Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

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Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

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As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

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Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

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In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

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At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

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Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

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Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

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By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”

 

Present Tense Exposition

In every story, the characters and their world existed before the film began. Some of the elements of their history are necessary pieces of information for understanding what happens between Fade In and Fade Out. Much like how characters meeting each other is an opportunity to stage a revealing conflict, the presentation of expository information has its own opportunities and challenges.

Here are a few examples of how others took their backstory and wove it in to the present tense action of the film.

The Adventures of Tintin

After becoming suspicious about the model ship that he’s just purchased, and how several people were eager to try and take it off his hands, Tintin heads to the library to read up on the history of The Unicorn, the ship the model was based on. While a person reading aloud from a book doesn’t sound like a thrilling set piece, there are a few tactics used to add tension and conflict to the moment.

There’s a small beat before the scene in the library where we see an unknown figure watching Tintin and Snowy through a pair of binoculars. Those binoculars watch them leave and retrain on the model of the Unicorn in Tintin’s apartment. This plants questions in the audience’s mind: Who was watching him? What’s going to happen to this model? It also reinforces the earlier question, why is this model ship so important? These bits of unresolved tension carry us into the scene in the library.

While in the library, Tintin’s research reveals that The Unicorn was a ship that sank with a secret cargo. This isn’t a direct conflict within the scene, it posits another question to the audience: What was the secret cargo? This mystery is useful in how it suggests a connection to the questions already asked of the audience. Could the people interested in the model of the ship be interested in this secret cargo? How is the model connected to that?

The scene cuts from Tintin reading to an overhead shot of a man skulking about in the shadows, watching him. We’re reminded that Tintin is under surveillance. The surveillance beats sandwich the new information, helping to the audience to interpret that these things are related, and that while we just spent a little over a minute listening to somebody read aloud from a book, that information is crucial to what’s coming next.

Children of Men

Taking place in a future with some key differences from our present, this film has some serious world building to do. Over the opening credits, the audience is treated to audio from the intro to a TV news broadcast. The patter sounds familiar, helping to bridge the gap between our world and the imagined future of the film, but the stories that they discuss are dystopian and extreme. Then we come to the kicker: A reporter informing us that “Baby Diego,” a man in his twenties who was the youngest person on the planet, has just died.

This is a straight infodump, but it’s effective because the information it gives is layered and shocking. In that one moment, we’ve learned that there are no new people being born, and that the chaos teased at the beginning is directly connected to the conditions arising from a world without birth.

Alright. So we have our information. We’re done, right? Not by a long shot.

In walks Theo, trying to push through the the people watching the news report in a coffee shop to get his order. It’s a small conflict, but it helps to define his character. A world is in shambles, human biology has been halted, people are mourning the death of a celebrity symbolizing the planetary crisis, and Theo just wants everybody out of his way so he can have his morning coffee.

The Departed

Billy Costigan is called in to be vetted for undercover work. This could be a cut and dry scene discussing resumé items, but what elevates it and disguises the exposition is the dialogue of Det. Dignam.

Dignam doesn’t sit behind a desk. He doesn’t stop moving for more than a few seconds at a time. And every time he reveals something of Billy’s backstory as part of the interview process, he does it in the form of a verbal attack. For example, “You have different accents? You did, you fuckin’ snake. You were like different people!” or “You got 1400 on your SATs. You’re an astronaut, not a statie.”

Yes, we’re being directly told the backstory, but there’s a clear motivation for it being delivered this way: It’s a test. Dignam is trying to figure out if this guy is cut out for the job. Costigan’s going to have to stand up under even more intense scrutiny and pressure if he’s going to go undercover, and Dignam’s interrogation is the a hint of how personal history and characters trying to get a read on each other is going to be crucial to the rest of the film.

Inside Baseball

Any time you have jargon or character motivations that can only be understood with an existing thorough knowledge of the world of the story, that’s Inside Baseball.

This isn’t to say that you don’t want to place your story in a specific world, or that you should shy away from telling stories that take place outside of the normal experience of the majority of people. It’s a question of balance.

There are ways to ease an audience into a specific world. Consider the Audience Surrogate. Ever notice how many TV pilots involve a New Person being introduced into an existing world, and how people need to explain things to this New Person?

It’s because we, the audience, need this information. If we’re going to follow anything that’s happening, we’re helped by having somebody inside the story that needs to find out the same information we do.

This doesn’t mean that a Surrogate should be on the receiving end of pages of expository dialogue. The difficult task is finding clever and sneaky ways to hide information for the audience inside the action of the story, like sticking a disgusting chewable pill in a spoonful of peanut butter.

The larger point, though, is never take for granted that your audience will have the same level of understanding of a specific world that you do. In fact, you should know more about it than they do. But, as you tell your story, you need to remember to let the audience in on the workings of this world. Be it a mythic kingdom or the trading floor of the stock market, the audience needs to be able to follow the rules if they’re going to have any hope of paying attention to the specific story you’re trying to tell.