ZAZ Part II: The Rules
The ZAZ glossary of terms is a bit like the body of law we use in the writing room. Of course, you can't have laws without a constitution. Here are the fifteen rules of comedy. Sadly, it's the fifteenth rule that gets invoked the most frequently, but I can tell you that Rule #1, #9 and #10 have proven invaluable during arguments. If someone says "joke on a joke", just stop. Stop and hang your head. You've lost.
And now, without any further preamble, it's...
1. JOKE ON A JOKE
Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa.
Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. At the end of "Naked Gun," Priscilla Presley tells Leslie Nielsen "Everybody needs a friend like you." They never acknowledge O.J. Simpson's wheelchair careening down the steps and launching him into the air.
3. UNRELATED BACKGROUND
A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. The reason why the O.J. Simpson joke works is because he's flying through the air as a result of being slapped on the back by Drebin.
4. BREAKING THE FRAME
Don't remind the audience that they're watching a movie. This is the rule most often legally bypassed, but a movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these.
A joke using references so arcane that few people will ever get it.
6. JERRY LEWIS
Don't use a comedian in a straight man role. Scenes in a parody ought to mimic the real thing. That means, basically, follow Rule #1. You've got funny lines in the script. If you add comedians (and "funny" sets, "funny" character names, "funny" wardrobe, etc.), it's a joke on a joke.
(Ed. Note: The "no funny names" rule is fastidiously followed. As far as I know, there's only one major exception in the ZAZ canon, and that's the villainous Mr. Papshmear from Naked Gun.)
7. AXE GRINDING
When the joke is overshadowed by some message, it gets unfunny fast.
8. SELF CONSCIOUS
Any jokes about the movie itself, the movie business or comedy itself. A strict no-no because it prevents the audience from being invested in plot and character.
9. STRAW DUMMY
Where the intended target is setup by the writer instead of real life. Even if the joke hits the target, who cares?
10. CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?
Once a joke is made, it can't be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs. In "Naked Gun," Frank and Ed are seated in a car, their lips turned ridiculously pink from the pistachio nuts they're munching. But one scene later, when Frank goes snooping in the bad guy's apartment, he's got to be clean. It's kind of like buying a personalized license plate. How long can "I H8 MEN" be funny?
11. THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN
Something that totally defies all logic but is on and off the screen so fast that we get away with it. Example: Robert Stack in "Airplane!" yells to Lloyd Bridges, "He can't land, they're on instruments!" And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it's done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.
(Ed. Note: As tastes change, so too must comedy. Visual puns were hysterical in Airplane! in part because no one had really done them before. If we tried that joke now, it would be a "ya ta ta ta ta ta ".)
12. LATE HIT
You know a particular target has had enough when it's been raked over the coals by Leno, Letterman, the MTV Awards, etc.
13. TECHNICAL PIZZAZZ
Special effects don't necessarily mean funny.
14. HANGING ON
Don't play a joke too long. When it reaches its peak, get the scissors.
15. THERE ARE NO RULES
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