I recently completed my first job as a writer for a network sitcom. This has long been a dream of mine, and like all things you dream of and then one day get, it was completely amazing all the time and not for an instant disappointing or weird or fraught with the kind of existential disillusionment that makes you thoroughly reexamine your priorities in life and wonder if anything at all can ever really make you truly at long last happy.
One of my favorite things about being in the writers’ room, or “the room,” as they say in the business (or “the biz,” as they say in the business), was picking up on the industry slang and shorthand. Some of these I’d heard before, but a lot of them I hadn’t, and frankly they confused and frightened me, like fire to a lesser primate. To spare you, comedy writers of tomorrow, the confusion and shame I felt, I’ve defined as best I can some of the more esoteric buzzwords below. As they said in commercials for summer repeats on NBC in the 90s, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!”
(Just to be clear, this is not “a bit.” These are actual words and phrases I heard in the room.)
b-side - after the reveal or the inciting action as opposed to before. So you don’t front-load your stories, sometimes you might want to play some things on the b-side. “Instead of having to explain all that before he kidnaps the bride, can we play some of it on the b-side?” Sometimes a character will say something that sounds like it means one thing but later it’s revealed to mean something else entirely. In those situations, you need to make sure the joke plays on both the a-side and the b-side. That is, the line makes sense with the limited context of the a-side, and then again (in a different way) with the fuller context of the b-side.
bananas on bananas — crazy on top of crazy. An ancient samurai suddenly transported to modern day New York City is a fish out of water story. If the ancient samurai also has to fight vampires in modern day New York, that’s bananas on bananas.
blow (or button) - a scene-ending or act-ending joke. When writing a comedy, even if you’re writing a high-stakes dramatic scene, you want to end it on a punchline. A commonly asked question in the room is “Can we beat this Act Two blow?” and the answer is always yes.
bumping on - executive-speak for “not liking” (e.g. “I’m bumping on Beth’s turnaround in the third act”). Some writers hate it when executives say they’re “bumping” on something, and they also hate it when you then say, “So you’re bumping on their bumping?”
chuffa - narratively inessential dialogue, filler.
clam - an old hacky joke or situation; something you’ve seen a hundred times. For example:
- “Aaaand she’s standing right behind me, isn’t she?”
- “Sure, if by [adjective], you mean [opposite of adjective]”
- “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”
Sometimes you can save a clam by undercutting it or by using it to comment on the character, for example: Michael Scott’s love of “That’s what she said,” on The Office.
clock - to notice, or make the audience notice, e.g. “Does Beth clock Tom’s weirdness here, or is she in her own world?” or ”Let’s make sure we clock the engagement ring in this scene.”
hanging a lantern on it — winking at the audience by highlighting some script wonkiness rather than trying to hide it. If you employ some narrative shortcut you know will annoy your audience, you can sometimes beat them to the punch by commenting on it first. “Wow, it sure is a coincidence that we turned on the news just when they happened to be talking about Mom and Dad.” “Yes, it is a coincidence, but let’s not dwell on that right now.” The Simpsons does this kind of thing a lot.
house number - an example. When in the middle of pitching something, you might realize you’ve run out of idea to pitch, so you’ll reach for a house number to give an example of the kind of thing you’re talking about, even if this example might be a bit of a clam. I have no idea what the origin of this phrase is and whenever I use it I’m only fifty percent sure I’m using it accurately. I think it’s mostly used to describe big set pieces (“the house number is Beth accidentally spills her soup on the preacher and then there’s a big food fight”). Sometimes, in the room, you’ll say “not this, but something like this,” or “this is the bad version.” A house number seems to be a tier above that — “not necessarily this, but something like this” — not the bad version, but maybe not the best version. A version.
joke-pitch - not a sincere pitch, a pitch that makes the room laugh but is too glib, dark, dirty, or meta to actually go in the scene. For example, “Any pitches on a better blow for Act Two?” “What if we ended the act with Elliot coming in and saying, ‘My children are dead. All of them, dead. I watched my children die.’ And then we come back from commercial and he says ‘Tie-dye, that is!’” A recurring joke-pitch can become a room bit. If you make a lot of joke-pitches but not a lot of actual-pitches, you are annoying.
Nakamora - not sure about the spelling of this one, but this is named for a line in a Taxi episode — “Paging Dr. Nakamora” — that got a huge laugh at the table read (for some reason beyond my understanding), so the writers added a bunch of callbacks to it throughout the script. At the taping of the show though, the first mention of Dr. Nakamora got no laugh, and every subsequent mention was increasingly painful for the writers, and the actors, and the audience. If your episode has a joke that dies immediately, but you know it has several callbacks yet to come, that’s a Nakamora.
oak - something that has to happen given the premise of the episode/series. To ask “What are the oaks of this episode?” means “What are the beats that we have to hit? What is the audience going to be mad about if we don’t do?” For example, if you’re writing a show about a political campaign, a debate episode is an oak of that story.
pipe - exposition. Often used with the verb “to lay,” as in, “We’ve got a lot pipe to lay if we’re going to introduce all these characters and explain how they’re related to each other before the first act break.” If all a scene is doing is laying pipe, it’s usually a pretty boring scene.
schmuck bait - false stakes. The audience knows that Jim is never going to cheat on Pam, so to imply that possibility for an episode is schmuck bait.
zooba gooba - this is not a real thing, but I felt weird ending on schmuck bait. Let’s say that zooba gooba is, oh, I don’t know, the mushy serialized love story stuff that sometimes overpowers comedy with melodrama. “This scene’s got a lot of zooba gooba in it. I wonder if we can’t punch this up? Maybe find a better blow?”