Every day I wake up in the morning, make some coffee (see last entry), read the headlines (in case you were wondering, CNN.com, Google News, the Times and the Post) and think, “What can I joke about today?” Some days the topics are easy to determine. If the Yankees won the World Series the night before, or let’s say, hypothetically, oh, I don’t know, some congressman has to resign after admitting to getting into tickle fights with his male staffers, well, there’s your comedy. But when the big headlines are all about various earthquakes, plane crashes, and attempts to reform the hedge fund industry, that means it’s time to dig pretty deep into the “Weird but True” section of the Post. (Thank you, guy in Scotland arrested for stealing a glazed ham while naked!)
Sometimes, though, the toughest part isn’t finding stuff to write about, but trying to figure out what stuff can actually be joked about. When you’re working for a show, you learn the host’s preferences over time, but each new news story presents its own unique challenges. This isn’t a dilemma faced by monologue writers alone – it’s something everyone who’s ever wanted to make a joke in print or at a party should think about. Let’s take some recent news stories as examples:
The oil spill. This story began when an oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers. Definitely not funny. And while everything since has been plenty tragic, there’s a key development: an angle. You might not think it’s funny that thousands of fish and birds have died, but barbs directed at the bumbling fools at BP who caused this disaster are a perfectly legitimate (and potentially hilarious) expression of rage. That’s why the jokes have been flowing nearly as fast as the oil itself for weeks. Another possible villain: the Obama administration. Did the President drag his heels in response to the spill? In the end, it may be the talk show hosts rather than the historians who help decide.
Catholic Church molestation scandal. Tough one. Jokes about priests molesting young boys have been a staple of conversations with your uncle at holiday barbecues for, what, a decade? But post a one-liner about it on your Twitter feed and you might lose dozens of offended followers (or gain hundreds of new fans.) Anything that mentions or even remotely alludes to the despicable acts that led to this scandal in the first place, I personally won’t touch (bad choice of words?) But an oblique reference to the hot water the Church finds itself in? Yeah, the world can handle that. It’s like the BP thing – when you have a big juicy target in your sights, sometimes you have to aim your fire and worry about the collateral damage later.
Celebrity deaths. Here are the rules: when a young actress who should be enjoying the peak of her career dies under tragic circumstances, you’ll never see someone on TV joke about it. When an old character actor who enjoyed a long and fruitful career passes away, wait six months or so and eventually he’ll become a go-to reference. When the King of Pop dies, retire all of your classic jokes about how weird he is and start writing some about the quack doctor who killed him instead. When the Taco Bell Chihuahua dies…well, you’d better have ten jokes ready the next morning.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules about this stuff – I’m just telling you the thought process behind my joke-writing. If you’ve found an outlet for all of your Haiti jokes, more power to you. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be sitting here waiting for Vice President Biden to say something else stupid…