TV writer Jane Espenson had a very smart take on how the media gets jokes wrong. At issue is the Sarah Silverman jokes about Britney Spears at the VMAs. The material is definitely harsh, but the way it’s reported does it make sound harsher. What Jane notices is that they don’t put the beat in with the joke. So it’s printed like this:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.
Not even seeing the bit, Jane knows that there’s a small pause in there that changes it from something that just sounds mean to something that’s a mean joke. (And yes, there is a difference.) And she’s right. You can see it for yourself here:
(An aside, I’d happily use the MTV embeddable player - but it doesn’t play the VMA video. It makes go to MTV’s site to watch it. So I can’t prove my point right here. Why make an embeddable player for videos that you won’t allow people to play?)
So how print media should report the joke is:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished… everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.
It’s a world of difference. That pause is what allows comedians to get away with saying some of things they say. Even if they are speaking a truth, or even just something that we all would admit to privately, that pause gives the social function of saying “we don’t mean that.” It often preserves the dignity of the target of a joke because that pause says, “This is a joke. It’s not meant to be taken to heart.” (Although reportedly, this was not the case here with Britney Spears supposedly crying after hearing Sarah’s routine.) I don’t think what Sarah Silverman said were the nicest jokes, but they weren’t anything that anyone reading the tabloids hasn’t thought about Spears over the past year. Putting the pause in there let us acknowledge our thoughts but not own (and condemn) someone to that judgment.
Jane puts the word “beat” in between the above clauses, which is typical in screenwriting. I don’t think it’s necessary for the general public, a simple ellipsis should imply the pause. But being that overt is sometimes necessary… it’s hard to be funny in print than anywhere else because you’re dependent on the reader’s sense of comedic timing in some ways. Their own brain has to put in the breaks. Particularly with transition something like stand-up to print, which a lot of time isn’t necessarily funny just on paper without the cadence and persona of the performer.
It’s one of the things I’ve been struggling with in the Stand-Up Comic Database. Many comics have great one liners that apply themselves to the page (or, in this case, screen). They just work. But a lot of other comics don’t transfer well. I hope a lot of time that if I put a pause (...) here or an emphasis there, that I’ll be giving a heads up to visitors about how that comics hits that line and lands the joke. If there’s a joke in there that’s not set up right, please feel free to inform me about it on the appropriate comic’s feedback page. Because I don’t want to be like mainstream media and not get the joke.