behind the scenes

How Comedy Stars Fix Jokes That Aren’t Working

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Here, three tactics for rescuing a floundering bit.

Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The bit
: A Darwinian comedy song.

The problem: “We wrote this stream-of-consciousness song,” says Bloom, “where my character’s enemy, Valencia, talks about how women have to compete to get the best sperm. It was too obvious.”

The fix: The spirit of Valencia’s musical number was changed from negative to positive. “She doesn’t tell herself ‘I hate other women.’ She tells herself ‘I love other women’ — because a villain does not think they’re a villain.”

The final version: “Women Gotta Stick Together,” a goofily sincere ballad. “It’s this hippie-dippie female-empowerment song, but the joke is that everything she says is disempowering. She’s singing with a big smile on her face, but what she’s saying is terrible: ‘It’s my duty to tell this girl that she’s fat.’ The contrast made it work.”

Julie Klausner, Difficult People
The bit: A failed Saturday Night Live audition.

The problem: “Originally,” says Klausner, “my character told [co-star] Billy Eichner’s character, ‘Do impressions of all of Lorne Michaels’s best friends.’ Just be like, ‘Oh, I’m Steve Martin,’ and pretend to shit in your own hand and eat it.” But the joke just wasn’t working.

The fix: The audition was relegated to an offscreen aside. “We kept running into a problem with Billy sabotaging himself, and we figured out he doesn’t have to. Billy and Julie live in a world that gets in their way. The characters are not crazy — it’s the world around them that’s garbage.”

The final version: Billy tells Julie the unseen audition went well but that he didn’t get the job because he’s “pretty green.” It’s later revealed that the show’s cast is entirely made up of children. “If Difficult People takes place in a world where SNL casts 5-year-olds, then it’s a really unfair world. It’s so funny.”

W/Bob & David. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, W/Bob & David
The bit
: A parody of “The Most Dangerous Game.”

The problem: “We don’t do specific genre parody that often,” says Cross about the initial humans-hunting-humans effort. “We’d normally find some way to spin it. But it didn’t grow.”

The fix: “The sketch clicked,” Cross explains, “when the hunter wasn’t just giving an advantage to his prey but also debasing himself in the process.”

The final version: The hunter’s method for leveling the playing field becomes increasingly absurd: from drinking cough syrup to putting scorpions on his face. “It played so well,” says Odenkirk. “You could imagine it having been done in vaudeville.”

*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.