“Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better, than in actual life.”
TRAGEDY vs COMEDY
One of the major characteristics of a comedic story, which separates it from serious drama, is that the actions of comedic characters are almost always imbued with a mechanical quality. Comedic action is mechanical action. But what does this mean? When any character is clearly conscious of what they are doing and why they are doing it, when we can see that the action is appropriate to the objective that the character is pursuing, it is difficult if not impossible to judge their actions as mechanical. Serious characters approach and act on problems in ways that reflect a sound - albeit some times incomplete - understanding of the relevant elements and issues, and their judgements are born out by what they do and how successful or otherwise their actions are. Even if a serious character fails to achieve his/her goal, they will learn from their mistakes. The actions of serious characters reflect an understandable progression of thought - they have considered what might be the most appropriate response to an opportunity or problem. "Ought it to be like this, and how can it be changed, and what can and should be done in this particular case?" In the world of serious drama it is possible through thought and action to change anything, the world is susceptible to noble efforts in the face seemingly insurmountable odds.
Comedy, on the other hand, occupies a very different kind of world. In comedy, change is not possible; or, if it occurs, it happens to the character unwittingly, by force of what he/she has had no real understanding of to begin with. The comic character strives bravely and vainly against an unchangeable world, armed with inadequate tools, petty desires and inappropriate beliefs and strategies to conquer that which cannot be conquered : their own blindness or ambition or arrogance or uncritical belief in whatever value system with which they have foolishly decide to identify themselves. Serious drama is run on hope, grounded in tactics. Comedy is grounded in tactics run on foolishness.
"A genre is a form (that) can lead you to ideas that you wouldn't have just thought up if you were working in an undefined field. It has something to do with the way our minds are constructed."
- Ursula K. Le Guin
SIX ELEMENTS OF COMEDY WRITING
(with a special thanks to Robert McKee)
Comedy is that which makes one laugh. Six elements are required for something to be humorous.
1. It must appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions -
Lenny Bruce’s ethnic humor, for example: "I see we have three niggers in the audience. And over there I see two wogs, and five spics, and four kikes…” As Bruce continues and the list grows longer it becomes clear he is listing everything, and the words lose their connotative, emotional meaning as insulting terms and turn into something else… they become an intellectual exercise in HOW words can lose their meanings outside of context. At the point where the audience realizes this – all of whom had been appalled and angry at exactly the same words – they begin to laugh. In other words, they begin reacting intellectually and not emotionally.
2. It must be mechanical -
As delineated by Henri Bergson in his essay “Laughter”. Here mechanical refers to actions that occur by virtue of habit, routine and expectation. A mechanical inelasticity occurs just where adaptability and flexibility are expected. It is humorous when a person acts in a manner that is inappropriate to a stimulus or situation... as in Slapstick… when a person goes to sit down and a chair is pulled out from under them. Or Lucy on I LOVE LUCY. She is funny because she mechanically reacts to events without thinking about how events have changed the situation.
3. Itmust be inherentlyhuman, with the capability of reminding us of our humanity. -
Something is funny insofar as it is or reminds the audience of humanity. Comedy often draws an audience's attention to the pettiness and foilbles of human or human-like characters. A talking horses might be funny, but only in direct proportion to the animal’s capability of reminding the audience of something that is essentially human. Thus animals are some times dressed in human clothes to heighten the reminder.
4. There must be a set of established societal norms with which the observer is familiar, either through everyday life or through the author providing it in expository material, or both.
5. The situation and its component parts (the actions performed and the dialogue spoken) must be inconsistent or unsuitable to the surroundings or associations (i.e.: societal norms)
Comedy is based on incongruity – the unexpected with the expected, the unusual with the usual, the misfit in what has been established as a societal norm.
For there to be comic incongruity there MUST BE something to be incongruous to. Therefore, for comedy to work there must be an established set of cultural, human and societal norms, mores, idioms, idiosyncrasies and terminologies against which incongruities may be found. Such norms may be INTERNAL or EXTERNAL.
Internal norms are those which the author has provided in the script.
External norms are those which exist in the society for which the script was written.
A major problem is to know what norms exist and which have become out-of-date. Many times some people, upon hearing a joke, will respond with “I don’t get it.” This is usually because they don’t know or understand the societal norms being violated by the joke. This is also why you can never explain a joke; to explain you must first explain the norms, then show how they have been violated. Such an explanation removes any incongruity by illustrating how it works within the norms.
Three aspects of INCONGRUITY:
Literalization – joke based on taking a figure of speech and then performing it literally.
Reversal – reversing the normal, taking what is normal and expected and doing or saying the opposite. Indiana Jones threatened by the sword wielding Arab, for example.
Exaggeration – taking what is normal and blowing it out of proportion. The mountain out of the molehill syndrome Roadrunner and Coyote, for example.
The greatest incongruity is the violating of societal taboos. This violation can provoke the greatest laughter. In America these taboos center round sex, death and biological functions. These are all subjects which society has decreed should be discussed seriously, discreetly and euphemistically, if discussed at all.
6. It must be perceived by the observer as harmless or painless to the participants. -
The sixth and final criterion for humor is as Aristotle says “that which causes no pain or destruction… is distorted but painless”.
The comic action is perceived by the audience as causing the participants no ACTUAL HARM: their physical, mental, and/or emotional well-being may be stretched, distorted or crushed, but they recover quickly and by the end of the performance are more or less in their original state. Again, as in the Roadrunner cartoons.
NOTE: The six criteria must all be present for an attempt at humor to succeed. If one is missing all will fail. So long as the audience knows the norms and can thus see the incongruity, the participants act in an inflexible manner but are inherently human, no one appears to get hurt and the audience doesn’t take it personally, then an attempt at being funny will succeed.
When these criteria are met, people will laugh. If any one is absent, then the attempt at humor will fail.
Now watch how these elements play out in MR BEAN
The Life that is SITUATION COMEDY
If the writers came up dry, I would ask: anything happen in your family lately, to your wife, your kids, your partners, anything? Things that actually happened to people made the best shows.
– Carl Reiner
Every sitcom that is successful has a compelling theme that runs through every episode. It needn't be overtly large or grandiose like the "futility of existence"; in fact, it's much better if it is particular and connected to a specific character. In the Vicar of Dibley, for example, the theme is "a single person can make a difference". The theme of the Cosby show is "family life is great". The theme of Married..with Children (working title: Not the Cosbys) is "family life is hell". Whatever your sitcom's theme, it's important that your show is consistent and that the audience is clear about what they're going to be tuning in to, and what the ongoing and seemingly unresolvable problems and challenges are for the main characters.
Consider any number of really successful shows in television history. It’s always the characters you remember, right? Audiences loyally follow and become engrossed in the lives of characters that they love. It's even better if the characters form a kind of family if not an actual family. Think of Sergeant Bilko's platoon, or even Terry and Arthur in Minder. When it comes to comedy - like anything dramatic - it's the characters, stupid. Prickly, nasty characters like Steptoe (Steptoe & Son) or George Costanza's character in Seinfeld become loveable BECAUSE of their weaknesses and faults.
As for laughs, a show needs to be funny, certainly. But there are any number of shows, especially some in their later years, which seem a lot funnier than they really are. They succeed because the audience has already fallen in love with the characters and is prepared to do some of the (imaginary) work necessary in bringing them to life.
A sitcom is a story that generates laughter.
If you have a strong enough story it will produce laughs.
Characters in a sitcom communicate through funniness, which is the outcome of their personal habits, incongruities and weaknesses. Think Basil Fawlty.
Sitcoms are not about jokes; they are about characters in odd, unexpected and incongruous situations, striving for something that is beyond them that rarely if ever winds up with them having more than they started with. Usually they end up with less. Certainly they are none the wiser.
Often, producers ask that you don't submit the pilot of a series because the pilots submitted usually take the entire half-hour to introduce the characters and establish the premise for the rest of the season and forget to tell a story.
Don't think pilot without thinking story. And don't think story without thinking Character -> Problem -> Goal -> Plan.
Read the pilots of Frasier and Friends to see how simply and economically they set things up.
Friends has to introduce six main characters and only Phoebe gets a little left-out. One always thinks the audience needs more information than they actually do.
Less exposition, more story.
Make the story something we care about.
A character trying to win a poker game with 10 cents at stake isn't very interesting (or funny) - so raise the stakes.
If they stood to lose their house or a loved one that would make us care more. I prefer comedy stories that would also work as drama stories.
Some writers feel they have to base their stories on real life and experience but comedy isn't real life.
A real incident can inspire you, as the story of a hotel guest being found dead inspired John Cleese and Connie Booth to write The Kipper and the Corpse episode of Fawlty Towers, but you have to be true to your show and not true to life. All because a story really happened it doesn't make it funny.
There are many theories on structure. Good storytelling usually breaks story structure into the basic steps of human action:
· Problem/Need: the difficult situation affecting the hero
· Desire: what the hero wants in the story
· Opponent: The character competing for the same goal
· Plan: How the hero will overcome the opponent and succeed
· Battle: the final conflict that decides who gets the goal
· Self revelation: an understanding the hero gains about themself
· New equilibrium: the world back to normal with the hero at a higher or lower level
· Obstacle/Forces of antagonism
There could then be a consequence of that solution which creates another obstacle and so on for five or six times. The aim is to ensure that the structure of your story has increasing conflict and an accelerated pace.
The three act structure is the basis of all sitcoms, even those with a commercial break, and put simply is:
· Act I - get your protagonist into a tree
· Act II - throw things at her/him
· Act III - get her/him down
I would suggest that you don't attempt to write your episode until you have your story and structure worked out. It saves a lot of time and hassle. As my grandmother used to say, "Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance".
Writing dialogue is the most fun part of the job and it is tempting to rush the foundation work to get there but that is ultimately self-defeating.
Rewriting dialogue is a lot easier than rewriting your story or characters.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that everyone talks in a unique way.
Sometimes a character's unique voice flows naturally as you write their dialogue; at other times it might mean going back and re-writing.
As well as a unique voice each character also talks to different people in different ways.
The way a character talks to their boss is going to be different to the way they talk to their lover or mother.
Add emotions into the mix and your character will sound different again depending on how they react when they are happy or depressed or scared.
Everything a character says should be moving the story forward.
Characters just sitting around cracking jokes is dull. Less comic banter, more story.
Some lines can be interpreted in many ways and if this is the case then it's OK to put in a note before the speech saying, for instance, "sarcastically" or "sadly" or to underline a word that needs emphasising.
However only do so when a line's interpretation isn't obvious otherwise it's insulting to the actors.
To check that your dialogue works you'll need to perform it. If you have problems saying it so would an actor.
A sitcom script is about 22 minutes long (commercials take up the other 8 minutes).
While many sitcoms are trying to break away from the standard boring format, most sitcoms are structured in the exact same way: each week, a familiar group of people (like a family, or co-workers) are faced with a humorous situation that is resolved in a humorous way.
Every good story can be summarized in one sentence: Drew gets fired, Frasier loses a contest, Al Bundy gets a raise.
The comic hero is an impostor. He follows his illusion, his impostership, to a fall, too. The purpose of the fall in a tragedy is somehow discovering something in a great revelation at the end. A comedy leads to a point where all your illusions are smashed, so it's an inverted tragedy. The boastful fellow, the buffoon,the soldier, the cook, the doctor, the favourite comic characters are all somehow the victims.
Situation comedy should really be called 'character comedy': the laughs come from the reaction of your characters to that situation.
It's not about one-liners and gags strung together. Neil Simon, one of the funniest writers ever, claims to have never written a joke.
Good writing, whether it is for comedy or drama is reliant on strong characters. Use characters that you know you can sustain and who are believable and interesting. Then make sure that those characters have an identity of their own. Characters MUST have needs and goals that we perceive are important to them. Comedy, like drama, relies on the frustration of desire.
A common misconception is that character comedy equals subtlety. But even in broadly comic shows with lots of gags there needs to be clearly delineated characters who harbor desires that are credible (for that character) and which we can identify with.
Another common misconception is that it's the actors who create characters and simply adding "to be played by X" next to a name is all a writer has to do.
It can be helpful to write a rôle with an actor in mind but creating characters is the writer's job.
A script with under developed characters wouldn't even get as far as X’s agent.
Some writers feel they have to base their characters on real life and experience but comedy isn't real life.
A real person can inspire you, as a Torquay hotel manager inspired John Cleese and Connie Booth to create Basil Fawlty, but you have to be true to your show and not true to life.
Just because a character really exists it doesn't make them funny.
Do a full character breakdown. Make a grid with all the names of the characters at the top and a list of physical, sociological and psychological attributes (taken from Linda Segar's book Creating Unforgettable Characters). Fill in the grid to see if the characters contrast sufficiently to show up each others traits and attitudes clearly.
There has to be conflict between the characters. They must be motivated by seemingly mutually exclusive goals and needs.
Try to keep the number of characters in your script to a sensible number.
Most sitcoms succeed because they focus on no more than four central characters with a small supporting cast.
CHARACTERS SHOULD BE ACTIVE
Not necessarily "active" meaning that they should continually be moving, but that the characters should not be passive and reactive.
The fun of watching a show is seeing a character get in trouble, and how they choose to get out of it.
In other words, make the situations arise out of stuff the characters do instead of stuff that happens to them.
So now we're at the tricky part . . .
coming up with an idea. You need an interesting, funny story that the character in the show would do, but hasn't already been written.
It has to be simple enough for sitcom fodder, but complex enough to give you two story climaxes.
How do you come up with a story?
Generally, the best stories are character-driven. Yes, there's a funny situation, but the situation should be especially uncomfortable for the main character.
One writing instructor explains it as follows: "If it's a situation you wouldn't want to be in, it's worth writing."
One way to generate stories is to make a list of the characters and their flaws. (See list of comedic situations)
Then, choose a few flaws and find a story that highlights them comedically. For example, Niles and Frasier are both competitive. A story that highlights their competitive natures could be that they somehow get involved in a marathon and have to race each other. Come up with an A story for the lead character. And B and C (and even D stories, if the show usually has them) for the supporting characters.
MAKE YOUR SCRIPT LOOK LIKE YOUR SITCOM
The first act sets up the main story, the problem for the main character. After the climax, there is a commercial. The second act explores the problem, and it is the longest act. The problem usually has a second climax right at the end, and is resolved after the commercial, when the third act begins. The third act is the shortest. While you should never believe anyone who talks about how many pages everything should be, we're going to give you a quick quick guideline here:
1. Act 1 - 6-7 pages. The entire situation should be crystal clear by this point.
2. Act 2 - 10-11 pages.
3. Act 3 - 5-8 pages.
You also have to make sure that your structure fits the show you're writing for. For instance, if every episode of Home Improvement involves Tim meeting the faceless Wilson toward the end of the episode to receive some moral guidance, then you must remember to have this element in your script.
SITCOM CHARACTER ARCHTYPES
The Square — Often the central protagonist, and usually The Everyman or the Only Sane Man or Woman. A large portion of the comedy from such a character comes from his/her reactions to the situation or other characters.
The Wisecracker — The domain of the SNARKER or PUN MAKER. This character just lives to make fun of others. If the protagonist isn’t a Square, s/he is most likely a Wisecracker.
The Bully — Despite the name, The Bully is oftentimes not an actual bully per se, but is sometimes a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Typically more outright belligerent than The Wisecracker, if written as a complete Jerkass, The Bully may actively dislike all the other characters. If female, this will be The Rich Bitch.
The Dork — Aka the Nerd, the Dork need not be stereotypically nerdy or geeky, at least not visually, though he or she should be such in relation to the other members of the cast.
The Goofball — This role is typically filled by The Ditz or the Cloud Cuckoo Character, but the character could also be generically zany or a Blithe Spirit rather than outright ditzy. Could also be a Pollyanna, with naivety serving as the defining trait; if so, expect this to be the youngest character.
The Charmer — This character comes in two varieties: First, the Casanova, the lover, the player. Enough said. Second, a more classically refined character, someone who is a devout adherent to old-fashioned politeness, grace and decorum.
The Stick — Crank The Square up to eleven, and you have The Stick. This character is extremely uptight and stuffy, a stickler for the rules if you will, a stick in the mud as it were. Usually humorless, often humorously so. The humor from The Stick generally results from his/her dismay or outright horror at the antics of the others.
The Sage — Usually an older character, this person acts as a sort of Mentor to the main characters, dispensing advice and a fable or two. Though close to the main group, The Sage generally exists outside that group, for example a neighbor, or an authority figure such as a teacher.
The Bigmouth — A (sometimes) softer, less-hateful alternative to The Bully, The Bigmouth is an annoying, um, bigmouth. Whether s/he is a Know-Nothing Know-It-All, an overbearing egotist like Ted Baxter, or an intrusive Nosy Neighbor, The Bigmouth just has a knack for getting on everyone’s nerves.
Important questions to ask your script/story:
a) Are the characters strong, interesting and original?
b) Are the relationships between characters clear and amusing?
c) Does it have a good unpredictable story?
d) Is the dialogue realistic?
e) Is it funny?
f) Are you convinced that it's the very best you can do?
If the answer is no to any of those then you must do some...
"Everything can be improved" - C. W. Barron
Don't be afraid of rewriting.
That favourite scene or joke might have to be cut for the script to be better.
Even if your script is accepted for production you may have to rewrite it several times.
As the adage goes: writing is rewriting.
Don't settle on your script being as good as the worst sitcoms on air but keep re-writing it until it is as good as the best sitcoms that are on air.
First draft scripts are easily spotted and automatically rejected as it shows that the writer couldn't be bothered to try and improve it.
"The first draft of everything is shit" - Ernest Hemingway
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHEN CREATING A SITCOM
1) Page One
2) What is is really about? How is it about us? (e.g.: Steptoe & Son isn't really about rag and bone men; it's about parents and children) Porridge is about Experience and Innocence.
3) Are the characters archetypes or cliches? Are they bigger than life but still recognisable from life? Fawlty is a huge monster but we all recognise his frustration and inadequacy. And although he is horrible, we can feel for him because Sybil is worse.
4) Are you showing not telling? Are you avoiding plain back-story and exposition?
5) What are the characters doing? Have they got a story? Are they initiating their problems and making them worse and/or solving them? Is the story letting them go through a range of emotions in the episode?
6) What are the key relationships? Sitcoms are about relationships as much as characters an situations.
7) Are the characters/relationships/story exactly the same at the end of the scene as at the beginning? If so, why is the scene there?
8) What are your centers of actions? You shouldn't really have more than two or three. Also, the more characters you have the fewer the centers of action. (e.g.: In Dad's Army they're all in the hall. We don't follow them home, etc, so the focus of the show is always clear and simple.
9) Can you tick a genuine laugh at least every three or four lines?
"There’s a pitch in baseball called a screwball, which was perfected by a pitcher named Carl Hubbell back in the 1930s. It’s a pitch with a particular spin that sort of flutters and drops, goes in different directions, and behaves in very unexpected ways… Screwball comedy was unconventional, went in different directions, and behaved in unexpected ways… ”Andrew Bergman,“We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films”
The film critic James Agee described the essence of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy as the scene in which the two are moving a piano across a narrow suspension bridge in the Alps, and halfway across they meet a gorilla.
This may be more than the essence of Laurel and Hardy. It may be the essence of all American Comedy. It’s nuts, it’s illogical, it’s impossible, and it’s hilarious. It’s also abundant with endless comic variations, opened to unexpected solutions, and primarily grounded in danger.
(Screw-ball [skrue’bol] Noun, Slang, meaning unbalanced, erratic, irrational, unconventional), became a popular slang word in the 1930s. It was applied to films where everything was a juxtaposition: educated and uneducated, rich and poor, intelligent and stupid, honest and dishonest, and most of all male and female. When two people fell in love, they did not simply surrender to their feelings, they battled it out. They lied to one another, often assuming indifferent personae toward each other. They often employed hideous tricks on each other, until finally after running out of inventions, fall into each others arms. It was fossilized comedy, physical and often painful, but mixed with the highest level of wit and sophistication, depending wholly on elegant and inventive writing.
Some characteristics of Screwball Comedy
Reverse class snobbery, to be poor is somehow to be more noble. What’s more, to be rich is to be castigated, passions befitting theater patrons, during the Great Depression. A very skillful blend of sophistication and slapstick. Although screwball characters move in an elegant world, where even a simple bathroom appears to be the center of their universe, they may still whack one another over the head, but while The Three Stooges use sledgehammers, screwball characters use silver chafing dishes, and the like—weapons of the upper class.
A well written script, laced with barbed dialog. An overlapping style of delivery, with lines tossed off in rapid fire. An emphases on elegant clothes, cars, and furniture. The use of exotic locals, even the dump site in “My Man Godfrey”, (see below). The hero or the heroine living by his or her wits alone, though this is often balanced by a reliable gainfully employed love interest.
Last and probably most important, supporting casts of first-rate character actors playing eccentric types as well as a stable of familiar faces in leading roles (Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn)
My Man Godfrey
One of the most unusual screwball comedies was “My Man Godfrey (1936)", a Universal production directed by Gregory La Cava. It begins at a garbage dump along New York’s East River. People in evening clothes, taking part in a scavenger hunt for a charity event, step out of a roadster to look for a “forgotten man”, a 1930s term for the unemployed and homeless. A derelict, after pushing one woman into an ash heap, agrees to go along with her sister. His dignity and sardonic humor impress her, and she hires him as butler for the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion. The wealthy family turn out to be spoiled, selfish, and inane—“empty-headed nitwits,” as the derelict-turned-butler calls them.
He, it turns Out, is also from a rich family; he landed in the dump through despondency over a broken love affair, Through his butler work he pulls his life together and in the end opens a posh nightclub, the Dump, on the dump site to provide employment, food, and shelter to “forget men” The film’s predominant point, however, is not that the poor are redeemable, but that the wealthy are.
Screwball comedy crested in the late 1930s. And with the increasing hostilities brewing in Europe, the glib, and at times genteel barbs between two highly disillusioned participants seemed docile, and trivial. Certainly Romantic comedy had it’s place during the war years. Films such as, “Mr. Lucky (1943)”, used the urbane characters of the Screwball genre, augmenting them with a win the war at all costs purpose. By wars end the less sophisticated, but more utilitarian comedy of Preston Sturges had come into fashion.
What is typical American comedy? There are many things that Hollywood makes comedy about. Actually any subject is fair game. But there seems to be a single subject that persists—the battle of the sexes as presented in the Hollywood Romantic comedy. Only in America can you find the male-female relationship depicted as a vicious though delightful clash in which the man and women resist their feelings for one another by battling each other with a particularly desperate passion. And only in America can the story of destructive sexual passion be cultivated as a freewheeling slapstick event laced with acid wit. A subject that in most cultures would be recounted as stark tragedy, in the hands of Billy Wilder,Charles Brackett,Howard Hawks, or Frank Capra, is perfect material for comedy and romance.
Comedies often suffer from one, great malady : they're usually not all that funny.
Here's a list of seven of my favorite, all-but-overlooked comedies. All of these at various times of my life have brought sidesplitting laughter and tears to my eyes, You may have others that you think are funnier. If so, send me your favorites and I will add them to the recommended film list on this site. Watch this film now at THE SCREENING ROOM
WHAT ABOUT BOB? Directed by Frank Oz A 1991 comedy starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. Murray plays Bob Wiley, a multi-phobic psychiatric patient who follows his successful and (beyond) egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Dreyfuss) on vacation. When the unstable Bob befriends the other members of Marvin's family, it pushes the doctor over the edge.
MURDER HE SAYSDirected by George Marshall 1945 film in which Trotter pollster, Pete Marshall, is trying to find a missing coworker. In a rural town he stumbles onto the ruffian Fleagle family. Bert and Mert would just as soon "splatter" snoopers with their rifles. However, Ma Johnson focuses the family energies on finding cousin Bonnie Fleagle's $70,000 bank job stash, somewhere around the large old rickety house. Claire Matthews, the daughter of a man implicated in Bonnie's bank job, also comes in search of the money to try and clear her father's name. Marshall and Matthews team up to try and decode Grandma Fleagle's strange deathbed clue but with Mr. Johnson attempting to poison people and Bonnie Fleagle showing up herself after a prison escape, it's anybody's guess as to who will find the money first. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=84159
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARYDirected by Bobby and Peter Farrelly A combination of romantic comedy and gross-out film.
THIS IS SPINAL TAPDirected by Rob Reiner A tongue-in-cheek, deadpan "rockumentary" from the 80s, features Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and the totally underrated Michael McKean. With music that's surprisingly good and an extraordinarily sophisticated sense of irony, This is Spinal Tap will either leave you laughing hysterically or totally confused, as original audiences, who thought the movie a straight documentary, were. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_Spinal_Tap
GALAXY QUESTDirected by Dean Parisot Featuring the all-too-familiar elements of your average Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention replete with geeky girls, techno-obsessive teenage boys, and ridiculing dudes, Galaxy Quest provides a pretend glimpse into the real lives of science fiction television actors as it takes them from earth to an alien world, where they must battle a fearsome alien warrior, an invulnerable rock creature, and inexplicably loud and scary crushing things. And the aliens are really nice. Watch the full movie on YOUTUBE
BEING THEREDirected by Hal Ashby A simple-minded gardener named Chance has spent all his life in the Washington D.C. house of an old man. When the man dies, Chance is put out on the street with no knowledge of the world except what he has learned from television. After a run in with a limousine, he ends up a guest of a woman (Eve) and her husband Ben, an influential but sickly businessman. Now called Chauncey Gardner, Chance becomes friend and confidante to Ben, and an unlikely political insider. Funniest closing credit sequence (out-takes) ever made. http://www.imdb.com/tt0078841/
The 4 Rules of Comedy Writing For Screenwriters
Courtesy of D.B. Gilles
Total absence of humor renders life impossible. - Colette
As the saying goes, "Funny is money." The person who can write funny has a definite edge over the person who finds it difficult.
So if you're humor challenged when it comes to dialogue, what can you do about it?
In my experience, writing funny, original dialogue comes naturally, just as spontaneously adlibbing funny, clever remarks does. You can either do it or you can't.
I wish I could say "Take a comedy writing class" or "Read a book on how to write funny stuff" or offer you some inspirational words of wisdom on finding your inner stand-up comic.
What I can offer you is something Tim Allen said in a TV Guide interview upon being asked about his sense of humor, specifically his ability to be funny. "Being (italics mine) funny is a gift to me. I don't know where it comes from. It's magic and it's marvelous and I'm terrified it will all go away."
Where does it come from? Who knows? Where does superior natural athletic prowess come from? Why is one 6'8" kid who plays forward on his high school team, better than fifty other 6'8" forwards on other high school teams? For every Lebron James there's 10,000 kids who aren't quite good enough.
The First Rule of Writing Funny:
• Just because you can say funny things doesn't mean you can write funny things
Writing funny is different than saying or doing funny things. Lots of men and women who crack up their friends and co-workers are incapable of writing funny dialogue. Adolescent boys who can't get attention from girls by excelling at sports, their looks or intelligence resort to goofball antics either physical or verbal. But that only goes so far and lasts so long. The kid whose talent is shoving a slice of pizza up his nose will be trumped by the boy who has figured out that girls get bored quickly with silliness and prefer someone who can amuse them with wit.
This funny boy will likely blossom into a funny man and will find that his gift will be a big plus in his social life.
And it will come in especially handy if he sets his sights on being a screenwriter.
In real life most people can't tell a joke or a story, especially a funny one. They lose their focus, deliver the punch line too soon, go off on a tangent, leave out an important detail or sink into a meandering blur. They've lost their audience. As the author of a screenplay that's a comedy, your audience is much tougher and unforgiving: agents, producers, development people, creative executives and managers.
You have to keep that agent laughing from the first page--especially the first page--because if she's enjoying herself by the time she gets to the bottom she'll definitely turn to Page two. And if you keep the laughs coming for the next ten and the rest of the first Act you can feel pretty confident she'll finish the rest of the script--provided you have a compelling story.
Which leads us to The Second Rule of Writing Funny:
• A strong story without a lot of laughs is preferable to a weak story with three jokes per page
Many comedies falter because of a flimsy or dimwitted plot. Ultimately, no matter how many laughs a script has, if the story isn't absorbing enough for somebody to sink his teeth into, it won't get read to the final Fade Out. As we're laughing at things your characters are saying and doing, we must care about them and root for them to get whatever it is they want (no matter how goofy). If that want isn't there we're not going along for that ride no matter how amusing it might be.
There's an old maxim in baseball: "I'd rather be lucky than talented." When it comes to a comedy screenplay, I'd rather have a solid story than plenty of laughs. Laughs can be put in. Maybe not by you, but if it's a great story your chance of getting an agent or a deal has just gotten closer to the goal line. If you have a 103-page script with lots of laughs but a mediocre story, well, it's a lot harder to punch up a plot.
The Third Rule of Writing Funny:
• Two heads can be better than one
Let's say you're a serious, reliable screenwriter with a clear understanding of not only the 3-Act Structure, but 5-Act and 7-Act structures, as well. You know that characters should be three-dimensional, have internal and external conflicts and be properly motivated.
You've immersed yourself in Joseph Campbell and Chrisopher Vogler so you know the 12 Stages of the Hero's Journey inside and out. You've read all the screenwriting books (especially mine The Screenwriter Within), gone to the important seminars, studied, analyzed and deconstructed films, read the key biographies and autobiographies of screenwriters (Adventures In The Screen Trade, The Devil's Guide To Hollywood, Bambi Vs Godzilla to name a few) and subscribed to the best screenwriting magazines.
There's only one problem: you are incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue. Unfortunately, all the ideas you come up with are way too serious and downbeat (like that bio-pic on Damien the Leper you've been mulling over for three years).
You need to get together with a certain kind of person. The off the wall, rapid fire, life of the party, grown up class clown who has the ability to write jokes, great set pieces and funny lines and is hilarious 24/7, but if his or her life depended on it, couldn't come up with a story and write a script.
It's the perfect convergence of talent.
Check the credits on sitcoms. You'll find at least one and often two writing teams on every show. Same with screenplays. It's fair to assume that most of these teams got together because they each brought their strength to the table.
Finding your writing soul mate isn't easy. It's like finding someone to marry. You have to look around, see how you get on and hope that it works.
If it does work you'll both be in a much better place than going it alone.
The Fourth rule of Writing Funny:
• Find your genre
When we go to a Farrely Brothers movie we expect a certain kind of product. Lots of gross out humor in largely unrealistic, high concept plots with a handful of genuinely inspired lines and moments. Woody Allen films, especially his early and mid-career efforts offered a witty, neurotic take on the human condition, especially romance. His fans know that we were going to see a unique, intellectual kind of creativity and wit. If Judd Apatow's name is on a film be it writer, producer or director we know it'll be something high concept with an abundance of sex jokes, but with an undertone of sweetness.
The thing is, depending upon the kind of comedy you're writing, you may not need to be as funny as these guys.
Romantic comedies need laughs, but not tons of them. Take two Reese Witherspoon films. Sweet Home Alabama wasn't a laugh a minute. Neither was Legally Blonde, but it was funnier and had a higher concept. Both had compelling stories.
Guy comedies (or buddy comedies) need more laughs than a romantic comedy. Think I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers, Talladega Nights, The Pineapple Express or Role Models.
Let's look at television. I used to hear people refer to Sex and The City as a sitcom. It wasn't. It was a drama with occasional laughs. No one watched Sex and The City for the humor (and nobody went to the film version expecting to laugh out loud for two hours), as opposed to Seinfeld, Family Guy or 30 Rock. Same with Entourage. Is it a sitcom? Not really. Parts of every episode are hilarious. But it's really a drama with laughs that come from character.
Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe. Information crucial to the plot is given. Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there shouldn't be one in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming.
So if you want to write a big, broad comedy (Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Dumb and Dumber) your script better be funny as hell from first page to last.
So if you want to write a romantic comedy or something serio/comic (serious topic with laughs) or a comedy/drama (lighthearted story with a serious or sentimental turn) you don't necessarily have to have 3-6 laughs per page. Once again, here is where having a solid story will supersede lots of laughs.
In conclusion, can someone be taught to write comedy? Yes. Just like someone can be taught how to cook. If you take cooking classes, read a bunch of cookbooks, watch Food TV and spend enough time in the kitchen trying out recipes, you'll be able to prepare a meal that you won't be ashamed of.
Learning to write comedy is pretty much the same. You can find a class or program on sitcom writing, improv and stand up. You can read books on comedy writing (Writing The Romantic Comedy is very good, as is What Are You Laughing At?: How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories, and More). You can study comedies (you'll learn more from the bad ones, than the good).
Lastly, if you don't want to collaborate and if your heart is set on writing comedies, just keep staring at that scene that needs punching up until a funny line pops into your head. Then do it again and again and again. Just don't try to analyze what's funny or figure out where it comes from. E.B. White said it best: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."
LIFE ISN'T A SENTENCE - IT'S A GENRE
"Genre films rehearse abiding issues central to the community’s sense of identification — freedom versus authority, country versus city, wilderness versus civilization, tradition versus [innovation], [damnation] versus redemption, guilt versus grace, [past] versus future, industry versus sloth, beauty versus ugliness." - Robert T. Self
From the screenwriter’s perspective, genre is the acknowledgement of the preeminence of both tribal affiliation and the presence in one’s audience of a tribal consciousness.
In terms of dramatic, screen storytelling, tribe is identifiable by what it does.
Genre, in turn, is an expression of those defining social processes through which particular tribal entities manifest their being, both inside and outside the script.
Genre is the tribal storyteller's manner of portraying or dramatising the guiding themes and symbols inherent in both the storyteller’s tribe and audience. The underlying values, emotions and ideas by which the storyteller and his/her audience identify themselves are major considerations (or influences) in the choice of genre.
Consider the words: "Once upon a time ..." They will have a very different meaning for an audience whose cultural initiation has included fairy tales. An initiated audience will expect an anecdote or narrative, probably of a fanciful nature, involving unexpected events and characters, some of whom may be larger than life.
Genre invokes tribe and tribe evokes genre.
Dramatic scripts, if approached tribally, from the perspective of character-based experiences, evolve into structures that are purposeful; and, like the actions of the characters that inhabit them, are goal oriented. Genre implies purpose.
A screen story exists for a purpose; it possesses its own objective, some times quite different from the objectives of the characters, insofar as it conveys an emotional meaning that the storyteller wants to leave with his or her audience.
The character, structure and movement of the emotional energy of a film, when grounded in a dramatic grammar and guided by tribal sensitivities, produce a singular coherence, which we refer to as genre.
Every genre produces its own, special kind of energy that derives from the actions of ALL of the story’s characters. Such actions appear real, legitimate and seamless so long as they maintain coherence amongst all of the story’s constituent parts, most of which – if the film is successful – will go unnoticed by the audience.
Only when it breaks down, when the style is inexplicably altered or changes in some way, do we become aware of the species of the emotional energy we have been experiencing, and if that happens we are invariably thrown out of the story.
Genre is the dress code of character and plot – not a physical dress code, but an emotional one, for it tells the audience that has been invited to the feast what kind of emotional investment is required and what sort of party they can expect.
So long as the story remains the story in which the emotional investment has been made one reads the emotional codes of the characters with alacrity and, hopefully, some degree of empathy. But break the code and you will find that it is difficult if not impossible to transcend or constructively transform the confusion thus produced.
A screen story makes a pact with its characters, and these include not only the characters IN the script, but also the characters outside of it, namely the AUDIENCE and the TRIBE. Taken together this configuration determines the screenwriter’s relationship to the subject matter.
The most successful film storytellers frequently tell stories about themselves, or the people to whom they are tribally connected. It is difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could create the kind of emotional energy required to make an emotional impact on an audience without working from his or her origins. Indeed it is these origins that have brought him or her into the ambit of the audiences to whom the stories might be addressed. In this way, genre waits on audience, or at least the storyteller’s realization of audience, imaginatively, in the process of finding the story.
The means by which one communicates a story – in this case, film or video – is another factor in the encoding process that is genre. Choices concerning the way in which the story is shot, lit, designed, edited or organized, are all elements in the creation of genre, and are themselves grounded in the writer’s, director’s producer’s et al, relationships with the characters, the audience and the tribe.
Purpose, or genre, is determined by a nexus of identities involving characters in the script (and their given circumstances) and characters outside the script - namely the storyteller/s, the audience and the tribe (and their tribal circumstances).
The sympathetic and coherent alignment of all the circumstances of ALL the characters in the story-finding enterprise produce the CHARACTER of the story itself, which is its genre.
Taking liberties with genre conventions can be a double-edged sword. When done successfully, something fresh is breathed into the old formula that sometimes gives rise to a whole, new genre. When done unsuccessfully, as in the case of the feature film, THE LONG SHIPS (above) it usually produces dramatic action in which the intensity or emotional energy of a scene or sequence is seriously blunted or undermined by an emotional response that is out of keeping with the actions of the characters. Spoof usually operates in this way, but deliberately so.
Film noir, or "black cinema", reached its apex in the decade after the Second World War. Typified by low key lighting, dark interiors, night exteriors (shot night-for-night), wet streets, a brooding mood, a hard-boiled and independent hero with an ambivalence towards or dislike of authority, cynical dialogue, villains who prefer greed and lust, and a smouldering suggestion of illicit sexuality, personified by a sexually agressive femme fatale, whose deceit threatens to undo the best hopes and fortunes of the male lead, it graphically captured the spirit of the times, though it antecedents are traceable back to the mass electrification of the cities - around 1910 - and the rise of German Expressionism, a painting movement that came to the fore during the 30s Depression.
Its emergence as a dramatic form was disarmingly articulated in the gritty pulp fiction that followed World War II, especially in the work of writers like Hammett, Chandler and Horace McCoy among others, and the vision of several leading German and Austrian film directors who emigrated to America after Hitler came to power.
The insecurities and confusion of the post-war period wedded to a series of profound technological developments in both lighting and film stocks, were major contributing factors to the popularity of the genre.
Essentially, there are two types of dramatic plots that characterize the form.
In the first type, a detective, or representative of the law, descends into an unstable unpredictable corrupt universe as he searches for the truth. In the second, a decent "Everyman" gets drawn into a corrupt environment which poisons him until he, too, ends up corrupt (e.g.: Quinlan in Touch of Evil).
The visual style of a classic Noir film, emphasizes a dark and hostile universe. The hero's moral confusion is usually externalized in the use of low-key lighting and extreme, nightmarish shadows. Harsh lighting contrasts, jagged shapes, weird camera angles, all contribute to the unease and sense of threat. Often there are scenes at night in which pools of darkness are broken up by pockets of light. Dark streets, alleys, tunnels, subways, elevators, and train cars (which function as motifs of entrapment) create alien and often claustrophobic environments, depersonalized by flashing neon signs and dense fog. Clouds of cigarette smoke swirling in dimly lit cocktail lounges mix with symbols of fragility, such as window panes, sheer clothing, glasses and mirrors.
Noir characters are invariably "imprisoned" behind ornate lattices, grill-work, drifting fog and smoke.
There is also a sense of temporariness - as if the entire world is in flux, moving towards an uncertain future - hence, the use of transient settings : grubby rented rooms, bus terminals, piers, railroad yards, and the like.
The tone is usually paranoid and fatalistic. The focus, on human depravity, violence, lust, greed and betrayal.
Some Examples of Film Noir
Detectives searching for the truth in an alien, corrupt universe:
Examples include John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, 1941; Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet, 1944; Otto Preminger's Laura, 1944; Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, 1958
A decent man is slowly poisoned by a corrupt environment :
Examples include Arthur Lubin's Impact, 1949; Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, 1945; Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, 1945; Jacques Tourneur's Out Of The Past, 1947; Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, 1948, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, 1944. (See below)
The dramatization of a life or part of the life of an historical figure, that is purportedly based on the basic history facts. Examples include Walk The Line, Grey Owl, Gandhi, Patton, Cinderella Man, Malcolm X, Frieda, and many, many others.
German Expressionism in film only lasted for about a decade, between the world wars. The first films to be considered Expressionist were produced just prior to 1920. By the late 20's the style had mostly been replaced in Europe by the films being produced in Hollywood.
The expansion of Oscar's Best Picture category to ten nominees is supposed to expand recognition for genres generally ignored by the Academy when it comes to major nominations: action, comedy, sci-fi, horror and comedy. Although audiences flock to such films, fans often accuse Oscar voters of being elitist for perpetually showering nominations on heavy dramas or "message" movies. There have been exceptions over the years, but by-and-large films like The Dark Knight rarely get nominated for major awards. That was not always the case. In the 1970s, blockbusters like Airport and The Towering Inferno scored Best Picture nominations. Industry insiders speculate that the expansion of the Best Picture categories will not see an increase in nominations for popular films in the aforementioned genres. Instead, the slots might be taken by smaller, art house movies.
You know where you are with Viking films. Or do you? What if, instead of battling each other, they have to slug it out with an alien? Charles Gant looks at a new film with just that set-up and at other examples of movies that weld formats together.
Films focused on the sinister actions of criminals or gangsters, particularly bank robbers, underworld figures, or ruthless hoodlums who operate outside the law, stealing and violently murdering their way through life. In the 1940s, a new type of crime thriller emerged, more dark and cynical - see the section on filmnoir for further examples of crime films. Criminal and gangster films are often categorized as post-war film noir or detective-mystery films - because of underlying similarities between these cinematic forms.
The female characters in a chick flick are usually strong women who overcome adversity to reach their goals. The key to a successful chick flick is a message of female empowerment, although a snappy soundtrack and closets full of designer clothes will also help boost ratings. The stories can be as diverse as Thelma and Louise,Raising Helen, and Revenge of the Bridesmaids.
"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..."