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Home » Archives » January 2008 » No Drumroll, Please!
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01/30/2008: No Drumroll, Please!

Periodically, I talk about "clams," overused jokes that should be excised from your writing. I'm talking about (singsong) "Awkward!" and its sweaty companions "That went well" and "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," and so forth.

There's a related phenomenon that has bugged me for a long time, but that I haven't commented on before. These aren't overused jokes, exactly, but overused timing devices that get built into jokes. Look at this line, which might well occur in a sitcom spec script:

She was, how shall I put this, a well-rounded applicant.

Believe it or not, the thing that bugs me here isn't the punishing use of "well-rounded." I'm numb to that. What bothers me is the "how shall I put this." That little phrase is there to time the joke, to delay the punch so it lands harder. It drumrolls the joke instead of throwing it away. Since this little phrase is never used (at least never in comedy scripts) by a character genuinely searching for the right word without a comedic payoff, it always feels like a self-conscious request for a laugh. No! Don't beg!

Other examples, identical in intent, include "what's the word I'm looking for," which seems to me even more blatant, and "how you say," which is reserved for characters with thick foreign accents. Oh my.

A similar device, used more by pundits than sitcom writers, is to claim "pun not intended" immediately before or after cracking a pun, thereby calling attention to it. I've got nothing against a clever pun, but I think they're best dealt smoothly from your hand and placed softly on the table without fanfare.

Lunch: Ribs USA. Have I told you about their French fries drenched in hot-wings sauce? Go there at once.


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