You Don't Know Jack Lead Writer Says Being Funny Is Serious Hard Work

Image for article titled You Don't Know Jack Lead Writer Says Being Funny Is Serious Hard Work

I've got a perhaps irrational fondness for trivia games. It's easy to like the genre when your brain is filled up with seemingly disconnected facts; trivia games give them a place to go. A tiny little factlet purpose in life.


One of my favorites is You Don't Know Jack, the intentionally irreverent trivia game. Once seemingly doomed to be a relic of the 1990s, YDKJ recently had a comeback on consoles and as a really great example of how to do a Facebook game right. It's somewhat amazing that the franchise works at all: timely humor is hard, and what was funny fifteen years ago may feel forced and dated today.

In fact, writing comedy at all is just plain hard, You Don't Know Jack head writer Steve Heinrich told the Gameological Society in an interview. Very few games aim for straight comedy, and it seems even fewer succeed. With YDKJ even access to a never-ending supply of successful comedy writers doesn't guarantee a funny game:

It's hard. You don't want to spend too much time on the comedy because people want to play the game. You don't want to spend all your time on the game because the comedy is what makes it work. We're in Chicago, and that gives us access to a lot of comedy-writing talent. We brought a lot of those people in over the years. We actually hold auditions when we begin making a game, and we have them come in and write samples. We look at which ones we like, then bring them in and say, "Now write some You Don't Know Jack questions." No matter how much we try to explain it to them, you end up going from having 400 really funny people to that one person who kind of gets it.

And even if someone does get it, the world around them shifts uncontrollably quickly. "Something can be popular, and then six weeks later it's dated," Heinrich explained.

In some ways, that sets up Facebook as the perfect venue for comedy games. Facebook is terrible for telling stories in games, but the ability to update on the fly keeps humor fresh and current. Old jokes can disappear before they get stale, and new ones can be added while they're still funny. And being on Facebook, in the middle of your stream of everyone's daily lives and up-to-the-minute updates, changes to stay on top of the day's or week's news feel organic and well-placed.


Of course, jokes are only as good as their writers. As long as You Don't Know Jack can find folks who get it, they can keep making Facebook funny.


Funny People: Steve Heinrich, You Don't Know Jack head writer [The Gameological Society]



I have to say the YDKJ is fantastic on the Xbox. It's often hilarious, and it's one of the few video games that non-gamers can pick up and play with very little instruction. It's also one of the few games that can actually be played while a group of friends is over, as even those who aren't at a controller can have fun shouting out answers or laughing at the jokes. The only game that comes close (but not for humor) is the Scene It games. Those proprietary controllers with the giant "buzz in" button are awesome.