That inspired me to share a similar “glossary of terms” developed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. I do a lot of work with David these days, and I can vouch for the usefulness of the list. Finding a shorthand (especially in comedy) is a very important part of the self-critical process. Sometimes it seems like we spend all day trying to explain to each other why we’re wrong. A list of established terms helps codify those reasons and legitimize the critique.
The following list (copyright David Zucker, reprinted here with permission) is intended for feature comedy writing. Any of you drama guys have something like this?
Shoe Leather: The physical traveling or action of a character in a scene. If not in direct service of a joke, it’s superfluous.
Drive-By: A joke that appears briefly and then out, as opposed to filling up an entire page or two.
Bric-A-Brac: Jokes not intrinsic to a plot or scene that only serve to detract from the point the scene is trying to make.
Gilding the Lily: Taking a joke so far that it’s no longer funny.
Hair Under the Wings: A joke that compromises the integrity of the plot. A joke proposed for AIRPLANE! involved a shot of Ted Striker’s plane taking off with hair under its wings. Funny, but not good for the audience’s investment in the reality of the story.
Ya-ta-ta-ta-ta-da: A joke so hokey it needs washboard and kazoo music.
Knocking Down the Posts: It’s not enough to set up a parody, you have to do the jokes. In AIRPLANE!, mere recognition that the girl chasing the plane was a spoof of a particular movie was not in itself funny. The laughs came only when she began Knocking Down the Posts.
Floocher Dialogue: Filler lines recited by foreground characters to enable the audience to focus on a background joke.
But, I Wanna Tell Ya: An extra beat of Floocher Dialogue added to a punchline to make it less of a swing, or to help the audience hear the next line.
Ba Dum Bump: Obvious sitcom-style punchline.
Transplant and Whack: The joke is the organ we save. Transplant it to a scene that can live and whack the rest.
Blow: A joke funny enough to end a scene.
EAT: A setup so obvious that it might as well have one of those restaurant neon signs with the blinking arrow pointing right at it.
Cumulative Effect: Too much of one thing is never a good thing. One sex joke may be funny, but too many and it’s diminishing returns.
Manic Dumb Show: Slapstick for the sake of slapstick, but without character/plot motivation or wit.
People Talking in Rooms: The concept that witty dialogue in confined spaces can often times be as effective as huge comedy action scenes.
Turn the Play Inside: Use existing characters in all possible instances instead of creating new parts and endless residuals.
Off Message: A line or scene that steers the movie off its main plotline.
W.P.A.: Scenes so extraneous to plot that they merely serve to fill up pages. Like those old FDR New Deal programs, they’re strictly “make-work”.
Eating Your Young: On second draft and beyond, cutting one’s own jokes or scenes that only seem unfunny because of repetition.
Dynamite Plunger (hand signal): At the end of the movie, you can get away with things that you couldn’t in the body of the movie. With only moments until credits roll, it’s often okay to blow the bridge, getting broader and sillier with characters previously grounded in a lot more reality.
Schmuck Bait: A twist ending that makes the audience feel cheated, such as the old “It-Was-All-A-Dream”.
Bridge Too Far: Taking a joke to its illogical conclusion.
Cheese Factor: W.C. Fields once said, “If you’re going to smash a car, make sure it’s a beat up car. If you’re going to stomp on a man’s hat, make sure it’s a tattered one.” Thus, in “Scary Movie 3,” the best aliens were the cheap ones (Ed. note: semi-robotic aliens were used for initial scenes, but time and budget constraints forced us to use crappy Dr. Who-quality aliens for reshoots. The resulting aliens were absurd, flimsy, obviously fake…and much much funnier.).
Black Hole: Some actors just aren’t well disposed to be funny. Often producers think they’ve scored with two A-list actors but are surprised when the result is “Ishtar.”
Broken Field Running: Saving a scene by improvising fixes on the set.
Outlet Pass (to avoid a #33): An alternate shot, usually in a master, with no attempt at a joke.
The Extra’s Socks: A small detail obsessed over by the director, diverting his attention from a real problem.
Apollo 13: Saving a scene without reshooting through the ingenious use of loop lines, outtakes, footage before “Action” or after “Cut,” reversing film, inserts, etc. Anything to avoid a reshoot.
Dailies Laugh: Hilarious in dailies, crickets at a preview.
Cutting Out the Cancer: Eliminating dud jokes or superfluous story. The most pressing task after a first preview with Angry Villagers.
Flywheel Theory: Keeping the audience laughing is a lot easier than starting them back up from scratch.
Swing & A Miss: An obvious attempt at a joke that doesn’t work. It is essential to get enough coverage so that every joke attempt connects. Also avoided by shooting an outlet pass.
Angry Villagers: The reaction at a first preview when a succession of jokes doesn’t work. The lost momentum inevitably results in the audience turning against the movie, conjuring up the “Frankenstein” image of a mob carrying torches and pitchforks.
The Director’s Rail: At the old Sherman Oaks Galleria – the third floor balcony rail outside the multiplex. After a first preview, most directors want to vault over it.
Sonny on the Causeway: Thinking a joke is a sure-fire winner, then getting ambushed by the silent audience reaction.
Filling up Compartments: Each bad joke, like a torpedo hit, fills a compartment. Too many in a row sinks the ship.
Hail Mary: Usually after the last preview (no time left on the clock), an ADR or an edit thrown in as a last ditch effort to make a joke work. The risk being, of course, a Swing & A Miss.
The Lion: Telegraphing a joke. In NAKED GUN 2 1/2, a lion attacking Robert Goulet didn’t get a laugh until a third preview Hail Mary, in which the set-up was eliminated.
Going Through the Guard Rail: Any outrageous comment, joke, or statement in the writing room that results in absolute silence and appalled looks.
Calling in an Air Strike (On Your Own Position): Saying or doing something self-defeating.
Dancing Around The Calf: Rejoicing over some idea or concept that seems great at the time. Dancing typically continues until a wiser voice arrives to point out how stupid the idea or concept actually is.