I’d like to give you a few more examples of why changing the playwrights’ words can be very problematic.
First, the easy one. Jokes. Punchlines.
Change one word, one simple innocuous word, and you might find it’s no longer funny.
Add a word, or two, or three, and you throw the joke off entirely. It’s not the gist of the thing that makes it funny. It’s the way it’s phrased. Take a word out, you run the same risk.
A rule of thumb in vaudeville (see The Sunshine Boys) was that words with the “K” sound are funny, those without it aren’t. And it’s true. “M”s and “L”s just aren’t funny. Harder, more plosive sounds are. Substitute a funny word with an unfunny one, you ruin the joke.
Johnny Carson’s rule of thumb was that three is funny, four isn’t. Talk about “She took my house, my car, and my parakeet”, and it’s funny. (Notice that parakeet is funnier than dog; it’s got a K in it.) “My house and my car” – not so much. Even “my house and my parakeet” isn’t as funny as when the list has three items. And add a fourth to the list – “my house, my car, my parakeet, and my shopvac” – it’s too many. We start to lose interest before we get to “shopvac”. (Take out house, and it becomes much funnier. Two Ks, plus the unexpectedness of both the parakeet and the shopvac.)
In other words, our attention span only goes so far, and comedy is light, a fourth item weighs it down. We’re looking for the punchline after three. But you need three, not two, to set up the joke. Don’t leave one of the three out! And don’t add a fourth for any reason. (Sometimes the playwright has added the fourth. Sadly, that’s his mistake and you have to live with it.)
If you aren’t a natural comic, you might not understand why this matters. The meaning is still there, right? And isn’t it the meaning that is funny?
No. Not all by itself. Trust me on this. Say the line as written.
And if you do consider yourself a comic, and you break these rules, the lines won’t get laughs, or you sure won’t get the kind of laugh the line deserves. You’ll spend the run of the play wondering why the audience has no sense of humor, when in fact it is your editing of the playwright’s words that is ruining the joke!
See Part II here.