From pratfalls to flatfalls
By Diane Wild
In honour of our all-comedy issue, CSW lined up some of Canada’s most successful comedy writers to identify the funniest scenes they’ve created and why they worked. And because comedy is the flipside of tragedy, we also got them to talk about the ones that fell flat or just never made it to the screen. So, read on. You’ll laugh. You may even cry. But you’ll definitely gain some great insights into the craft of making ’em laugh. (Pictured from L to R: Jen Goodhue, Nelu Handa, Kevin White, Jeremy Woodcock)
(Creator/showrunner, Workin’ Moms)
Funniest scene: I wrote a scene based on an experience I had in a Mommy & Me group in which there was great confusion over what words were acceptable to say in front of your child. The mothers said you couldn’t use the c-word. They meant ‘can’t.’ I misunderstood and said practically the same word with one different vowel. In real life, everybody moved on. In the scene I wrote, the characters continued to confuse words such as the n-word (no) and so on. I believe the scene works because it is not only relatable, but also has an inherent game set-up in its premise.
The one that fell flat: Scenes that make us scream with laughter in the writer’s room on the day will fall flat. What cracks you up when you’re sitting around a conference room table doesn’t always have legs once grounded in the real-life world of the characters. The comedy should always come from the truth of the characters’ reality.
The one that got away: Every season I flirt with a few ideas that excite me. Sometimes those ideas push the envelope in the right way. And sometimes those ideas are simply indulgent and an opportunity to flex as a writer. I’ve been lucky enough to not only have been protected from the indulgent moments, but also encouraged to explore the envelope.
(Baroness von Sketch Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
Funniest scene: I wrote a sketch where a character insists that her guests relax at the cottage, but also gives them a set of rules that make it impossible to relax at any given time. It works because the premise is simple, brilliantly executed by the Baronesses, and it’s based on how I behave at my own cottage. It’s relatable. We’ve all met a controlling person who wants to be seen as easy going and fun. (If you’ve met me, this is especially true.)
The one that fell flat: I’d just finished Second City and one character I enjoyed performing was a sweet little seal. I’d pull a turtleneck over my head and drag myself around the stage. So, when I pitched the character for a TV show, I kept telling them, ‘Trust me. This kills on stage!’ After my costume-fitting I knew I was in trouble. I had failed to understand how a live performance doesn’t always translate to TV. What’s worse is, I was so confident it was going to work, I didn’t listen to anyone’s advice. Hubris!
The one that got away: I wrote a horror genre sketch about a person who brings donuts into the office. A woman refuses to eat one because she’s off sugar and the donuts start following her from room to room, stalking her, taunting her. I liked it, but it’s A LOT of production. Like, a lot. I think I’d written that donuts came out of the photocopier? Honestly, it was a short film. And it’s definitely the most expensive sketch I’ve ever written.
(The Gavin Crawford Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
Funniest scene: During The Gavin Crawford Show, we found this awful bowl-cut wig, so Kyle Tingley and I wrote a sketch about this unfortunate but plucky teenager running for class president solely because his mom told him to. It was just the right mix of painful and funny. My favourite line, delivered from inside a locker after he’s been dragged away by bullies, was ‘You never know, I could win. I mean, like, this is politics; it’s not, like, a popularity contest.’
The one that fell flat: I wrote a monologue of this young gay character talking about Gwyneth Paltrow’s privilege while ordering increasingly expensive cocktails. It came across as bitter and audiences were not on board, although that was in 2000 and I feel somewhat vindicated as I suspect it might work better now. Timing really is everything.
The one that got away: More than one episode of Gavin Crawford’s Wild Wild West, which never happened due to a combo of budget cuts and risk-averse executives.
(Four on the Floor, Sunnyside, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Kids in the Hall)
Funniest scene: In a scene from Four on the Floor, I played a character who has been going into the same restaurant for years, always ordering the same meal, but when he asks to be served his ‘regular,’ no one knows what he’s talking about. This scene worked as something we can all relate to — the desire to be remembered — but this small desire is elevated to a life-and-death obsession and becomes funny when we realize the absurdity of anyone demanding that people remember him.
The one that fell flat: I wrote a scene where a husband is shocked that his wife doesn’t like her birthday gift, which is a soggy cardboard box filled with mouldering coal. ‘You didn’t like the bag of ants I gave you last year or the dry rot in a jar the year before. There’s just no making you happy.’ In my mind, the husband was the brunt of the comedy, but I suspect the audience thought I was making fun of the wife. Of course, the problem could also have been that the husband was too absurd for the audience to follow.
The one that got away: I wrote a scene for Sunnyside about a middle-aged woman who doesn’t get service at a restaurant because of ageist waiters. She realizes she’s completely invisible and ends up walking up to the cash register and robbing the restaurant. But a sketch designed to show the curse of ageism was nixed because the network refused to hire older actors.
(Co-creator/Co-showrunner Kim’s Convenience, Dan For Mayor, Corner Gas)
Funniest scene: One that comes to mind [for Kim’s Convenience] is when Janet scolds her parents when she finds out they’ve been having regular sex in her roommate’s water bed. Janet is normally pretty patient and respectful, but here she loses it on both her parents who know they are guilty and have nowhere to hide. The staging of it by director Renuka Jeyapalan also made the parent/child role-reversal that much funnier and apparent.
The one that fell flat: There was a cold open from this year that didn’t come together as hoped. It featured Appa and a friend discussing painful medical procedures — kidney stones — when they are quickly upstaged by Umma talking about childbirth. A fun premise with good performances, but in the end, you could see it coming. It probably could have used a more surprising turn. Ins [Choi] and I blame the writers, who in this case, were us.
The one that got away: It’s Appa’s dark night of the soul. We imagined him sitting on the roof of the store smoking a single cigarette, contemplating his place in the universe, or at least on Queen Street, as the moon carved out his silvery silhouette. While it seemed a funny image, it’s never translated into any kind of scene. It’s pretty outside the show. But maybe ... season finale?
(JANN, Baroness von Sketch Show, The Beaverton)
Funniest scene: My writing partner Amish Patel and I are working on our pilot, and we’re pulling from our own experiences as first-generation Indian-Canadians. It’s a scene with adult children explaining the world they live in to their unmoved immigrant parents. I think it’ll appeal to the audience for its truth and nuances.
The one that fell flat: I once performed a monologue I wrote as Malala Yousafzai to the wrong crowd. Hot tip: Know your audience.
The one that got away: For JANN, I wrote a showdown in a spa between Jann Arden and Michael Bublé. I guess we couldn’t do it because it was too hot for TV. And he wasn’t available.
Mark De Angelis
(Bill & Sons Towing, The Ron James Show, Odd Squad)
Funniest scene: In Bill & Sons Towing, the guys decide to make a ‘progressive’ bikini calendar featuring a range of body types. When a young amputee (played wonderfully by Courtney Gilmour) shows up, they don’t quite know how to deal with it. I think the scene worked well because at its heart, it’s about an awkward encounter, which is something everyone can relate to.
The one that fell flat: I wish there was a playbook that could tell you why things don’t work, but every scene is a bit like a chemistry experiment. Obviously, you need great writing, but I’ve also seen things fall flat because the performances didn’t quite hit the right tone, or the editing wasn’t punchy enough, or because I took a network note and made all my nightmares come true.
The one that got away: I wanted to do a sketch based around an intense SWAT-team operation where silence must be maintained, and the captain forgets all the tactical hand signals. The sketch ended with pretty much every cop getting shot because the captain kept giving them the wrong hand signals. The week after I pitched it, two cops were shot by a sniper-like gunman during a shootout. And that was the end of that.
(Schitt’s Creek, Baroness von Sketch Show)
Funniest scene: I think ‘Private Vagina’, a sketch for Baroness von Sketch Show that I wrote with Meredith MacNeill, works largely because of factors beyond my control; it’s filmed naturalistically and on location, and the acting is grounded — all four Baronesses are amazing in it, especially Aurora Browne as the pharmacist. She’s saying ridiculous, vulgar things with such an imperious, calm demeanour, and then Mer is trying to keep it together as the Every Woman With A Yeast Infection. It doesn’t spin off into some wild place, that’s just how ridiculous it actually is to be a woman trying to buy some goddamn cream for an itchy vag.
The one that fell flat: I spent most of Baroness von Sketch’s season three in the writing room plugging away at a sketch called ‘Two Women Turn Into Trees While Waiting for Their Boyfriends to Stop Talking About Music.’ I think a big problem was that distaste for conversations about music is not an especially widespread phenomenon. In general, spending that much time on a sketch is a waste, and I knew that. But I just kept trying. If you’ve got a clear premise, the writing should flow fairly easily because all you have to do is honour the premise, escalate it, maybe twist it at the end and you’re out.
The one that got away: I really wanted Moira Rose to injure herself and spend an episode using one of those extendable reaching claws. This didn’t work because, as I’m sure the rest of the room pointed out, it’s what’s known in the industry as ‘just a funny image,’ and ‘absolutely not a storyline.’
(The Beaverton, Cavendish, Young Drunk Punk)
Funniest scene: There’s a scene in my Cavendish episode ‘The Coven’ where Andy Bush tentatively reads a poem. He’s an objectively terrible writer, and the poem is like something out of a particularly dismal first-year creative writing class. It’s utter nonsense about a guy drinking from a cold stream, but it’s also about his father and includes the phrase ‘gelid moist.’ It works because Andy is a very funny actor who plays neediness about as well as anyone ever has or could. Every word of that poem is a cry for help, just not in the way the poem intends. Of course, the small-town witches are utterly transported by his terrible writing. Andy’s quiet, deeply touched reaction to their approval suggests it’s the best moment of his life. Which is very sad. And, to me, funny!
The one that fell flat: Oh boy. I’ve worked quite a bit in sketch so there are a few of these. I usually blame the audience, then cry myself to sleep.
The one that got away: Years ago, I wrote a scene called ‘Copnotist.’ It was a mock documentary about a 1970s stage hypnotist who was given his own show, a gritty police procedural focused on a maverick cop who solves and prevents crime through the power of hypnosis. Unfortunately, that particular show got canceled before we could do it. It’s too bad. I sensed a spin-off.
(This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
Funniest scene: It’s about a guy who can’t come up with catchphrases. I think it works because it’s structurally tight — it relies totally on the comedy rule-of-three for each joke — but that never dawned on me while I wrote it, so it somehow doesn’t seem forced either. I was just thinking that way from doing so much comedy at the time. It also depicts an entire lifetime in a couple of minutes, which I never thought about being overly ambitious, because it was just amusing me to think of. It’s one I wrote almost entirely in my head before typing — maybe that was the key.
The one that fell flat: I wrote a King Solomon scene for a live sketch show (obviously everything I’ve been paid to write for television has worked perfectly and you should hire me to write for them). I was really excited about it, but realize now that I never communicated to the guest host what I found so funny about the sketch. He’s brilliant, and really ran with it and played with the structure, which was great. But he wasn’t building on my central joke because I hadn’t communicated it adequately, so it got very fuzzy and was about too many different things. Don’t be afraid to say what you consider the crux of the scene.
The one that got away: A Romeo & Juliet parody for 22 Minutes. Coming from live sketch, I know you can do a lot just with suggestion, but sometimes you want to see the whole package. On a non-stop weekly show, that can be tough to cobble together, and without all the scenic accoutrements and costumes, this one wouldn’t make sense. We didn’t have time to make it look authentic, but still wanted to do it, and so kept paring things back until the joke got confused. You wouldn’t have known it was taking place in that world, and better to cut it than half-do it.
(Kim’s Convenience, Letterkenny, Preggoland)
Funniest scene: In Preggoland, I think one of the funniest moments is when Ruth’s co-worker calls her out on lying about being pregnant and to prove it, he punches her in her (fake) pregnant belly. I think it works because the image of a pregnant woman being punched in the belly is shocking, but the audience knows she’s faking and so is in on the joke. The delicacy with which we treat pregnant women, juxtaposed with the violence of Danny Trejo throwing a punch, works.
The one that fell flat: In one webisode of Sunnyhearts CC, the community centre program manager has to pacify Linda the Elliptical Lady who likens a body builder’s grunting to sexual harassment. Linda mimics his grunting, which leads to a groaning tennis match between the two, leading to some serious hate-arousal. It was in bad taste then and it hasn’t aged well.
The one that got away: Both in Kim’s Convenience and Letterkenny, Appa and Wayne, respectively, take a child to task for being an asshole. In both these instances, scenes were tossed or altered because they ran the risk of causing the audience to be concerned for the child character or for the actor playing the child. That said, in Preggoland, a character inadvertently clocks a child in the face with a baseball bat while trying to help bust open a stubborn piñata. I think it works because the damage was done by accident and the assailant was duly horrified afterwards. Aaaand... now that I’ve answered this question, it’s become disturbingly apparent that this is my specialty. Sorry screenwriters, I’ve got comedic violence against children cornered in Canada.