COMEDY Part 1 of 3 by Scott Mullen

This article was originally part of a book on comedy for the London Screenwriters’ Festival.

When I was in college, I worked weekends as a movie theater usher. It was at an old theater, which had been walled into four smaller theaters; the upstairs theaters were essentially each half of the former balcony. Steep seats, and an entrance on the side.

And one of my favorite things to do, whenever we had a good comedy playing upstairs, was to go up there, and just watch the people laugh.

Because the theater was steep, you could see a wide swath of people, and a large portion of their bodies. And when people really laugh, they laugh with their whole bodies – their necks whiplashing, their legs going one way, their arms another, a seizure of complete delight.

And watching a hundred people laugh at once, in the light from the movie screen, was pretty amazing.

And funny.

One of the most reliable laughs was in the movie “Three Men and a Baby”. There’s a scene in which Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg are doing an amazingly terrible (and funny) job of diapering the baby, but they finally manage it. And then Tom Selleck finally lifts the baby, in proud completion of the task – and the diaper falls off. And then the baby pees on him. And the audience would howl and spasm. Howl and spasm. It’s a lowbrow joke, but it worked. Every time.

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Now I read scripts. I’ve probably read 12,000 as a professional reader. Many of them are comedy scripts.

And I root for them all. Really. I want them to make me laugh, even if it’s the hardest thing in the world to sit in a room, reading something alone, and judge if it’s funny. Even comedy movies are automatically funnier if you’re watching them in a theater, with hundreds of people.

Comedy on the page is automatically several degrees less funny than it could be on the screen, when everything comes together. But I’ve read a lot of funny scripts, scripts that sometimes even made me laugh out loud.

And I’ve read a lot of terrible comedies that just made me wonder what on earth the writer was thinking.

The problem with comedy is that it’s hard to quantify and dissect. You can make broad generalizations, but the thing with comedy is that when it goes were you don’t expect – when it surprises you – then that’s where it is really funny. Often it works because it isn’t quantifiable.

In Parts 2 & 3 of this blog post, I try to quantify it.

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