Writing Comedy - Part 1
The highest art

Copyright © 2013 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.

This series on comedy looks at the structure of comedy and what makes it work.

3: Writing comedy by format

Comedy might last an hour, as in a movie, a few minutes, as in a long skit, or a few seconds. It really depends on the venue. Generally comedy might be a scene, a skit that might be a single scene, or several scenes delivered with no transition.

There are various useful scene lengths:

  • 15 to 30 seconds of one-liners
  • 30 sec. skits
  • 1 to 2 min. skits
  • 3 to 4 min. skits
  • 5 min. and up skits

It is difficult to take what should be a 30 second skit and make it funny for 1 to 5 minutes. It usually doesn't work. If a scene continues, then it has to build in tension and humor. Short is best for most skits.

The characteristics of scenes are similar regardless of length. You set up a situation and then play it out to the payoff. Most comedy is essentially telling a story, even if it is very short. Example: "I went to the department store today. I wanted to see my wife. She doesn't work there; that's where she and my money spend their time." A lot is assumed in those lines, but it's a story and it works. (Plays on words, etc., are different.)

Can "I went to the department store today. I wanted to see my wife. She doesn't work there; that's where she and my money spend their time," be turned into a longer scene? Probably not - thematically it just doesn't play out. But it could be thematically part of a subplot in a movie.

For longer scenes, there have to be many payoffs along the way. You can't leave the punch line until the end. So longer scenes get spiced with one-liner jokes, misunderstandings, multiple uncomfortable situations, etc.

Example 30 second scene/skit outline: John is a furniture/appliance pickup man. He knocks on the house door and announces, "Pickup man! Here for appliances!" A woman comes to the door and says, "What kind of pickup line is that?" Man: "Didn't you call for appliance pickup?" Woman: "No, I called because I wanted picked up. You're not dressed very well."

Example 2 minute scene/skit outline: Developing the pickup man scene into a one to two minute scene, the woman looks the pickup man over at the door, expresses displeasure at his clothing, but leads him to the bedroom. He is puzzled. She lays down on the bed and waits, and finally says, "Well?" John is very puzzled. He says, "Maybe we should start with the appliance?" She says, "Oh, good. I'll like that. What does your appliance look like? How does it work." The misunderstanding plays out for a while until the confusion quits. Finally she leads him to the basement to remove the washing machine. But the washer is too big to go through the door. She refuses to pay for his time and tries to get him to take it out anyway. She tells him to remove the door frame. He removes the door frame and the house creaks and begins to fall into the basement. She tells him she is suing him. They work out an equitable arrangement and go back to the bedroom.

Long scenes should have very distinct changes in the situation from beginning to middle to end, as did the example 2 minute scene, so that the audience isn't laughing at the same running joke throughout the scene. In the example, misunderstanding transitions into a removal problem, which transitions into a tragedy, which transitions into a good outcome.

You introduce a character (flawed, hapless, unwitting, or comedic in some way), into a situation (which might be no more than an interview), and let the characters react to the situation.

In short scenes, the more characters you have, generally the less powerful they will be. Each character has to contribute something, which takes time for the audience to receive and understand. It changes the focus to the other characters and their situations. Changing focus loses dramatic/comedic power.

In the pickup man scene, what we might have done is introduce a boss who is calling, or a daughter who arrives home unexpectedly, causing additional uncomfortable situations. Generally, the longer the comedic scene, the more situational change you have to put in to keep it moving.

Not all long scenes are developed this way. SNL does it this way:

1. Put three thematically similar scenes together. For example, SNL does this with the News skit. It begins with several humorous news stories, then goes to an interview, then goes to something else. So the theme is news, but it runs for 10 minutes, and stays funny.

2. Put recurring scenes together. SNL does this with the Soap Opera, which sometimes had 3 episodes running concurrently. Personally I think this didn't work so well, but could work well with other skits.

Comedy works best if you keep it fast paced and constantly go on to something fresh but serialized.

In this series:

- Dorian Scott Cole

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