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.”

 

Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

Off to the side

I keep a mini legal notepad next to my keyboard when I’m writing scenes. It’s there for when I need a push on figuring out what to type next. For example, sometimes I’ll look at the wording of a line of dialogue and it feels wrong. I dash off 10 or so different versions of the line on the notepad, then keep moving.

You could spend hours on a single line of dialogue, character introduction, or action line. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. The computer lets you get stuck in this cycle as long as you let it.

That’s why I have the notepad. It has a physical limit, so I can see when I hit a point where I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s outside of the main document I’m working in, so I don’t feel pressured to hit the target all at once. Sometimes combining parts of different attempts into a Frankenline does the trick.

There’s a pressure that can come from looking at things in context, especially when the document’s page count gets larger. The notepad is a pressure release valve. Over there, away from the screen, it’s a place to play and discover.

Because writing should be fun.

Counterpoint: In Defense Of Writing Without A Net

If you think staring at the blank page is intimidating, imagine staring at 100 blank pages. All at once.

Sometimes, that’s what outlining feels like. You look at the outline, and you see the spaces where all the moving parts are supposed to go, but you’re not sure what goes where. Or you have all these different elements cobbled into a Rube Goldberg device, and you’re not sure if the end result will be anything like what you intended.

Every so often, it’s a good idea to set the outline aside and dig in. Write a scene. Write three. Don’t think any further ahead than five pages.

What you’ll find is that you can get a grasp on something concrete. The voices of your characters. One or two specific actions. An aspect of the location you hadn’t thought of before.

It’s a form of reverse-engineering your outline. By taking a moment to live and breathe in the world of the story, you see how some of the smaller parts function. When you see that, you can extrapolate where they can go from here.

Is this a good way to write an entire screenplay? Not generally, as tunnel vision can set in and cause you to miss the opportunities that planning helps to create. But this technique can be used as part of a middle path between the control and planning of outlining and the unbridled creativity of just ripping through pages.

Point: Outlining is Awesome

Seriously.

A good, thorough outline makes actual writing feel effortless. All the hard work has been done! You know who’s in the scene, where it takes place, and what should happen. Maybe some of the dialogue is even set.

Making a solid outline before you begin writing creates a sense of direction. You know where you’ll be going and how close you are to reaching your destination. It’s a set of specific goal markers that allow you to stay motivated as you move forward. At any given point, you will know you are X number of scenes from a completed draft.

Additionally, there’s an additional distance that you get with the outline. It’s separate from your script, though it’s based around the same ideas. This means you can add things to the outline and develop them without the pressure of seeing them in script form. The outline will never be a perfect document, because that’s not its intent. It’s meant to lead the way.

Think about it like a cartographer going into unknown territory. The map that they create can be extremely detailed, taking a long time to produce. While that detailed map may help future travelers as they venture through this land, there comes a point where additional detail becomes more decorative than useful. The shape of the coastline is important. The exact number of trees along a path towards a valley is not.

In this analogy, you are both the cartographer and the adventurer to come. First, you populate the landscape and give it a general shape. Then, as you write, you move through that place in its full detail, looking to the map as reference if you should lose your bearings.

These analogies aren’t just chosen at random. Writing is an adventure, as grand an adventure as you make it for yourself. You may not be discovering things as they are, but you are creating a world for others to explore. And much like actual explorers, this adventure should not be undertaken with reckless, aimless abandon.

Nice to Meet You

What is the purpose in a film of two characters meeting one another and introducing themselves?

For one thing, it allows the audience to know the characters’ names. Also, some small bits of character information are often relayed in an introduction. But that’s all exposition. And poorly handled exposition is boring. It’s a big sign that tells the audience “We couldn’t find a clever, dramatic way to convey this information to you. So sorry.”

First meetings are a whole series of complex social calculations. Think about the inherent tensions, even the smallest of tensions, that exist in that interaction. What do you think about? Are you intimidated by this new person? Trying to intimidate them? Do you find them attractive, or wonder if they find you attractive?

Think about history. What do each of the characters meeting each other know about the other? Are they hiding anything from one another? Is there something that they think they’ve hidden from the other person that isn’t a secret?

And remember, this is a first meeting. It’s rare for people to hit it off from the moment they’re introduced. It takes conversation. A little sizing up of one another. It’s much more likely that there will be some first impression about one of the characters that rubs the other the wrong way.

Alright, so you’ve thought about these things, and you still need to have these two characters meet for the story to work. How can you make it dynamic? Here are a few ideas to jump start you:

1. The Connector: Do they need to introduce themselves? Is there a third party that might be introducing them (aka, a smaller character that can take Exposition Duty so that the principal characters can stay focused on their deeper goals and motivations)? Also, think about how a Connector character can name both of these characters and bring them together without directly introducing one to the other.

2. Avoid the handshake: Unless you have a piece of business to make it unique in some way, watching two people meet and shake hands is the cliché to avoid. Any two characters can say hi and shake hands. Think about what specific actions your character would take in this situation. Maybe it would be shaking hands, but how they do it is what matters.

3. This is a conversation, not a CV: Which of the following sounds more natural?

“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“Of course I know who you are. In 1999, you were behind the merger that combined three smaller telecoms into the goliath ConnecTech that stood up to the FCC’s investigation and attempt to re-divide the business through antitrust proceedings.”

OR

“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“So you are. Still on the FCC’s shit list?”

We don’t get as much information from the second one, but in this situation we also learn something about the character speaking. Not only do we know that the person they’ve met is a powerful individual who has personally drawn the wrath of a government regulatory board, but now we know from the flippant tone of the questioner that they may share a certain disdain for the FCC. The other information? That can be filled in as needed, because…

4. Give us enough, but no more: Play around with how much information about each of these characters that we really need at this moment, and what can be held on to for later. If something isn’t going to be necessary for the next few scenes, use that time to deliver it. Overloading an introduction with character information will draw attention to the awkwardness of the meeting.

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.