One of the things about writing great dialogue in film and TV is that sometimes a joke or common turn of phrase can be overused. It's can be hard to think of examples because so many movies clip them or have different writers on a project these quips are nullified, but we will try.
When I read amateur screenplays, these cliché jokes come up very often. They become crutches that don't help you develop a character or a voice. Instead, they just feel like filler when someone is talking.
Let's take a peek at these and raise your flag in the air to spot them.
'Swingers'Credit: Miramax Films
What Are Some Possibly Overused Jokes in Screenwriting Dialogue?
I want to preface this by saying I use a ton of these, and so do most pros. The difference is that these jokes are used sparingly, and I don't think the pros use them in place of building a character. Instead, these jokes are used to support the character they've built.
The idea is to be aware of these common things and then check yourself if you're using them too much and not being original.
Here are some common jokes that can be overused in screenwriting dialogue:
The "dad joke": This is a joke that is typically groan-worthy and relies on puns or wordplay. While they can be funny in small doses, they can be overused and not expand on a character or world we're trying to build.
The "zinger": This is a one-liner that is designed to be clever and witty. While it can be effective if used sparingly, sometimes characters devolve into only being the person who delivers these. Also, they function better when less is more.
The "double entendre": This is a joke that has two meanings, one of which is usually sexual or suggestive. While it can be funny in certain contexts, it can also feel juvenile and inappropriate if overused. Find the balance in the story. Or make the story about it, like Austin Powers does so skillfully.
The "awkward silence": This is a joke where characters pause awkwardly after someone says something uncomfortable or embarrassing. I love these pauses, but if you do more than one in a movie or TV episode, it can just feel like you don't have the words for the scene.
The "cultural stereotype": This is a joke that relies on a stereotype about a certain culture or ethnicity. While it can be funny in certain contexts (thinking of Blazing Saddles here), these can be mean, and demeaning, and it takes a very skilled writer to nail something that toes the line or has something to say. I've seen so many of these fail, I would caution you against it unless you really have something unique to add to the cultural conversation.
The "meta-joke": This is a joke that references the fact that the characters are in a movie or TV show. While it can be clever if done well, it can also feel self-indulgent and gimmicky if overused. Scream did it best, and we saw imitators do it poorly. Again, this is about what advantage you get trying these.
The "pop culture reference": This is a joke that references a current event, movie, or TV show. While it can be funny if used sparingly and in a clever way, it can also feel dated and irrelevant if overused. Sometimes, I think these really date your material. These jokes don't last, so if you put them in specs, you have to update them too. A risky move for a small payoff, unless you reference timeless things.
The "gross-out joke": This is a joke that relies on bodily functions or bodily fluids for humor. These make people laugh but are entirely dependent on the tone of your project. If you nail your tone, then you'll be fine. I only bump on these when they feel like they don't fit.
'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery'Credit: New Line CinemaWhile some of these jokes can still work if used creatively and thoughtfully, it's important for screenwriters to be aware of them and strive to avoid relying on them too heavily.
Let me know which ones you think I should add in the comments.