‘You Can't Write That … Wait, Have You Got More Like It?’

Comedy writers often find that the most serious of situations can provide fodder for the funniest lines … if you're willing to fight for them

In our book, "Show Me The Funny!," top comedy writers from the golden age of TV to "Everybody Loves Raymond" to "There’s Something About Mary" take the same premise and each develop it into their own unique stories. And the bonus for readers is some unique Hollywood stories that emerged from these interviews.

In the 1970s on comedies like "M*A*S*H," "All in the Family" and "Maude," Larry Gelbart and Norman Lear took on a variety of social issues, but by the 1990’s, the networks were playing it safe.

Elliot Schoenman, show-runner on "Home Improvement," wanted to do a day in the life of a family whose child has had medical tests and they are waiting to find out if he has cancer. What would those 24 hours be like? Even within the serious subject matter the writers found humor.

“Before they go to the doctor’s appointment,” Elliot said, “there’s a lemon meringue pie, and Tim’s wife, Jill, says to him; ‘Don’t eat that. We’re taking it to my sister’s.’ So she goes, and he looks around and he takes a spatula, and he cuts off the top, lifts it, and scoops out a whole chunk of the lemon, and puts it back. And we just left it.”

Later in the episode the family gets the news that their son might have cancer. Elliot and his partner wrote a serious scene between husband and wife.

Jill says: “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I’ve got to have a piece of the pie.” Tim panics. And she digs into the pie, and there’s no bottom to it. And it got a tremendous laugh. The audience went with it. Elliot told us; “You’re worried about cancer, but once she went for that fork, there was a tremendous relief.”

The network said; “You can’t do a cancer episode.” Elliot went to Tim Allen, “This is one time you have to throw your weight around.” They shot the episode over ABC’s objections. It came in No. 1 in its time slot. The next day an executive from the network made a guest appearance in the Writers’ Room. ABC wanted to know, “What other serious things do you have?’”

Bob Myer faced a similar situation when he was show-runner on "Roseanne," but this time it was the star who wanted to take the risk. The writers were working on an episode about a Lamaze class. They thought it would be funny if somebody in the class asked Roseanne about her birth experiences. Because they had established that she adored her children, they started asking: Did she go through Lamaze? Did she go through natural childbirth? Were there drugs?

The bit Roseanne wanted to do was a variation on the famous Jack Benny “Your-money-or-your-life” radio moment. “When I had my third child, I hadn’t lost the weight from my second child, and they said, ‘If we give you drugs, enough drugs to sedate you, it could kill the baby. So I thought to myself…’”

She came up with this line at a run-through. Bob told us: “She’s not going to say, ‘I considered killing my baby.’"

So we wrote it out … and we got a call from the stage saying, "She wants to do this joke; she feels she can make it funny." And I said, “Who am I to argue with a woman who is one of the biggest stars in comedy?"

The audience went crazy.

"Because it’s Roseanne,” Bob said, “she would have a take like that. But I never thought it would be that one.”

If you enjoyed reading these stories as much as we enjoyed hearing them, there’s more where they came from. To meet Elliot and Bob as well as many of the other writers interviewed in "Show Me The Funny," go to our website: www.showmethefunnyonline.com (or www.smtfo.com for short).

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