Comedy Part 2 of 3 by Scott Mullen

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

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. 

So if you want to wow a veteran reader with your comedy, these are some things I want you to think about:

COMEDIES NEED PLOT.  You might be able to write a movie about two funny guys in a room trading jokes for two hours, but it would be tough to do – and those jokes had better be very funny.

In comedy, plot is everything, and it’s amazing how many comic screenwriters disregard that.  They start with the laughs, and then come up with a few things to do between comic setpieces.

And not only are they making things much more difficult for themselves, they are robbing themselves of the fact that a strong plot yields even more opportunities to mine honest comedy from your script.

Clever one-liners and comic banter are nice, but that’s the frosting on the cake.  Your main character needs to want something.  There need to be obstacles, he needs to be trying to overcome these obstacles, and his struggles need to be providing humor, and then he needs to find another obstacle, and then another.  If we’re in the moment with him, the better.

But really come up with a structure that works, that will allow you to hang the funny sequences from it, as well as mine some real laughs from your particular character and the unique journey he is going on.  That’s how you make a good comedy.  “Ghostbusters”, “Beverly Hills Cop”, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”.

Of course, not all story is equal.  Try to avoid sinking into formula and predictability – if you are going to do a romantic comedy, do a romantic comedy that breaks the rules, not one that falls into the same old stilted two-step.

A lot of the most original work these days is being done in animation – and the best of those movies have great central storylines.

SURPRISE ME.  A joke that you can see coming a mile away really isn’t funny.  The great thing about the baby-pee bit is that we think the scene is over, that the dads have won, and then the diaper drops and the pee flows.

Always look to shape comic scenes with an eye toward this.  Is there a way to reverse expectations, to make the last joke pop a little more?  That Three Men and a Baby sequences is really well-crafted, a mini story that is all about these men figuring this out – and then there’s the comic twist at the end.

The problem with surprise is that’s it’s automatically hard to really keep a sense of, because any scene a writer has been playing with for a while automatically becomes less surprising to the writer – you forget how well a moment might play to someone who doesn’t know where it is going.

I recently brought in 25 pages of a comedy to my script group, a fragment that I’d written years earlier and had dug out of mothballs to give a quick polish to.  I wasn’t sure if it worked or not, but listening to the actors read it – and the biggest laughs coming with moments in which I’d completely reversed expectations – made me realize how valuable that can be.

In Part 3: more for you to think about when writing your comedy.

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