In Comedy Writing, Fear The 'Bono's' And 'Nakamura'
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Walk into a room filled with comedy writers, and you might hear this.
BILL PRADY: You'd have to lay a lot of pipe to make this joke work, and the problem is - is that you keep calling it back. So what you might have is a Nakamura, and you're certainly not going to let any one of those function as a blow.
BLOCK: Lost? Yeah, me, too, until I got the low-down from someone behind a TV show you may of heard of who wrote in to share a batch of his trade lingo.
PRADY: This is Bill Prady. I'm the co-creator and one of the executive producers of "The Big Bang Theory." And I'm speaking to you from Los Angeles, California.
BLOCK: It's a small world, comedy writing, and insider terms abound.
PRADY: Words that are useful, that are shorthand, that get an idea across from the writer's room, they just become the word you use.
BLOCK: Words like Nakamura.
PRADY: A Nakamura is a running gag that fails to run. So a running gag is something that you might have in a script - a joke. A second occurrence of a joke on the same topic is a callback. And if you keep going, it's a running gag.
BLOCK: (Laughter) We have lingo on top of lingo here.
PRADY: Lingo on top of lingo. So the story of the Nakamura is usually attributed to an episode of "Taxi." The writers had written about a Japanese product made by the fictional Nakamura Company. And the first joke just died. And what the writers knew is they had about six callbacks to Nakamura in the script, and they knew at that moment that every one of them was going to die. So when you're writing a script and you write a running gag and you're not confident, you say, I'm worried we're creating a Nakamura here.
BLOCK: OK, so Nakamura - that's one of your submissions. Here's another one, laying pipe.
PRADY: Laying pipe is one of the most annoying things to have to do when you write a script. And laying pipe means delivering exposition, creating a way to share with the audience information usually that the characters already know. So you often hear it done very clumsily. You hear somebody say, well, John, you're my brother and an attorney, so you should be familiar with this.
PRADY: What you look for is a way to do it artistically, and sometimes, you know, you can talk about how it was done in restoration comedy, where you had what was called feather-dusting scene. So a maid came out and said, well, here we are in sunny Spain, and that set the scene. But, you know, in a modern comedy, that's not the kind of thing you want to do.
BLOCK: That's not going to fly.
PRADY: No, you look for an elegant way to lay pie. And then you can sort of modify the lingo. You say, oh, that pipe is nicely hidden.
BLOCK: Oh, OK. Here's another term that you sent us, Bill - well, two terms, really - button and blow.
PRADY: Button and blow are terms for the same thing. And in a comedy, at the end of a scene, you want that really good joke that gets the big, strong laugh that lets you cut to the next scene. And you'll sit in the room and say, you know, that's a great joke, but it's not a blow. I've heard someone say, it's good, but it's not blow-kay.
PRADY: (Laughter) Blow-kay.
BLOCK: Bill, here's another one you sent us - another bit of trade lingo from the world of comedy writing. And it's capitalized. It's a Bono's - B,O,N,O, apostrophe S.
PRADY: OK, well, the reference is to Sonny Bono (laughter), and here's how it goes.
BLOCK: All right.
PRADY: In the course of producing a for-camera, live-audience sitcom, you wind up seeing or hearing the show a bunch of times. So the actors read it at the table on the first day of production. You see a run-through on the second and third day of production. And each day, if there was a joke that didn't work in the script, you have to try to replace it with something you're pretty sure is going to work.
So the reference here is to Sonny Bono, who opened a restaurant many years ago on Wilshire Boulevard that immediately failed. And in the same space, there was an Italian restaurant, and then there was an Indian restaurant and there was a diner that all went into the same space. And all of them went out of business. So you say a spot in the script where you keep putting a joke, and no matter what you put in there, the joke seems to die is a Bono's.
BLOCK: Do you think that Sonny Bono - the late Sonny Bono knew that his name and his restaurant had become a stock term for just a joke that is just awful that doesn't go anywhere in comedy writing?
PRADY: Do you know, I think the term is pretty inside. I'm going to guess that for all his successes and failures in life, he wasn't burdened by the knowledge that he'd become synonymous with a spot that can't hold a joke.
BLOCK: Bill have you ever managed to coin your own bit of comedy writing trade lingo and see if it flies?
PRADY: You know, what a good challenge. I think a big need in a comedy writer's room is to create a name to describe the phenomenon of thinking that lunch has arrived when it hasn't.
PRADY: And this is usually caused by a production assistant accidentally creating the sound of takeout-food container bags rustling in the distance. So I'm going to propose to my fellow comedy writers false rustle. I don't know if it'll catch on.
BLOCK: I think you want to work on that one. But I can see that it is a gaping need in anyone's world, really, not just comedy writing.
PRADY: I suppose so, (laughter) but what time lunch is arriving is really, really important in a sitcom writer's room.
BLOCK: Bill Prady, thanks so much for talking to us.
PRADY: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Bill Prady, co-creator of "The Big Bang Theory," with his pieces of trade lingo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG BANG THEORY THEME")
BARENAKED LADIES: (Singing) Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery that all started with the Big Bang. Since the dawn of man...
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.