Why Jokes Choke

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While I’m waiting to hear back from producers who requested to read my R-rated comedy “Free Corona,” I keep tweaking the screenplay. All writing is re-writing — I know this — I’m just not as sure when it comes to jokes.

I’m pretty confident most of the scenes in “Free Corona” are funny. Either that or the 14 people who staged a table read at my house are easily bribed. Full disclosure: there were gin and tonics; this is the Deep South. And I did promise everyone a dip in the creek when we got through. But here’s why I think the laughs were earned honestly: one joke completely choked.

Bruce Doneff – a PR exec who does Shakespeare on the side, was gamely reading the parts of four horny old retirees. At one point near the end of the second act, they try to shame a hapless maintenance man into admitting that he’s knocked up the girl, Corona, they all drool over. The dialog went like this:

Herb: It wasn’t me, that’s all I know.
(He pretends to stroke a bulging stomach.)
Herb: Big bee like mine would make a much bigger sting.

Bruce tried reading it one way, then another, using different pacing, until the whole room was rolling with laughter. The unintended kind that gives writers nightmares. He finally gave up.

“What the hell am I supposed to be saying here?” His glasses slid down his nose. I got the “honey this doesn’t work” look loud and clear.

I tried to explain. I really did hear this joke, out of the mouth of a Beaufort judge. Only it was in the 90s, and it was at a hot-tub party (no lie) and gossip had turned to how hugely pregnant a mutual friend looked.

The judge said, “Oh that’s nothing. You should have seen my wife when she was pregnant.” His wife was a little Southern belle, hard to picture hugely pregnant. So he clarified. “Guess it just goes to show. The bigger the stinger the bigger the bee sting.”

I still think that’s funny (I can’t speak for his now ex-wife) But where the joke died was in the re-write. I backed into it, got the timing tangled, basically butchered it by trying to steal it.
Hmmm…there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’m just not sure if it’s for me or the judge.

One thought on “Why Jokes Choke

    Suzanne Larson said:
    June 23, 2011 at 3:42 AM

    You are so brave to open your work to critique. That’s is one reason you are always growing. It terrifies me to allow others to hack away at my stuff and I really admire writers who have the courage to do that. In your drive and commitment to excellence in your work – it is always possible to overwrite. But it takes strength to recognize it. You have and will succeed.


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