You Only Get Ten.
A quick note to the screenwriters of America.
Sometimes, you'll be writing a comedy. Comedies are great. They're seldom the sort of lasting films people gush over and remember you for later, but they bring the world a great deal of needed joy.
Or maybe you write for sitcoms. The bread and butter of the television world, meaninglessly filling up 30-minute chunks so viewers can rest their tired, atrophied minds a little between returning home from work and falling asleep for the night. You may not be changing the world for the better, but you're at least dulling the pain a bit, for which we're all a little thankful.
But there's this thing you do. This thing you do quite a lot.
You write little stories. These stories include conflicts, small and large. Conflict and resolution are the very essence of your craft. And amidst these conflicts, you'll inevitably have a situation with characters who are caught in a lie.
This is fine. It's one of the classic comic situations, of which there are only so many. But you'll be rushed for time, and looking for a good way to fill out a scene, and you'll be tempted to have your character misspeak.
"What?" they'll say. "Did I say we're spying on you? I meant to say we're dying... um... dying to meet you!" They'll try to play this off, of course, and lead themselves down an avenue of conversation that leads them someplace they didn't mean to go.
Or maybe two characters will be asked "Who were you with?" And one will say "Johnny" at the same time the other says "Suzie", and one will try to cover with "Suzie Johnson. We were with Suzie Johnson!" Confusion ensues as the two character stumble over their mistake, as they awkwardly assemble a plausible background story that includes both characters' lies.
THIS ISN'T FUNNY ANYMORE. STOP DOING IT.
I know you didn't come up with this trick on your own. You're stealing it because, oh, they used it on "I Love Lucy" and "Three's Company" and those shows gave out paychecks that didn't bounce, right? You've got airtime to fill and boots to lick. But it's time to move on.
I see these jokes coming, and I want to run out of the theater, or toss a brick through my television screen. But I stand there transfixed, aghast that someone, somewhere, is able to commit these words to paper and look at themselves in the mirror the next day. It makes me want to pull out my hair. To drive nails into my forehead for letting your words have access to my brain. But that would be blaming the victim. Instead, I have a simple solution to help break your nasty habit.
I realize freedom of speech is "important." But really, it's not SO important that there shouldn't be some law, somewhere, insisting that writers must have at least one finger chopped off every time they fall back on this particular gag. I'm usually loathe to toy with the intentions of our Founding Fathers, but I honestly can't think of a good reason why this wouldn't make a fine rider to the First Amendment. Cobble together a few volumes of legalese that can't be misinterpreted by our Robot Masters in 2084, get all the congressional rubber stamps you need to amend the Bill of Rights, and Voila! Easy as shooting a nun.
I'm not saying you can't make these jokes. Just that you should only be allowed to make ten of them. After your quota's up, if you're somehow able to continue typing, we'll be forced to find a more suitable destination for the butcher knives of justice.
Honestly,can you think of nothing else? Have you so little experience with actual lying that you're not able to play with the humorous possibilities of competent lying? Is there some sort of unwritten convention that only villainous masterminds and James Bond level spies are capable of foreseeing a touchy situation and preparing a plausible but unverifiable explanation for their actions?
You're writers. You of all people know how to lie. You lied on your resumes to get your job. You lie every single day when you tell people about that really meaningful novel you're working on while Hollywood pays your bills. You lie to your lovers, to your landlords, and you're particularly good at lying to yourselves. Don't let that experience go to waste.
Or maybe you feel guilty about this lying, and think you'll make up for it by making good characters lie badly. Good people shouldn't lie except under duress, right?
Quite the opposite, in fact. Good people lie well. It's what makes them good people. "Does this skirt make me look trashy?" No. You look sophisticated and elegant! "Oh my god, I have a huge hickey on my neck, and a giant whitehead on my forehead! Do you think anyone noticed?" Really? Those little things? I can hardly see them!
Personally, I can only imagine how much more pleasantly some of my relationships would have ended if the answer to "Have you been seeing someone else?" had been a well rehearsed "Oh, no. No no no. We've just grown apart as people..." But nooo... I had to date bad liars.
But I digress.
The chief point is that the convention isn't funny. It wasn't funny when it was fresh and new, and that was in the comedy warm-up show at the Flavian Amphitheater. In fact, recent archaeological evidence points to this gag as the origin of the idea "hey, what if we threw people into the arena with lions..."
That was a good impluse then, and it's a good impulse now. But we don't have to be so heartless about it. You might have a brilliant idea to make this joke really work this time. It might be the cornerstone to the comic masterpiece that will put your name among the master authors of our time. You could be wrong, but you should have the right to try.
Columns by Cindy