This article may be a bit esoteric. But it's my blog. So deal.
Last night, my parents and I attended a showing of "The Adams Family," a new musical adaptation of the New Yorker strips/television shows/movies, currently in its Pre-Broadway run here in Chicago. The cast, featuring Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Krysta Rodriguez, and a spectacularly under-utilized Terence Mann, was the obvious highlight, and the show was enjoyable enough. It was by no means spectacular, but I was rarely less than entertained. It's still early in the run, so as the show continues to tighten up, it can only get better; I like to give faith to such things. But I'm not here to write a review of the show. I'll leave that to the pros.
I'm here to give you a spectacular example of how a joke can fail, on every possible level, and yet still draw a massive laugh from the audience.
Over the course of the show, I counted three jokes which relied on current events as a reference. Two were easy, and none felt like they belonged in the show. Yet all three drew massive laughs from the audience. In fact, they were probably the biggest laughs of the night.
1. Gomez is told that a boy Wednesday has a crush on will be taken back to Ohio by his parents, and Gomez replies, "Ohio! A swing state! Monstrous!" I, admittedly, giggled here.
2. A character comments that love is something "we all need, and that there isn't enough of." Morticia replies, "Like healthcare." This drew a huge laugh from, seemingly, everyone but me.
3. The grandmother is telling Pugsly about a potion which "takes the lid off the Id." She says that "One sip of this stuff'll turn Mary Poppins into Madea." Pugsley, and I do give the writers credit here, replies, "I don't understand your references." The grandmother replies, "Well, if you kids'd stop all the damn texting and pick up a book..." The rest of the line was lost in the uproar of laughter and, I'll add, a stunning amount of applause.
This third one is the one I'd like to focus on. It is the best example I've ever seen of a joke failing on every level, as far as a writer's concerned, and I'd like to take the opportunity to analyze it. Also, what afflicts the first two jokes is evident here, and so it would be redundant to review all three.
First and foremost, and here is where all three jokes err, the joke shows complete disregard for the characters involved. This is a play about The Adams Family. Their biggest, basest factor is that, as far as the world goes, they are completely aloof. Gomez wouldn't know what a swing state is. Morticia would not know about healthcare. Grandma Adams certainly wouldn't know who Mary Poppins is, let alone Madea. Pugsly doesn't have any friends except his sister, so he wouldn't be texting anyone. We never once see any of the Adams using anything electronic. It fails on truth to the characters, the most important factor in comedy.
Second, the joke relies on Grandma Adams admonishing Pugsly for not knowing who Mary Poppins and Madea are, which is fine, except none of the audience knew who Madea was either. So... right. If the joke had stopped at "I don't understand your references," this actually would have been a decent joke, as there is a running gag in the play that suggests Grandma Adams isn't a part of the family at all, which would explain how she knows who Mary Poppins and Madea are, and it would have been true to the family, with Pugsly's admitting that he doesn't know what she's talking about. It also would have been a sly wink to the audience that the authors figured most of them wouldn't know who Madea is. But it didn't stop there, so never mind.
Finally, Grandma Adams references two movies, only to admonish Pugsly for texting too much and not reading enough. Yes, I know Mary Poppins is also a book, but we all know it from the movie, and don't pretend you don't. So she references a classic Disney film and a certifiably non-classic, modern comedy film, and then chastises Pugsly for not reading enough... the connection does not exist between the two points, and the comedy shouldn't work. It doesn't, actually. If you're paying attention. Clearly I was the only one who was.
Yet, this drew the single largest laugh of the night. It drew the longest howls of approval. It drew rampant applause and cat calls. It was the worst joke in the play. It was out of character and out of situation. It was as broad as comedy gets. Somehow, our attention spans have gotten to the point where no one heard anything prior to "Well, if you kids'd stop..," and decided they approved.
This is why soundbites work.