This Is Dan Harmon’s Best Rule for Joke-Telling
Dan Harmon says that, if you want to learn how to be an effective and successful comedy screenwriter, there are few teachers better than Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.
Since the New Yorker called out former Daily Show correspondent and current hosting candidate Hasan Minhaj for fabricating dramatic and traumatizing anecdotes in his stand-up act this past week, the comedy world has been abuzz with conversations over the limits to an artist’s creative license when it comes to telling jokes. Though stand-ups have been making up stories about their lives to get laughs since the dawn of the punchline, the practice of supporting unremarkable zingers with overly contrived set-ups is generally considered “hack” — and after it was revealed that Minhaj changed the last name of a real person to set up a mediocre alphabet joke, comic Sridhar Ramesh called out Minhaj for violating Harmon’s “Monopoly Guy” principle.
Put simply, the “Monopoly Guy” rule states that, if a joke-teller or screenwriter (Steve Oedekerk) creates a character who is a short, rich bald guy wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie and a monocle, having a character crack wise with the line, “You must be the Monopoly Guy!” doesn’t count as a real joke.
Harmon and his writing partner Rob Schrab thought of the principle while watching the Jim Carrey classic during their early years as screenwriters, realizing that every joke in every script relies, to some degree, on a manufactured setup. “Everything is a little bit of a Monopoly Guy,” Harmon explained during a 2013 episode of the Harmontown podcast. Harmon explained how, behind the scenes, the casting director for Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls was instructed to find someone who looks like the Monopoly Guy, the costume designers were handed a card with the Monopoly Guy on it and every aspect of the character’s creation revolved around his resemblance to the Monopoly Guy. So, by the time Carrey reaches his punchline, “You’re supposed to be like, ‘Holy sh–, he nailed it!’”
“There’s that guy walking around the movie set dressed as the Monopoly Guy, thinking he can get away with it! Well, not according to the other guy, who’s also in the same movie written by the same person,” Harmon sarcastically remarked. “That counts as a joke if the guy’s on the street, then you’re a badass.” However, when the character is, in every respect, fabricated, contrived and designed for the sole purpose of receiving the put-down, the punchline ends up being a cheap facsimile of an actual joke that only impresses the easily amused.
Basically, Minhaj making up a long name just so that he can say, “That guy has a long name!” is so bad that it’s on the same level as the odious Ace Ventura sequel.