t the whole scene. I saw it a few years later and realised they’d censored the original, only censorship had actually improved the joke. In the non-censored version, the Banker then says ‘Oh crap, I shouldn’t have told them it’s a secret’, ‘Oh crap, I certainly shouldn’t have told them it was illegal’, before sagging back in his seat and saying ‘Ugh, it’s too hot today.’ This turned something smart and succinct into a joke that tried to explain itself, and in so doing killed off a good deal of the humour.
This dilemma certainly isn’t limited to comedy writing. Adverbs are known as the beginner’s curse because they betray a lack of confidence, a need to spell it all out which can lead to horrifying clunkiness like ‘The impact twisted his arm painfully.’ When you have a funny moment, or a dramatic/exciting one, it’s easy to start dragging your feet because you want to squeeze out all that potential. Comedy writing is quite new to me with my Pumblesmythe series, but I felt the aforementioned temptation right away. Often, though, it’s best to let that moment play out and move on. Doing anything else is a sign of fear: fear you won’t come up with anything as good, fear that once you leave this glorious oasis then it’ll be back to the plod plod prose.
Are there exceptions? Of course, and those fit very well with the advice that ‘Once you know what the rules are, you can break them.’ Take the South Park “Imaginationland” episodes – in particular the mayor’s “Imagination” song. Literally him just singing ‘Imagination!’ repeatedly. Well-judged because it’s a little funny at first, becomes annoying, then breaks through and is funny again. South Park in general has a reputation for never shirking the chance to follow any joke or idea right down to the knuckle. That kind of comedy writing takes courage as well as experience, because it’s not always going to pay off. Running jokes are another: frequent enough to qualify, but not so fast and familiar that the reader gets sick of them.
It’s easy to dismiss the comedy writer’s worry of ‘Is this funny?’ as a trifling one next to ‘Is this exciting/frightening/upsetting?’ but the anxiety and self-doubt is just as real. For me, seeing that uncensored episode was a huge relief, as there was a time when I thought the Simpsons’ writers could do no wrong. These days I look to the creator of “Community”, Dan Harmon, for my fears and doubts. How the hell is that man so funny?