Liz Meriwether, showrunner, writer, director, and creator of a little show called New Girl (hint: it wasn’t little), recently sat down with WriteGirl, a creative writing and mentoring organization that promotes creativity, critical thinking, and leadership skills to empower teen girls. There, she shared some excellent insight into how a writers room can punch up comedy.
While most emerging writers are crafting the humor within their own sitcoms, Meriwether’s advice checks out for a single writer.
The first thing she insisted on was to write the first draft first, whether it’s just the first draft of a scene or the first draft of your script. The idea is to not pause to figure out the best joke. In some cases you can even add a placeholder — my personal favorite is four stars because they’re easy to locate in a word search. Something as simple as ****INSERT AMAZING JOKE HERE.
Once you’ve got your story beats laid out, you’re ready to get to work on writing some great TV comedy.
Here’s how a writers room punches up comedy.
Late deadline ends August 15th, 2022
Ideate Specific Details
There’s an episode in New Girl when Nick discovers Jess’s vintage purse collection and he tells her he wants them to be covered in gems. “All guys do. That’s what we think is sexy. We want to be playing saxophone in an alley and have you walk by in a miniskirt with a purse with gems. But you girls don’t listen.”
The specificity of Nick’s fantasy is so random that it induces a surprise response for the viewer. That surprise becomes delight, amusement, and hopefully, laughter. It’s science.
In any scenario, in any explanation, in any throwaway comment, how can you get more specific and unusual with your writing? How can you surprise your audience?
But going deeper into Nick’s fantasy, there’s also a kernel of truth. I may have never precisely pictured myself playing a saxophone whilst encountering a hottie, but I’ve definitely had my obscure daydreams. It’s universal to fantasize, which is why Nick’s bedazzled dream-Jess is relatable. The details just heighten the joke to something more entertaining than, “Guys want a girl with nice legs.”
The next pass should be trying to find the most unique and amusing words possible. At one point, Aly tells Nick and Winston that she’s “not gonna be the yardstick in a penis measuring contest.” This one went right over my head until Nick asks, “Did you say yardstick?” and Winston follows up with, “Yeah, who are you dating?”
The writers room could have just gone with “ruler” but by throwing in the “yardstick” we get a joke about genitalia! Classic!
How can you make common phrases or descriptions more colorful and entertaining and, most impressively, completely unique to your tone and voice?
Rapid Fire Brainstorm
One activity Meriwether shared is to just rapid fire throw out jokes. “Let yourself go,” she urged.
In one New Girl episode, Jess comments on what is meant to be a mousetrap but what actually appears to be a Mark Twain doll with a hammer. Jess’ description of the…device…is much more colorful: “He’s not foolin’ anyone. You think just because he’s a snappy dresser the mice won’t see the hammer? Mice come from all over the building to laugh at that dummy witch.”
I could imagine that ‘dummy witch’ was the best out of a list of brainstormed descriptors. Ever heard of ‘nightmare fuel’? Maybe that was the first draft — but it’s an overused phrase so it just doesn’t pack the same kind of humorous punch anymore. ‘Dummy witch’ is new, however, and a funny combination of words.
This is an activity that really benefits from a room because everyone can build on each other’s jokes — but tell yourself to come up with ten alternatives and soon you’ll be stretching your mind for something that just might surprise you.
New Girl was a masterclass in creating unique characters, perhaps the greatest of which is Nick Miller. Here are a few facts about Nick: He doesn’t trust fish. He doesn’t wash his towels because the towels wash him. Nick isn’t convinced he knows how to read because maybe he’s just memorized a lot of words.
At one point, Nick asks Jess, “Have you seen, uh, uh, cherries?” Jess responds with, “I’m so confused by your question I’m just gonna answer it directly. Yes, I’ve seen them.”
In another episode, Regan asks Nick, “Is that a bowl of mashed potatoes under your bed?” and Winston observes, “May god help us if it’s not.”
That kind of character specificity begs you to give them wild scenarios, thoughts, fears, habits, weaknesses, vices, and turn-ons. The more you create fully realized and unique characters, the more you can bring them to life with surprises that will make your audience laugh.
Whether you just finished writing a TV pilot, preparing to get staffed, or are currently in a room, these tips should help make you a valuable asset to any writing team, namely if that writing team happens to be full of comedians.
Remember, humor is about surprising your audience or your reader. Steer clear from characters that have been seen before, phrases and dialogue that are overused, and scenarios that are common onscreen. Revise your jokes by brainstorming not one, not two, not even three, but a handful of alternatives so you can really stretch yourself and have a good selection to choose from. And, as always, try to have some fun with it in your next writers room!
Also, if you want to do your due diligence and find out what’s hot in the industry, find out what buyers are looking for in a comedy pilot.
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!