On the back of a swarm of new grintagers joining the community, some have been mailing looking for posts on writing comedy.
The below was published last April and a good introduction. Remember for more features on developing and writing original screen comedy use the SEARCH button on the HOME page to find more. And again if you are – or know of someone – creating web shorts why not share@grintageireland.
What we are trying to explore here is highlighting what comedy devices and tools the comedy writer employs to make you laugh.
This article has been designed to open up your mind to the tricks of the trade – and well used techniques – employed by comedy writers to create a laugh. It is part of their artillery and like driving a car after a while it naturally slots in to their editorial brain. But unlike ‘drama’, comedy writers are under more pressure!
With ‘comedy’ the audience is signing a ‘contract’ with the writers, performers & producers. They have been forewarned that this next TV show or act is ‘comedy’ – and therefore are primed to laugh. They expect to laugh. It had better be funny! The more they laugh the more a success it is – the less they laugh the more chance they will not re-join the experience. If large numbers of viewers find the new TV comedy show unfunny then it is off air. No re-commission. Or in the US it’s crueller – the broadcaster just pulls it off in mid season. Failure is an expensive lesson. The same fate doesn’t hit mediocre drama.
So what steps can be taken before production to ensure that all factors for success have been covered? The use of an audience – live readings, professional read-throughs, casting scenes on tape, shooting pilots etc – are all acceptable and valid. Comedy is unique. The success or failure of a comedy is judged on the visible and audible reaction from the audience. This doesn’t happen with mediocre drama. The use of and the understanding of the audience in the development of any comedy project is therefore vital.
Let’s go back in time.
I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set,
I go into the other room and read a book.
THE 1st EVER COMEDY FOCUS GROUP
The MARX BROTHERS were originally a quartet (Groucho, Harpo, Chici & Zeppo) but Zeppo left and became their agent. When the studio bosses suggested that
- ‘seeing they had lost one brother their salaries should get cut by a quarter’ Groucho replied that
- ‘they were now twice as funny without Zeppo’
They always played themselves in character and looking at their act the division of ‘who did what‘ was the most clear-cut casting ever.
With the insistence of a new film studio boss in the 1930s they developed their MGM films by performing the material ‘on the road’. For a NIGHT AT THE OPERA they included all the scenes and jokes that they planned for the film. They had a very simple method.
- If the joke failed – they edited it out of the show
- If there was a delayed laugh – they sharpened the line
- If they only got a mild laugh – back to the ‘ workshop ‘
- If they got a loud laugh – kept in the show / film.
For a ‘ DAY AT THE RACES ‘ the theatre audience received comment cards and had to mark the jokes down according to their ‘ funniness ‘. The top 75 jokes were selected to appear in the film. This was the beginning of the story editor / script conference.
THEIR AUDIENCE WAS THEIR SCRIPT EDITOR.
This industrial technique of dramatic writing was in effect shaping the future of the American sitcom. Today at focus viewings the audience research breakdown might reveal that –
” … 60% of white housewives in Arkansas living in households earning less than $20.000 per year thought it was
A – moderately funny
B – funny or
C – very funny. “
It is this mechanical relationship with its audience that places the US sitcom comedy writer and the sitcom as the purest of the ‘mass arts’. It is also obvious that comedy writers in the USA were influenced by its writing styles as they grew up with situation comedy programmes as children. In the USA sitcoms sit every night on primetime TV at 8 or 9pm. Every night during the week.
With so many ad breaks though writers had to develop scenes rich in character, more jokes and heightened plot to ensure the audience returned after the commercials. Maybe they had 6 or 7 commercial breaks in one half hour. RTE may have 1. BBC has none – so BBC sitcoms usually run for 29 minutes and with no ad breaks needs more writing craft and a skilful intercutting of Story A, B & C into one narrative piece.
But with so many ad breaks on US TV writers had to produce more scenes, more pace, ‘drama’ beats in & out of breaks and whilst ultimately less writing there was a huge emphasis on technique.
Half hour US shows would usually need 22 minutes of script. Whilst the US studios initially wanted 13 eps – if it worked then they ordered another 13 and then if it settled in the schedule they wanted 52 episodes! Then the commercial upside hits big time as the shows are syndicated and with so many episodes more international broadcasters buy them. And so on. Often the global demand boosted the demands for re-commissioning.
Whilst US animated comedy can produce over 600 shows (e.g. The Simpsons), real action sitcoms like MASH, Cheers, Frasier & Friends ‘ony’ ran for between 230 to 270 eps. Often they became so popular that fees & royalties became so expensive or the actors felt they needed to quit to exploit their fame – and box office – on the bigger screen. Can’t happen with a cartoon!
In Ireland & the UK sitcom series are usually 6 eps a season – and usually written by one or two people. Hard to fathom that Fr. Ted produced only 25 episodes (inc Xmas Special) and Fawlty Towers less than half that at 12 shows.
So to manage the US sitcom ‘factory’ output of over 26 scripts a season THE WRITERS ROOM came into being. So technically the US cracked the half hour sitcom formula and created the ‘tricks of the trade’.
Writing a brand new sitcom is hard enough but broadcasters know that launching a new show is a gamble. They need belief and patience for the audience to catch up with it. If the BBC & Channel listened to the ratings and the critics there would no Series 2 of either Fr Ted or Fawlty Towers. Interesting that after the BBC aired the 2nd season of Basil Fawlty the repeat of the 1st series trebled in viewers compared to the first time it aired. Both Ted and Basil can be viewed again and again and still fell fresh. Getting a sitcom right is the ‘holy grail’ and if you search Grintage there are specific tips on Developing a sitcom. Just use the Search button on the homepage.
As you gain experience and recognize the ‘tricks of the trade’ if comedy writing you should employ every visual and verbal comedy-writing trick in the book to make the audience laugh.
SCREEN WRITING – The Light Touch
Some of the most commercially and artistically successful films of all time were both serious and light. Movies like –
THE GRADUATE BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID
THE INDIANA JONES SERIES STAR WARS
E.T. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST
M.A.S.H THE STING
BONNIE & CLYDE NETWORK
In essence the screenplays accepted that throughout any day the lead characters would meet up with humour and trauma – no matter what the circumstances.
It is therefore very true to life. You cannot expect an audience to laugh all the time. There is a better chance of engineering a laugh when you have preceded it with pathos so the audience is caught between emotions. They need emotional and human buttons to be pushed to bring them to a false sense of security or comfort.
Same with Hitchcock and getting the audience scared. You always knew that the joking teenager was next to be killed. As soon as normality returned disaster was just around the corner. The happy snogging couple in the car was going to visited by a heavy breathing menace with a shaky camera POV. At the same time the more experienced comedy writers know that the best laughs are gained in adversity.
THE COMIC MIND
Is there really a formula to writing comedy? Can you write funny even if you are not naturally a comedy writer? Maybe not – but the same discipline of hard work and endless re writes apply and if you train yourself you could be a good reader of comedy you will be able to appreciate good comedy writing from the first page.
The best comedy writers, script editors and producers all look out for or employ varied writing techniques that gives the material and the characters an extra dimension. These include –
Exaggeration the rule of 3 the insult parody accent comic reaction
Absurdity incongruity comic delay comic build speech traits
Running gags the topper misunderstanding character traits
The reversal one liners suggestive humour recognition
Word play satire deflating the pompous jokes
Class reversal fashion /wardrobe traits the conceit
All the above can widen out the scope of your material for maximum benefit of script pace, character reveal and audience satisfaction. The most potent and funniest scenes employ more than one. In any sitcom or comedy film the above writing tools will be constantly used.
Also very important to always question why you laughed at a given point in a comedy TV or movie? What did the writer ‘do’ to make it funny? Was it a reaction shot? Maybe a great slapstick moment? Scene made a fool of the toffe nosed autocrat? Relate them back to specific writing tools that you can constantly dip in and out of to make sure your script is funnier.
You can learn a great deal as you watch sitcoms by revaluing the writer’s ‘trick’ that motivated you to laugh. 10 times out of 10 the writer will have used one of the above techniques.
Read, watch, question and learn …. and then develop your own style
If you feel there is someone else that maybe interested in this feature sharing is caring!
For more like this Search on the HomePage – there are more features and tips on Writing Sitcoms developing your plots and cast plus interviews with top UK comedy creators (& Graham Linehan!)