How To Talk Comedy Writer – updated 25th October 2019
Comedy writers often come up with little pieces of terminology, most of which never get circulated beyond a small group of people. I have this ongoing project to gather as many as I can in one place, so they don’t get lost like tears in the rain. New entries at the top. If you’re a comedy writer and you’ve got a good one, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me on @andyrileyish…I want this list to keep growing.
Shit Sandwich – via Sarah Morgan. Giving notes to a writer on a comedy script is a delicate process at the best of times. If you are the note taker, it’s not in your interest to be excessively blunt and brutal. The writer who is opening up the notes file is going through quite enough mental anguish as it is. No need to add to it. What you and the writer both want is for them to get to the end of your notes and say, “yes! I see now what we need to do. I’ll take this and I’ll rewrite it and it’ll be so much better!” That’s why you need to serve up a shit sandwich. Here’s how it works. The first layer, a nice bread layer, is telling the writer good things. You mention the points in the script script which are working really well, the jokes which sprang from the page, and there’s some acknowledgement of how hard the writer worked. Then there is the filling, which is the real point of the sandwich. The shit bit. You tell them about the things that don’t work. The final layer (tasty bread) is bright and positive again, but looking to the work ahead rather than the work that’s been done. You tell the writer they are clever and funny, hat you are confident they can achieve what’s needed and more besides. A well-constructed shit sandwich will really help to motivate any writer or writing team. It shows you understand the lurching emotional ride they go through and the effort they’ve put in. Sometimes, if a complicated show is in production and there’s one million things to think of, there’s no time for an artful shit sandwich. Notes tend to get blunter at this point. And sometimes blunt notes just means that the person giving them is a bastard and he thinks writers are faulty machines which just need a good thwack.
Up On Bricks – two or three decades ago (less so now) you’d often see parked cars stood on little plinths of house bricks. Thieves had jacked up the cars and stolen the wheels. Sometimes a comedy project goes up on bricks too. It’s not exactly dead, but it’s not going anywhere any time soon unless money is spent and effort made. Any number of things can put a project up on bricks. is an actor was attached, but has gone off to do something else. The producer he was championing it is moved to a different company. A channel loses interest. Maybe the writer lose interest. Most things up on bricks stay there and slowly rot away. But every now and again, they are revived and fitted out and put back on the road.
Cracky Crab – when somebody in the room is tired and hungry and becomes very negative about any suggested idea as soon as it’s said. This is named after the arcade game (A variant of the American whack-a-mole) where you bash plastic crabs with a big mallet whenever they peep out of the holes. Cracky Crab is not so much a personality trait as a mood, and normally one that comes near the end of the day. Anyone playing Cracky Crab need to go home, eat, or both.
Laughing Clubs of Mumbai – via Stevyn Colgan. When making QI, this is a topic which is considered for inclusion in every series and never makes the cut.
Shrew’s Toilet – another QI one via Stevyn. A question about a subject that has many complicated details that require explanation and it takes so long that, once you’ve done explaining it, you’ve forgotten what the original question was.
The Inventory – via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil. This is a mental list of that we keep (we never really write it down) of every physical object, particularly small ones, which passes through the hands of the characters. It can be incredibly useful once you have a script and you’re into the re-writing stage. If you’ve got a story problem to fix, maybe there is something the characters handled earlier in the story which can be brought back. The best moment we’ve ever had inventory was shortly before we began shooting the first series of Year Of The Rabbit. We needed a scene in the middle of episode six where rabbits and the gang meet the big villains and learn their secret plan. Initially we wrote a kind of secret base for this to take place in. For production reasons (time and money, the two great limiters) this whole scene had to be done inside a very cramped horse drawn carriage. Plot wise, it wasn’t too hard to get them in the carriage. But how could they escape from it, given that Sally Philips’ character had been set up as the best shot in Europe and had our heroes at point blank range? The gang needed a way to escape, or the show wouldn’t have an ending. It had to be very funny, very quick to shoot, very quick in terms of screen time, and not cost much. And we had about an hour to think of it. And the success of the climactic episode of the series hinged on it. This was pressure. We paced about the office batting about every approach we could think of – until Kev hit on the answer. Earlier in the same episode, Rabbit is in a sewer in Victorian London putting dog shits in his pocket. We never explained what happened to the dog shits after that, so they might still be in Rabbit’s pockets. Rabbit could get out of the carriage situation by throwing twenty nine dog turds at Keeley Hawes and Sally Phillips. We leapt out of our chairs and cheered like we’d scored a goal in a cup final. Inventory to the rescue.
Fumfering – via John O’Farrell. A Yiddish word John’s just learned during rehearsals for the Broadway production of Mrs. Doubtfire. It’s when a character mumbles and stammers because they are trying explain their way out of a lie. A sitcom staple. And if the fumfering is accompanied by rash bullshitting to cover up the lie, your hero just made their own problem worse. And you’re off to the races, comedically.
Rubber Duck Solution – via Sarah Morgan. A software engineering technique which can be used in comedy writing too. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck, and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck. The principle is that if you explain a sticky problem to someone else who knows nothing about it (such as an inanimate duck), then fresh insights will come in the explaining, and you’ll hit on the answer. Sarah has bought her own rubber duck to talk to, and it works. “It’s like an emergency writers’ room when you’re writing alone,” she says.
Elton – via Ben Partridge, who got it from Andy Wolton. A joke which is a little bit funny. Not fully, definitely funny… just a little bit funny. These are dangerous because they aren’t that bad that they loudly demand re-writing, so if you’re not diligent you can end up leaving them in – despite them not really being good enough.
Diedea – via Kat Sadler. Realising an idea you’ve had is so bad you can feel it die as soon you start explaining it. Although this may sound like a comedy writer’s nightmare, it really isn’t. If you’re in a writers’ room situation with a few other people, vast numbers of ideas are going to ping around in any given session. Most will fall by the wayside. The important thing is to have an atmosphere where diedeas can come and go and there’s no shame about it. Someone may even take that sad little corpse of a thought and give it a new spin which brings it magically to life. The real nightmare is when you find yourself in a tense room where writers are wary to put ideas forward. Just one negative person can do that, by talking over everyone else, or saying ‘but that won’t work because…’ all the time, or pointedly sighing at other people’s suggestions. There’s lots of ways to be a wrecker, but the effect is always the same. Everyone clams up. The room gets awkward and uncreative. If you all give each other the freedom to dream up utter tosh, you’ll loosen up, and more ideas will come. Amongst them, with any luck, you’ll get a few good ones. If you find yourself mocking other people’s diedeas – have a stern word with yourself.
Raptor Pit – a particularly aggressive (often all-male) writers’ room. No fun, being in one of these. Bantz is straying towards unnecessary teasing, even bullying. Named after the velociraptor enclosure in Jurassic Park where the animals snarl and fight over the meat.
BBC One-and-a-Half – (trad.) Used as an adjective, to describe any project (either at pitch or script stage) which is falling into the uncanny valley between BBC1 and BBC2. Too edgy for the former, but not edgy enough for the latter. As in “right now this feels a bit BBC one-and-a-half.” It’s never used in a positive, best-of-both-worlds sense. This one used to be in wide circulation in British TV comedy. I’ve heard it a lot less in recent years, as more and more people access things through the iPlayer and don’t give a shit about which channel any show is tied to. But I did hear it in a conversation just a few months back.
Wants to be a Yellowcoat – When a lot of the characters in a sitcom share some official status, which another one of the characters dearly wants, that frustrated character wants to be a Yellowcoat. This is a reference to Hi-De-Hi, written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry. For those who don’t know the show; it’s set in a Butlins-type holiday camp in the 1950s, and lots of the characters are Yellowcoats, the equivalent of the Butlins Redcoat. Peggy, who cleans the chalets, isn’t a Yellowcoat but dreams of being one. A character who wants to be a Yellowcoat can be very useful. You automatically root for them, and their ambition means they’re always putting themselves in the thick of the action. Guillermo in What We Do In The Shadows wants to be a vampire – so he spends all his time around them.
Impact player – This comes from sports. In that world, the definition of ‘impact player’ seems a bit nebulous, but it’s often been applied to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. When he played for Manchester United, Solskjaer rarely got a full game; but he could run off the subs’ bench, take over a match, and either score a late equaliser or make the chance for someone else to. That’s the sense that me and Kevin Cecil use. In a sitcom, an impact player is a character outside the main group who can jump in at key moments and make a big splash out of all proportion to their screen time. They’re probably not in every episode. Newman in Seinfeld and Furlong from Veep, and Lord Flashheart from Blackadder are all impact players. Big, bold, un-ignorable characters. We have one in Year of the Rabbit; Joseph Merrick, AKA The Elephant Man. Our Merrick is a super-confident Oscar Wilde type played with off-the-scale panache by David Dawson. Merrick pops up in four out of the six episodes in series one, and never for very long. But for those few minutes here and there, he’s the centre of attention. To paraphrase Nigel Tufnell – what we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? Put it up to eleven. One louder. Merrick gets us up to eleven. The rough rule seems to be; don’t use the impact player too much. Keep them as a treat, so people go “Ooh! Good! It’s an episode with X!”
Gusher – When you hit on a big idea for a show, or a storyline within a show, which prompts an immediate splurge of linked ideas which fly out as fast as you can write them down. Just like for oil prospectors, a gusher means you’ve made a valuable strike. I’ve come to regard a gusher (or the lack of one) as the most reliable guide for whether or not to get involved with a project.
The Man From Del Monte – the person at the top of the decision making chain who has the power of life or death over your beautiful comedy project. A comedy commissioner for a channel, or a channel boss, or the head of a film studio. If that person is a woman, they are The Woman From Del Monte. It all comes from adverts for Del Monte juice in the 80s and 90s, featuring a company boss who visits an orange grove and samples a glass of the local juice. He nods sagely. He likes the juice! The orange farmer runs amongst the orange trees, shouting: “The juice man from Del Monte – he say yes!” What I took from it at the time was not admiration for the high standards of the Del Monte company, but sympathy for the suppressed terror of the orange farmer whose career hangs in the balance as the Del Monte Man tastes the juice and then makes an entirely subjective decision. Screen writers live through this moment many times. But unlike in the ads, The Man From Del Monte, he say no way more often than he say yes.
Doof-Doof – pronounced as in ‘woof’. This comes from Eastenders. Actors on the show consider themselves blooded as cast members when their character gets their first doof-doof – that is, a close up at moment at the end of the show where there is a new twist or cliffhanger, and the drums come in… DOOF, DOOF DOOF, DOOF DOOF, DO-DO-DO-DOOF! Sitcom writers never used to have to worry about doof-doofs. Episodes in a series were narratively unconnected, so cliffhangers weren’t wanted. It’s all changed now. Narrative arcs across a series are more or less universal – so doof-doofs will help to get people watching your next instalment.
You Start Monday – a creaky old joke construction that the writing team of the Friday Night Armistice was slightly obsessed with (as something to avoid). A character will list all the negative points of something, then the punchline demonstrates that they’re going to ignore all that. As in: “You’re unqualified, your attitude is terrible, your references are awful, you plainly can’t do the job. (PAUSE) You start Monday.” There is one example of it that I’m very fond of though; a Kit Kat advert where a record label boss says to a group, “You can’t sing, you can’t play, you look awful… (BREAKS KIT KAT FINGER) You’ll go a long way.”
Last Man Standing – the line that made everyone laugh like a drain at every read from day one, but, with enough people reading it over long enough time, gets taken outside and shot in the end anyway. (via Laurence Rickard)
The Bank – this one was used by the Cheers writing team. Peter Casey, interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter: “Every now and then we’d have a great joke that missed the moment. We’d rip the page out of the script and put it in a binder that had tabs with the name of each character. If you needed a joke for a character you’d get ‘the bank’ out. We liked to think of ourselves as comedy Eskimos. We used all the whale.” Many people compile their own versions of a bank. Gareth Edwards calls his The Fridge. Sarah Morgan has a Bottom Drawer. Dave Cohen has a Shoebox. Greg Daniels calls his The Sweetie Bag. When writing In The Loop, Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong kept a Fun Bucket. Some of these, like the Bank and the Fun Bucket, are specific to one project; others might contain ideas you may find useful years later, on another project. Me and Kevin Cecil used to write our odd, unused and weird thoughts in The Good Ideas Book, which had ‘The Good Ideas Book’ written on the front, prompting everyone who glimpsed it to ask us, “Do you have a Bad Ideas Book too?
Clapter – when a studio audience claps and whoops in agreement with a political point. Prompting applause can be easier than writing a proper funny joke that produces a laugh, so when a show leans on chapter too much, it’s not a healthy sign. Coined by Seth Meyers.
The Brother – via David Quantick. When you pitch a story which contains the throwaway line “the main character is away visiting his brother so he misses the big news but when he returns all hell has broken loose.” And one of the people you’re pitching to says, “I’m really interested in the brother.”
Profile Orbit – via Stephen Grant. Channel execs usually like it if an episode of a sitcom has a high profile guest star; it’s good for trails and generally grabbing attention. What they don’t think about so much is the effect it’ll have on the writing. There’s a danger that every part of the story will end up in profile orbit – i.e. revolving around the star. Before you know it, the pressure to give the star a juicy part forces the episode into a very predictable shape: ‘new arrival in town, very charismatic, suddenly dominates the lives of all the regulars, but the new arrival is not all that they seem.’ This sort of episode is fine every now and then. But when every episode in the series is forced into profile orbit – and this has happened – then things will become very samey, very fast. Which is the exact opposite of what getting in guest stars is supposed to do.
Tariq – via Paul Powell. When you’re doing a rewrite on a script, it’s a relief to come across a section which doesn’t need rewriting because it already works. That bit is a Tariq – named after Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s foreign minister under Saddam Hussein. Aziz = ‘as is’.
Explosion in a Clown Factory – a situation that’s already so ridiculous that it’s impossible to write any jokes that will make it funnier. Via Bec Hill, and possibly originating with Jon Holmes or Simon Blackwell.
Sequencitis – via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil. A problem to watch out for when making animated movies. The production process breaks the script down into sections, each a few minutes long, referred to as sequences. A sequence might be a single scene, or a bunch of scenes, and there may be something like thirty of them in a feature-length movie. Each sequence is given to a different storyboard artist. Story artists rework the scenes, and because each of them has their own style, adjacent sequences can evolve in different directions. One might become more slapstick, another more naturalistic. Set ups or payoffs get lost as more changes accrue on each round of storyboards. A character might become, say, much angrier in sequence 21; then their cheery attitude in sequence 22 starts to jar. The team must work to maintain the film’s coherence, or it could develop a case of sequencitis – becoming disjointed from one sequence to the next.
Credit Hoover – somebody you’re working with on a show whose involvement will suck up so much attention from the wider world that you’re going to get less kudos than you might like. Some credit hoovers don’t mean to do it; they’re just more famous than you, so it’s kind of inevitable and understandable. Other credit hoovers might be a teeny tiny bit more active in their hoovering.
More Mouths To Feed – via Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil. This is when you have a large number of characters who need lines and story beats in an episode or scene. The Veep team used this term a lot. In season one the regular cast was: Selina, Amy, Dan, Mike, Gary, Sue and Jonah. Three years later every episode also had Ben, Kent, Ericsson and Richard. On top of them were recurring guest characters who were in tons of episodes: Catherine, Tom James, Doyle, Teddy, Chung, Furlong and more. That’s a lot of mouths to feed – one reason why drafts regularly topped out at 70 pages for 30 minutes of TV. Sometimes we were writing ten-hander scenes where making sure everyone had lines was like doing air traffic control at Heathrow. The results were fantastic when it worked, but having fewer mouths to feed can be a relief. A main cast of between three and six characters is more manageable.
Row of Kettles – via Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil. A plot point which is so contrived that its chances of working are exactly zero. This comes from a script that me and Kevin were once given to read. In one bit, millions of people were watching a cup final on pub TVs. When the final was over, all the pubgoers celebrated by drinking tea. The hot water was provided by rows of kettles on bar tops across the country. All those kettles worked like power stations, feeding energy into the national grid. This energy was used to power a space rocket take-off. There were at least three ways that this wouldn’t convince anyone. Football fans in a pub celebrate with booze, not tea; kettles don’t produce power but consume it; and space rockets run off rocket fuel, not mains electricity. Have I written things in my own scripts which looked like a Row Of Kettles to someone else? Most likely, yeah.
Real Estate – via Graham Linehan. Time in a comedy show is like land in Manhattan: there’s only so much of it. If the episode you made runs really well at 34 minutes, not the intended 28 and a half, it’s no good asking the BBC to move the news; you’ve got to edit it down. Maybe there’s more flex if you’re writing a film, or a podcast, or something for Netflix, but not much more. You’ve still got to be savage on stuff that’s dragging or not earning its keep because you don’t want to bore the audience. So it’s always good to look for things which can be shortened or cut. That clears some real estate. Now you have room to write in something else which uses that precious time a little bit better.
Chuffa – a term used by the Parks and Recreation writing team, meaning the random dialogue characters say at the beginning of a scene before getting into the storyline. Here’s an example in the Guardian piece about the late Parks and Rec writer Harris Wittels. “Your favourite kind of cake can’t be birthday cake, that’s like saying your favourite kind of cereal is breakfast cereal.” “I love breakfast cereal!” Then, once those lines are done, it’s on with the real meat of the scene. Good chuffa can liven up any show, cramming it full of fun little ideas which might not hold a storyline on their own but are great fun when they’re explored then thrown away in nine seconds flat. Also, they give some flexibility in the edit. If any piece of chuffa doesn’t turn out to be solid gold when performed, or if the show must lose another half a minute to get to required broadcast length, this sort of material can be sliced off and the audience will never know.
Straight Reversal – via Andrew Marshall. A joke construction that’s very useful in topical comedy, where the premise of the gag is more or less a comical inversion of a real news story. So, after the day when the big topic was the doctor who was dragged off a United Airlines flight, Daftynews.com ran the spoof headline ‘Outcry as shocking scenes emerge of passenger being dragged onto Ryanair flight’. There’s a straight reversal that sticks in my mind from an edition of Week Ending in September 1991. At that time, the national moral panic was ram-raiding (smashing a car into through a shop front and then robbing the shop) and the national laughing stock was the Ratners jeweller’s chain (whose founder Gerald Ratner had just slagged his own products). In the quickie radio sketch, some kids ramraid a shop, then one says “Get us back out again, it’s a Ratners!” It would be hard to think up a more 1991 joke than that.
Nixomatosis – via Pete Thornton. More one for producers, but then writers often have to be producers too. Derived from the verb to ‘nix’ or turn a project down, this affliction sometimes comes to bear when you’ve spent half a day reading five different scripts from five different writers and none of them have made you laugh. At that moment you might start to suspect that you’re suffering from a bout of nixomatosis – or the temporary inability to find anything remotely funny. The only known cure is to go and do something else and come back to them another day, reading them all again, but in a different order.
Not This But – via David Baddiel. When you suggest something obvious, crap, or half-formed, hoping that it’ll get the idea ball rolling and lead to something better. An essential writing tool. Saurabh Kakkar has a slightly different meaning: for him it’s a placeholder line suggested in the room prefaced by ‘not this but…’, which inexplicably makes it in to the final show.
Zammo – a pop culture reference gag that works in the writers’ room but plays to painful silence in front of a youthful audience. This comes from Charlie Brooker. On 10 O’Clock Live, a joke was written which mentioned ‘Zammo’ at the laugh point. It went down well with the team, but Charlie delivered it to utter silence on live TV. Nobody knew who the fuck Zammo was. For those reading this who weren’t born in the early 70s, Zammo Maguire was a popular character in the children’s school-based drama Grange Hill in the mid-80s, who was given a heroin addiction storyline. If you’re a very young writer there’s a risk of pitching what you might call an Inverted Zammo: something the oldies won’t understand. This might be fine, depending on the target audience of the show, but it might not be. When Kevin Cecil and me first wrote for Spitting Image we were 23 and 24. Together with Paul Powell and Georgia Pritchett (also young) we came up with what we thought was a very funny sketch based on Mr. Benn, a 1970s children’s TV series. It didn’t get made because nobody over 30 knew what we were on about. Roger Law, the co-founder of Spitting Image, summed it up in his usual style. “I wasn’t watching Mr. Benn because I was earning a fucking living.”
Additing – an attempt to edit / shorten a script during which you end up adding an unhelpful amount of extra material. (via Charlie Brooker)
Pigeon lands on centre court – something impossibly basic… that everyone laughs at. (via Reece Shearsmith)
Not-It – via Reece Shearsmith. When he and Steve Pemberton are writing, they call poor or obvious name choices ‘not-its’. So if a posh man is called “Ponsenby-Smythe”, that’s a ‘not-it’.
Route One – An obvious, unsurprising or unimaginative choice. So, very close to the not-it, but I’ve heard this used with a wider meaning. Not just names but entire storylines can be a bit Route One. (via David Baddiel)
First Cab Off The Rank – via Dan Maier. Another variation on Route One or Not-It. That there’s so many ways to express this idea tells you how much work comedy writers put in to avoid cliches.
Needs a Chiropractic Pass – story NEARLY works but *something* structural needs adjusting. It usually means things are a bit too complicated. (via Charlie Brooker)
Harsh It Up a Bit – to make a punchline more abrupt and brutal. (via Charlie Brooker)
Unfunny Moon – the desolate, airless place that comedians and presenters go to when a joke doesn’t land. Coined by Richard Hammond during conversations with the writers of Top Gear. If they came up with something that wasn’t quite right, Richard would say “are we sure this isn’t booking a trip to the Unfunny Moon?” If a presenter is briefly transported to Unfunny Moon, they might encounter somebody else whose joke died at the same moment on another show. In the next crater along is, say, Rob Brydon. “Another crap Top Gear gag, Rich?” Rob says. “Yeah,” says Richard. “Corporate material not playing well then, Rob?” (via @sniffpetrol)
Evidently Chickentown – this one from Jamie Brittain. If a rewrite requires lots of small but not insignificant changes, and it all adds up to a big pile of work, then it’s evidently chickentown. Although the words come from the John Cooper Clarke poem of the same name, Jamie says the real inspiration for the term comes from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall documentary where the chef had to run a chicken farm. Hugh got very upset about the sheer number of chicks he had to euthanase. Offing a few of them would have been okay, but when there was loads of them, it was a terrible ordeal for Hugh’s soul. Also, the John Cooper Clarke poem does evoke the feeling of a long hard slog. “The bloody clocks are bloody wrong / the bloody days are bloody long / It bloody gets you bloody down / Evidently chickentown.”
Birdbrained Nincompoop – used as an adjective to describe dialogue in a script intended for children, where the insults being thrown between the characters are cliched and unconvincing. When you’re writing for kids there’s a limit to how rude you can be, which can be a problem when characters need to argue. Any birdbrained nincompoop lines need a rewrite. (Via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil)
Langdon – a joke construction named after the writer John Langdon, who loves to write them. The stages of a Langdon are: (i) two elements are introduced. (ii) It appears that we’re continuing to talk about one of those elements in particular… (iii) but then it turns out we were talking about the other one. A 1980s-style example should make it clear. “Ronald Reagan met a chimpanzee today. The simple, gibbering creature… was delighted to meet a chimp.” Pete Sinclair tells me he’s been using that example to explain Langdons since it was current. And he likes to get at least one Langdon a week into Have I Got News For You. Simon Blackwell recalls that he wrote on Radio Four’s Week Ending, a topical news comedy, at a time when Margaret Thatcher went for tea with General Pinochet. As Simon puts it, the show was “shitting Langdons for weeks.”
The Yes (No) – via Ian Martin. A dialogue trick he picked up from Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong while writing for The Thick Of It. The character says yes but the in-parenthesis says no. So we know that they know they’re lying. A: “You didn’t lose those figures, did you?” B: (yes) “No.”
Send that through to Wording – When you’re writing in a room and you’ve collectively got the shape and structure and comic idea of a gag or scene in place, but it needs writing up/rewriting. The writing-up requires some craft – it can’t be farmed out to a non-scriptwriter – but the comedy heavy lifting has been done. Via Simon Blackwell, used while on the Have I Got News For You team. Simon likes the idea of there being a separate Wording department, probably paid less than the main writers.
Lightning Rod – a joke put into a script which is deliberately controversial, tasteless or offensive, and designed to attract discussion and worry from producers, executives and (in the US) the Standards and Practices department. The lightning rod will be fretted over and eventually dropped, which is fine… because its true purpose was to deflect attention from another, only slightly less offensive joke which you really wanted to make it through. We used this tactic a lot on our American animated series Slacker Cats, which was commissioned to be rude and offensive, but was incongruously on the ABC Family Channel. Jason Hazeley calls the lightning rod a Queen Mum, derived from a joke about the Queen Mother being pregnant which Chris Morris put in a Brasseye script as a hostage to fortune. [via Ed Morrish]
Purple Goat – same as lightning rod. Graham Linehan tells me that’s what they called it on Mister Show.
Clay Pigeon – still another term for lightning rod (Via Al Murray, who got it from Dan O’Keefe)
The Tesbury Rule – don’t confect an unconvincing commercial brand name in a script when you mean, for example, Tesco or Sainsbury; it weakens the gag. [via Jason Hazeley]
Gags Beasley – a useful name to invoke when a script needs some solid boffo old-school punchlines. As in “Paging Gags Beasley” or “Can we get a Gags Beasley pass?” It’s derived from the name of Fozzie Bear’s joke writer, who was occasionally mentioned, but never seen, in the Muppet Show. [via Sarah Morgan]
Fish Business – a quick set up, so the story hits the ground running. Invented by Laurel & Hardy. They begin Towed in the Hole, 1932, with the line ‘For the first time in our lives we’re a success – nice little fish business, and making money.’ Hollywood seized on this and throughout the 30’s and 40’s producers would throw first drafts across their desks at writers snarling ‘needs better fish business.’ [via Julian Dutton]
Eating The Sandwich – an expression used by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, inspired by a memorably bad scene they read in a script once: a character drugged a sandwich with some sleeping pills and while on the way to deliver it, forgot, took an absent-minded bite, and passed out. There was no way any viewer would believe that character won’t remember what’s in the sandwich by the time it reaches their lips. So, any time a character seems to be directly causing their own problems in a rather contrived way, they’re ‘eating the sandwich.’ They need better motivation.
Gorilla – a plot point or joke which the audience will remember after the show is finished. Any given show would benefit from one of these, or more than one. Derived (it’s thought) from a theatre piece where a gorilla appeared at a very pleasing point, so everyone went home talking about the gorilla. For writers, it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the greatest gorillas in British sitcom – Brent’s dance, Fawlty thrashes the car, Del falls through the bar, Meldrew picks up the puppy thinking it’s a phone, Granddad drops the wrong chandelier – are primarily visual experiences, not dialogue-based. Consider This is Spinal Tap. For all its quotable lines, the comedy high point may well be when the tiny Stonehenge is lowered from the ceiling. And what was the best bit in the first Inbetweeners film? Yep. The funny dance. [via the Dawson Bros, Gareth Edwards and Stephen McCrum]
Factory Nudger – what the great (sadly late) writer Laurie Rowley called a memorable comedy moment. The principle being that if a bit in a show was sufficiently funny, people at work the next day would nudge each other to quote or re-enact it. So more or less like the gorilla, but harking back to a pre-video age where Britain watched the same shows at the same time, and there were a lot of factories. Laurie had a strong Yorkshire accent, so imagine how great it sounded when he said ‘factory nudgers.’ Via Alan Nixon. In the USA this used to be the Water Cooler Moment.
Vomit Draft – AKA ‘Puke Draft’ AKA ‘Draft Zero’ – The very very first draft of a script, which is almost certainly not shown to anyone. It’s invariably full of typos, misfired jokes and logical flaws. Only when the writer has cleaned it up a bit can she/he bear to send it to the producer. This is in quite common use. But Katy Brand has a different meaning. Her Vomit Draft is the second one; based on the Biblical saying from Proverbs verse 26, ‘as a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.’
Red Dot – named after Apple’s tamper-proofing. Adding a reference to someone – e.g. a minor character name – to check that person has really read the script. [via Jim Field Smith]
Detonator Word – the key word that reveals the joke – which should be as close to the end of the punchline as is linguistically possible. [via John O’Farrell]
Scales – the first hour or so on a writing session, when everyone’s flexing their muscles, usually with the most inappropriate and unbroadcastable material [via Jason Hazeley]. If the writers gathered in the room aren’t all acquainted, scales are a good quick way to get the measure of each other. Once in the 90s, me and Kevin were working on a mainstreamish ITV pilot, during which we had an ideas session with Kim Fuller, who we hadn’t met before. We immediately embarked on some weird and completely unbroadcastable flights of fancy about the IRA – who were still active at the time. There were some ITV execs in the room; they looked increasingly ashen, imagining that this was the sort of stuff we would write for the show. They didn’t know we were doing scales.
Turd in a Slipper – a joke which feels good, but isn’t really any good. [via Judd Apatow]
Jazz Trumpetry – the extra, unneeded punchline that comes after the punchline you should’ve finished a sketch or scene on. It comes from the Brain Surgeon sketch which the Dawson Brothers wrote for Mitchell and Webb. The original draft was road-tested at (they think) London’s tiny Hen and Chickens theatre, where they had a joke where a rocket scientist comes in and says “Brain Surgery? Not exactly Rocket Science.” Big laugh. But they’d written an extra line after that, where a Jazz trumpeter comes in and finishes his line with “Rocket Science? That’s not exactly Jazz Trumpetry.” It tickled them to write it, but at the test out night, no laugh at all. So Jazz Trumpetry was cut from the final sketch that got on air – and ever since, has been the Dawson Bros’ shorthand for misjudged bonus punchlines. [via Andrew Dawson]
Bananas on Bananas – similar to Jazz Trumpetry. Trying to top a punchline with another punchline right after it, and another, and another. Sometimes this might be great – but when it’s not, and the result is just tiring to watch/read/listen to, then you’ve got Bananas on Bananas. [via James Bachman and Simon Blackwell]
Jengags – as in ‘Jenga gags’, i.e. too many gags piled on top of each other. Same thing, really, as Bananas on Bananas. [via Laurence Rickard]
Jenga Jokes – same meaning as Jengags. This version used by Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. [via Alice Lowe]
Load Bearing Pun – one word carrying the whole damn misunderstanding. The biggest load bearing pun I’ve ever been around is Gnomeo and Juliet, which I have a screenplay credit on. That pun carries an entire animated feature. [via Al Murray]
Character Gibbons – when writing for Green Wing, Oriane Messina and Fay Rusling talked about ‘character gibbons’, which are basically ‘givens’ but misheard early on in their careers as gibbons. They still refer to the gibbons when developing scenes, character, plot etc. [via Oriane Messina]
Malt Shop – when me and Kevin Cecil were starting out and didn’t know fancy words like ‘epilogue,’ this was how we talked about the short scene at the end of a story when the climax has passed, a couple of loose ends are tied up, there is a final joke, and then that’s the end. It’s from the first few series of Scooby Doo, when the gang typically ended up in the malt shop at the end of each episode. We still use this word all the time, in preference to epilogue.
The dog barks (and everyone laughs) – A final punchline to give you laughter into the credits. Usually at the end of a Malt Shop scene (see above). (via Robert Wells)
Mururoa – a subject that you just can’t write a gag about because the word itself just won’t sit within the rhythm of a joke. This one’s from John O’Farrell. When he was writing comedy monologues in the 90s, there was an ongoing news story about the French doing nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll, but he discovered that the place name just has all the wrong letters to be used in a punchline (i.e. the opposite of Cockermouth).
Gag desert – the bit of comedy script which goes on for too long without a joke. [via John O’Farrell]
Group 4 – a subject that is held in such public ridicule that just mentioning it in a topical show can get you a big laugh. Group 4 Security used to get this reaction on Have I Got News For You in the 90s, as did the M25. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, it was the G4S security firm (AKA the renamed Group 4). Going back to the early 90s, Ratners (the jewellery shop) was the comedy touchstone. Still further back in the late 70s/early 80s, it was British Rail, and even more specifically, the British Rail pork pie. A Group 4 is very often a failing company, but not always. Here’s one Group 4 which never goes away: Sting’s tantric sex. This was trotted round the paddock in Zoolander 2 more than a quarter of a century after Sting casually mentioned it to an interviewer. [via John O’Farrell]
Grand Maison – something you’ve made up for the sake of the punchline. In one sense, everything in a script is a Grand Maison; but the term is just used to describe the moments when it feels forced and contrived. From a sketch containing the following exchange:
BARISTA: And would you like that piccolo, medio, or Grand Maison?
CUSTOMER: Grand Maison? That sounds like a big French house!
This comes via Ed Morrish, heard from Jon Hunter. Dan Harmon has a similar term: Monopoly Guy. He derives this from the second Ace Ventura film, where Ace insults a man who just happens to look like the Monopoly guy by calling him ‘Monopoly guy.’
Logic Police – when there is a logical flaw in a script which is significant enough to cause problems, somebody – an actor, producer, director, script editor, or the writer him/herself – must appoint themselves the ‘logic police’ and point it out. It’s no fun, being logic police; your intervention might mean junking a joke, a scene, or even a whole plot strand which people like. It’s an ugly but necessary job.
The F***ing Crowbar – cramming in an F-bomb before the final word of a punchline for added pizzazz. Normally effective, but a soft indicator that the joke isn’t one of the best. [via @smilingherbert]
Garden Birds – denotes an unnecessary bit of explanation after the punchline has been delivered and everyone has got the gag. John O’Farrell’s grandfather had a pre-war joke book, with one tortuous tale about an outraged radio listener writing to the BBC after he’d heard the phrase ‘tits like coconuts.’ The BBC’s reply informed him that if he’d continued listening he would have heard ‘while sparrows like breadcrumbs for the talk had been of garden birds’. The laugh is on ‘breadcrumbs’, you don’t need to explain any further.
Baroqueney – pronounced ‘baroque-knee.’ A combination of ‘baroque’ and ‘cockney.’ This is a style of dialogue which came roaring into British cinema at the end of the nineties, in the films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Gangster No.1 and Sexy Beast. Cockney villain talk, but full of as many interesting verbal images, surprising similes and inventive insults as you can cram in. Me and Kevin Cecil parodied it when writing the East End Thug, a part played by Alan Ford in The Armando Iannucci Shows. The Fast Show did a great spoof of the style called ‘It’s a Right Royal Cockney Barrel Of Monkeys.’
Ruffle – an aspect of a joke (a name, or reference) which is getting in the way and making things less clear. In the script editing process for the BBC2 chef comedy Whites, there was a reference to a character called Jamie, which made you think of Jamie Oliver. That was a ruffle, so it went. [Via Simon Blackwell]
Bicycle cut – aka the bicycle joke, or a ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.’ A character ends a scene by firmly stating that they will not do a certain thing – for example, riding a bike. The next scene begins with that character doing that thing. Roy Clarke wrote tons of these for Compo in Last of the Summer Wine. “You’re not getting me in that thing with wheels and no brakes!” Cut to Compo, poised to go downhill in that thing with wheels and no brakes. Dave Gorman calls the same thing the B.A. Baracus, as in “I ain’t gettin’ in no plane!”… cut to B.A. in a plane. [via Graham Linehan]
Gilligan Cut – a common American term for the bicycle cut. Derived from Gilligan’s Island. The term Gilligan Cut is never used in the UK because Gilligan’s Island has only been shown very rarely, and even then not in all regions of the country.
Foggy Says He Knows The Way – a joke construction, something like the mirror image of the bicycle cut. In the nineties, when Kevin Cecil and I were writing for The Saturday Night Armistice (AKA the first series of The Friday Night Armistice), we spent a couple of days working in a room normally used by the production team of Last Of The Summer Wine. The best known story from that week has been related by Armando Iannucci in interviews from time to time. A large board was covered with cards detailing Summer Wine plots; Foggy does this, Compo does that. I began adding cards with scenes like ‘Compo bursts puppy with cock’ and ‘Compo finds the body of a child in a burned-out car.’ But I also remember two cards in particular (not ones I added); ‘Foggy says he knows the way,’ followed by the scene ‘Foggy gets lost.’ For me this encapsulated a very elemental comic building block. Character confidently says they can do something; character tries but fails to do that thing, with funny repercussions. Most scripts, somewhere in them, have a ‘Foggy says he knows the way’ bit.
The Deja Vu Closer – – referring to the subject of a joke earlier in the set within the final joke. A stand up tool, more than a scriptwriting one. [via @SmilingHerbert]
Chutney – stuff that characters are saying in the background, which you don’t normally add into the script until very late because it’s not material which needs jokes. Writing for Veep, chutney often takes the form of perfectly serviceable political speeches, while the real funny material is going on amongst other characters in the foreground. I don’t know if this term exists outside the Veep/Thick Of It writing team.
Scud – a joke that ends up getting the wrong target. E.g. “the energy companies have done some truly appalling things– one of them based itself in Newport.” The punchline is saying that Newport is shit, and not saying anything about the energy companies. Named after the outdated and inaccurate Soviet missile used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. [Via Pete Sinclair]
Lampshading – addressing a flaw, recurring trope or plot hole by having a character point it out. There’s a nice example of lampshading in the book of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Just after Violet Beauregarde has been maimed by Wonka’s chewing gum, and the oompa loompas have sung about what a terrible thing chewing gum is, one of the parents asks Wonka: if it’s so bad, why are you making it? Wonka gives a short evasive answer, then the story moves briskly on. [via David Simpkin]
Frampton Comes Alive – in a sitcom written by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, the script editor wanted them to change a reference to Pete Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ (as an embarrassing album to have owned) to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ So Steve and Hugh use it to mean a situation when a niche example will be really funny, but only to a small number of people, as opposed to a mainstream example which everyone will know, but which isn’t funny.
Veepese – pronounced Veep-ease. A term used a lot amongst the British writers of Veep. It meant the overall house dialogue style spoken by a lot of the main characters; very fast, peppered with insults and witty metaphors, and a fair amount of swearing. Selina, Dan, Amy, Ben and Jonah all talked in Veepese, as did some second and third tier characters like Furlong, and we found that jokes could often be transferred from one of these characters to another and still ring true. But other big characters didn’t talk Veepese; Mike, Sue, Richard, Kent, and especially Gary, all had their own vocabularies and dialogue patterns. Obviously this word is VERY specific to that one show…
F.I.T.O. – stands for ‘Funny In The Office’ – a joke that gets a big laugh at the read-through in the production company, but only because of some in-joke or particular reference that won’t play outside the room. [via John O’Farrell]
Two Sock – when you find yourself using two jokes/motivations/expositions, when only one is necessary. [via Kieron Quirke]
Hat On A Hat – this is in very common use in the USA, and has a similar yet subtly different meaning to ‘Two Sock.’ A Hat On A Hat is an occasion where two comic conceits are happening at the same moment in the script, or immediately adjacent moments, and those two ideas are each distracting from the other. The solution is normally simple: remove one of them.
Wacky Stack – meaning something much like ‘hat on a hat’. I’ve heard this one used in the animation business.
North by Northwest Gag – Prop introduced at beginning of scene, which stays in shot. Later used to pay off a joke after audience have accepted, then forgotten, its presence. [via @richardosmith1]
The Restaurant on the Corner – (American) – a bit in a script where no matter what joke you put there, its still never quite works. Also called a Bono, after a restaurant opened by Sonny Bono in West Hollywood. It shut quickly, as did every other restaurant which opened on the same spot. Writers working nearby decided the corner must be cursed. If you have a Bono in a script, it will be a gradual realisation, because it always feels like something SHOULD work there, and you might try a dozen or more things before the truth dawns. You can only deal with a Bono by taking apart and rebuilding a larger section around it – probably the whole scene, maybe even a bit more. [via Dave Cohen]
Killing Kittens – removing jokes which you really love, because they’re getting in the way of the story. [Chris Addison]. Also known as ‘stripping the car.’ [Joel Morris]
Bucket – strong, simple idea to contain all the nonsense you want to put in. ‘Parody of air disaster film’ is a great bucket. [Joel Morris]. Not related to ‘fun bucket.’
Oxbow Lake – the rewriting process produces these. A bit in a script which used to have some plot/character importance, but as the story has changed around it, no longer has a purpose. You have to remove it on the next draft. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong use this term. Me and Kevin Cecil call these Hangovers.
Orphan – Graham Linehan’s term which means the same as oxbow lake or hangover.
Rabbit hole – a fact you check on the Internet and that’s the rest of the morning gone. [John Finnemore]
Joke Impression – a line that sounds like a joke, and has the rhythms of a joke, but isn’t actually a joke. Also known as Hit And Run, Joke-Like Substance or Jokoid [John Vorhaus, from his very good primer ‘The Comic Toolbox’]. A joke impression has its uses. When you are thundering down a first draft, and are more concerned about the overall structure than individual jokes, you can slot in a few joke impressions at spots in the script where a good joke is hard, in the full knowledge you can come back later and fix them. I’ve been told of a more aggressive use for them too. The story is that when Jim Davidson knows one of his writers will be in the audience, he picks out one joke which is clearly a dud, a joke impression, and tells the writer he’s going to deliver it anyway and make the audience laugh – even though it doesn’t make any sense. The subtext: Jim is saying “I’m the one who brings the magic, not you.”
Fridge joke AKA Refridgerator Logic – related to the joke impression. The audience realise they laughed at something that didn’t actually make sense, but much later, when they are (for example) getting something from the fridge. [via David Tyler]
On The Nose – very widely used, this one. A line which is on the nose is just too clumsily obvious, too direct, and lacks subtext.
Gerbeau – a joke that literally nobody but you is going to get, but it does no damage, so it stays in. Derived from “please yourself,” which shortens to ‘P .Y.’, Which then becomes Gerbeau after P.Y. Gerbeau, the guy who ran the millennium dome. The term Gerbeau is itself a nice example of a Gerbeau. [Via Joel Morris]
Two Percenter – similar to the Gerbeau. Only two percent of your audience will get it. [via Jane Espenson and Dave Cohen]
Plotential – and the idea or situation which has the potential to be developed into a full-blown plot. As in “does this idea have plotential?” [via Sam Bain – though he does stress that he and Jesse Armstrong are mostly taking the piss when they say this in conversation]
Nakamura – The most nightmarish of writer’s problems. It’s when there’s a huge issue with a script which effectively means that the whole thing is holed below the waterline. This derives from the writing team for The Odd Couple, who once hinged a storyline on the highly doubtful premise that the name ‘Doctor Nakamura’ was intrinsically hilarious. Come the day of the record, the studio audience sat silently through all the Nakamura material.
Nunya – a work at an embarrassingly unready stage. If anybody asks about it, you say “nunya business.”
Cut and Shut – a term borrowed from the motor trade (welding two halves of two cars together). This refers to a conceit which is essentially two normally incompatible ideas, bolted together. An example: Big Train‘s cattle auction, where they are not cattle, they are new romantics. (via Jason Hazeley)
Frankenstein Draft – a script that suffers over time from bolting on too many slavishly implemented notes.
Frankenstein (verb) – Joining already-written scenes together in a highly inelegant way. You know it’s not pretty, but it’s a temporary tool which might give you some idea how the completed sequence might work. Frankensteining is common when making animated movies, in which the scripting is often done alongside storyboarding. [Andy Riley]
Pitcheroo – anything which reads well in a pitch document or story outline, which you know won’t quite hold water when you are writing the actual script. But very handy if you’re up against it time wise, and you need to convey what it is you’re intending to write, but you haven’t got the hours to crack every single story beat. An example might be “They escape from the party, and then…” How do they escape from the party? Won’t they need an excuse, or will they climb out the window? Who knows? You know you’ll need to cover that in the end, but so long as it’s followed up with a funny idea in the second half of that sentence, you can get away with it for now. Because most people read pitches and story outlines much too fast, effective pitcheroos are never spotted. [Andy Riley/Kevin Cecil]
Gooberfruit – when you’re a British writer, and you’re writing a script set in America with American characters, some words need to change. Some of them everybody knows; lift becomes elevator, pavement becomes sidewalk. But sometimes you’ll realise, as you’re scripting, that a British word probably has a different American word which you can’t quite recall. You might not want to interrupt your writing flow by diving into google at that moment, so best write the British word, pin it as a gooberfruit – a word needing US translation – and carry on. You can come back to it later. Derived from the tendency of fresh groceries to go under different names in America; eggplant for aubergine, zucchini for courgette, etc. [via Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil]
Bull – coined by Sid Caesar. A line which diminishes the speaker’s status, against their intent. Example: “I don’t need anybody to help me look stupid.” (Via Paul Foxcroft)
Laying Pipe – this one’s commonly used in America. It means planting the exposition which is necessary for the audience to understand what’s going on. This can be done elegantly; like in Monsters Inc, where the first 15 minutes of the movie lays out a mass of exposition about how the monster world works, but all with scenes which also advance the story and have jokes in. Or it can be done bluntly; like in Looper, where the complex rules of the world are explicitly laid out in voice-over.
Shoe leather – similar to laying pipe.
Crossword clue – a joke based on a brilliant verbal trick or pun… At which nobody laughs. [via David Tyler]
CBA – Meaning “could be anything.” [via Graham Linehan] A joke where a key component is interchangeable with many other options. An example of this is in the ‘Party’ episode of Black Books, where Bernard asks Manny what he managed to talk about at the party with Rowena, the girl he fancies. ‘Offshore wind farms,’ says Manny. We could have written in any boring-sounding subject there, so a vast number of potential choices, but offshore wind farms sounded right.