Comedy Part 3 of 3

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.

In part 2 of this series I gave you a couple things to think about if you want to wow a veteran reader with comedy: COMEDIES NEED PLOT and SURPRISE ME. Here’s a couple more:

DON’T GET LAZY.  There are so many comic bits that I read over, and over and over again.  Usually they are sort of the tack-on bits that don’t really come out of the characters or the story – they are just the writer trying to do anything he can to add more laughs.

But if you are going to use something really familiar, really ask yourself what you’ve done to make it your own – or at least how you’ve spun it to elevate it among all the other similar bits out there.

One of the most common is the character who mangles the English language, dropping in wrong words all the time.  We’ve gotten to the point where bits like this need to be outrageously-clever to really work any more, and few of them are.

Silly names is something that really rarely works any more either – and if you feel you need to go there, there’d better be a really, really good reason for it.

If you are going to go with fart jokes, you’d better have come up with a very solid spin on it, something that elevates it beyond the thousands I’ve read.  They are automatically more interesting if they come out of the characters and the situation – a character who farts every time he is nervous, trying to get through a first date, has more potential to be funny than another iteration of the flatulent roommate character.

Vomit is another example.  It’s an easy laugh to have puke fly – but try to do something really clever with it, something unexpected.  The laugh will be bigger.

MAKE COMIC BANTER WORK.  Some of the best laughs I read come off of two characters bouncing off each other, whether they are insulting each other, just riffing on something they are encountering, or reacting to the story complications they are experiencing.

But again, it always works better if it is coming out of character, and advancing the story.  “When Harry Met Sally” is a movie full of comic banter – but every single scene in that movie advances the story in some way.

Too many scripts I read instead use it as an excuse to tell jokes; scenes will go on for five pages with characters essentially just trading comedy bits.  Which could work, if the bits are funny as hell, but if you’re just parroting a familiar comedy bit, which isn’t advancing the story, that’s much, much less effective.

One of my favorite bits in a movie with a character telling a joke is in “Good Will Hunting”, when Minnie Driver tells a joke about an elderly couple and oral sex.  But it works, not just because the joke is pretty funny, but because it’s a great character and story moment – it’s Minnie Driver winning over these guys and proving that she can hold her own in this world.

IF YOUR SCRIPT IS A COMEDY, TRY TO ACTUALLY BE FUNNY.  If your script doesn’t actively try to be funny, then it’s a drama – and then it had better be a great drama.  If it’s a comedy, then you should always be looking where to find more and more honest laughs.

A lot of writers get caught in the middle.  They have a plot that’s sort of dramatic and sort of funny, so they settle for a little bit of drama and the occasional laugh – maybe there will be a very funny setpiece here, and then the script will go 20 pages before it even tries to be funny again.

If you are blending genres, own it.  It doesn’t mean that every comedy-drama needs to always be going for screaming laughs, but you should be looking to mine a consistent level of them, without ever letting it drop out of the script for long periods of time.

SO NOW DO IT.   Write the kind of comedy that’s going to make me howl and spasm – or at least provoke a knowing smirk.  Because that’s what every script reader really yearns for.

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