Writing Comedy - Part 1 of 4
I call comedy the highest art, and I really believe that, for a lot of reasons. Most of the time people want to watch entertaining content on TV, online, and in movies, to escape the tedius and hectic lives that we live, and just relax and rejuvenate for a few minutes, and recoup our good attitude. Comedy does that very well for us. Comedy also allows a writer to take topics that are otherwise taboo, or which get negative reactions, and expose society. People accept comedy, even if they would otherwise be offended or guarded. If there is any writing that manages to change our society, and is not just a reflection or voyeurism or escapism, this is it.
Comedy like All in the Family with the bigoted Archie Bunker, and La Cage aux Folles with its portrayal of homosexual and drag life, help people see both the humanity in those who are different, and the folly of our own views of others.
To that end, here are my thoughts on comedy, from the experience of writing it in screenplays and skits.
The classical definition of comedy is a light treatment of common people in a common situation, as opposed to more tragic stuff. The earliest comedy had to do with fertility rights, and sex is still central in comedy. Farce was defined as unimportant stuff. Dark comedy is rather twisted stuff. Our definition today is very broad, covering all aspects of comedy, and we differentiate minimally between types. Comedy has its roots in human nature, or more broadly, the human condition. We get to laugh at ourselves.
Comedy writing is 90% perspiration and 5% inspiration. It's commonly a modification of material that already exists.
Comedy comes from two basic things: Situations, characters, and expectations. "What do you mean, that's three?" you ask. You think I can't add?
Oh, I forgot, my bad, 90 + 5 is only 95 - the other 5% of comedy writing is the jokes you steal. Timing is everything. Make them wait for the payoff.
In a scene, you have a character of a certain type, in a situation that is uncomfortable for him, and a surprise ending. For example, a father's ex drops off his kid at the last minute, but he has a horny as a toad girlfriend in his bedroom, and he doesn't want the girlfriend discovered, and after months of no women, he is desperate to get to her.
We expect the character to be uncomfortable and driven toward is objective, and to have a certain type of reaction, which will be funny. You can also turn the tables on the audience and give him a different type of reaction, which is also funny. For example, the child thinks she left a toy last visit and wants to look in the bedroom. At the last moment, the father prevents him from going into his bedroom by feigning he sees a spider along the wall. So he has the kid go into his own bedroom, and to bed. He will take care of the spider. The father then visits his girlfriend, thinking he has his problems solved. The kid shows up moments later with a paper to kill the spider. He sees his father's girlfriend, and casually says, "Hello, Mary."
Lots of situations have more than one stage. The developing situation, the growing uncomfortable reaction, and then the switches. In the illustration, the expectations were: We expect the father to be uncomfortable and make us laugh. He does. We expect the kid to go away, which is amusing. We don't expect the kid to kill the spider, but he bravely pops back up. We expect the kid to be shocked by discovering his Dad's girlfriend. He isn't. So we get one expectation met, which is funny, getting rid of the kid, which is amusing, and two expectations defied, which are surprising and funny. One situation, three or more laughs.
So to write comedy, you first develop a character - some kind of normal person with some flaws and hangups, not Superman - and then you think of situations the character will be uncomfortable in, and will react in certain ways. That is situation comedy. The comedy comes from the situation.
The popular Saturday night program, SNL, is a concept program, whereas programs like Laugh In were joke machines. In SNL you have longer skits, up to several minutes, that tell a short story. On Laugh In, you had one-liner joke after joke, or brief conversations, with no elaboration of the story in the joke. For example, we drop into a scene in which a woman asks, "Do you love me?" The man answers, "Is the Pope Catholic?" Woman: "I don't know, he just resigned."
To do it successfully, you need to be unique, and life is a good source of uniqueness. Unique means, the audience hasn't seen or heard the joke before. Old jokes feel as flat as a square tire. You can't borrow from some movie, standup comedian, or current jokes that are circulating.
For example, a unique combination of unique jokes and delivery is the improv comedy of my friend, Chris Vose, because he is uniquely funny. I mean, with his feet on the floor and his flaming red hair in the lights, you can't keep a straight face. And ny friend Kelly Flamm lives a hundred new and comic situations every week, not to mention being a barrel of laughs in your presence. Life, your life, is funny - borrow from it.
Chris Vose and Kelly Flamm are my comedy writing partners. Chris has 25 years experience in improv comedy, doing pioneering work with a troupe, and also worked as a day player on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Kelly Flamm (Comedian Heili Flammable), would be your best date ever... and if she wasn't, she would write about it in her forthcoming book on dating, so you had better make it good.
All comedy is based on human nature. Human nature doesn't change. A big part of human nature is sexuality. The sex part of human nature is in the highest percentage of comedy. Human nature may not change, but situations so change, and to some extent, reactions change. Jokes that were good 100 years ago are still somewhat funny today. But audiences are more sophisticated (experienced), so they are more difficult to surprise. But people are also more sophisticated, so they are always surprising us.
The difficulty with reading a comedy script is that a lot of comedy is in the presentation, so without the non-verbal cues which make up 80% of the effectiveness of communication, only some things come off as funny. It is best to know who you are writing for, and their style of presentation.
The best medium for writing dialogue is a restaurant napkin. Cocktail napkin, if you are so inclined. Don't use cotton - it doesn't wash out so you just pass your idea to the next day's diner, and restaurants really don't like it if you leave with expensive napkins in your pocket. Most restaurants do have paper napkins if you ask.
The reason napkins are ideal is because it forces you to keep it short. Concise dialogue has much more dramatic power than a long discourse. When translated to computer, dialogue should be no more than three 3" lines in Courier 12 font. One line is even better.
Currently I have two sitcoms in development (one in screenplay audience testing), a one hour dramedy series about ready to launch, an action series ready to script, various other projects, and am working with the Itchy Show, a dark comedy series, trying to get their comedy better than SNL, which I think will get distributed again by late first quarter to early second quarter 2013. Movie Stream productions focuses on creating high quality, market winning, audience tested, shows, and distribution (showrunner).
Author's company: Movie Stream Productions
In this series:
What one expert has to say: 5 SECRETS FOR IMPROVING YOUR COMEDY WRITING
- Dorian Scott Cole
Other distribution restrictions: None