Sunday, 21 November 2010

LSF 4: Writing Comedy

This session was chaired by Paul Bassett Davies, and featured Dean Craig together with writing team, Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil and they took on the ambitious task of tackling this broad topic and trying to find some sort of universality to it.

It was felt that comedy has to come from a place of truth. There has to be an element of the familiar that people can recognise - but then a twist or a surprise, something the audience hasn't thought of. Because if they can see it coming, it probably won't be funny.

One possible secret of comedy success is re-incorporation, which came from Patrick Marber. This is where the real craft lies. You seed something early on and it pays off later in an unexpected way. Quite a good tip if you are stuck at your ending is to go back to the first twenty pages and see what else you have set up that you can then pay off. If you have an A plot, B plot and C plot - the C plot is often a running joke about an object. So look at your script and see what physical objects have been used, and think about how you can bring them back in a comedic way.

Dean, probably the most laid back person at the entire festival, wasn't convinced about rules and such. He mostly follows instinct. If it makes him laugh etc, etc... But he did agree that if things had an element of truth they are much more likely to be funny.

You have to believe in what you are writing. A crucial point is that comedy is often very character specific. For example when things happen to characters in a drama, thriller or even horror, the initial reactions at least will be very similar no matter what the character. At the beginning of Panic Room Jodie Foster could be anyone. But with comedy, something that happens to one character may not be that funny if it happens to another character. Think about what that particular character is going through and what is it about that character that makes this situation funny? This doesn't necessarily apply to sketch comedy, which is generally purely ideas led. But anything longer than that and it's well worth considering.

When Kevin and Andy work they brainstorm ideas, don't limit themselves, throw anything in etc. There will come a time when you have to censor, and reject things and rewrite. But it's always easier to rewrite than it is to come up with the initial ideas. Because in the first instance you have to get the work out. John Vorhaus noted in his book, The Comedy Toolbox, that writers should expect to see the 10% rule. In other words, when thinking of and pitching ideas, if you want to come up with ten good ones, you will probably need to have a hundred. And even then you'll find that when they have all been rejected you'll suddenly come up with something in the room that is the one they go for. This is staggering when you think about it. The amount of material, ideas, concepts that have to be generated. But this is what makes comedy so tough. Concept wise, drama for example can be okay. Some might find something interesting, others won't. But with comedy the reaction is immediate. You either laugh or you don't. And part of doing comedy is about putting yourself out there, going for something, and it may not catch everybody. The same scene in a movie for example may be people's favourite, or their worst.

When writing sitcoms, it's always a problem in every episode one in the first five minutes to establish the characters and get the story going. You see a lot of scripts where the characters come on and almost literally say to the view hello I am so and so, and tell a joke to illustrate their character. But five minutes in and nothing has actually happened in story terms.

It's also always handy to have a social structure. If you think about who your main character is, it's useful to have people above them and people below them in the pecking order. So you have people they can give orders to and people who hassle them. Even if it's a family scenario. Put your main character in the middle, who is often the most normal one and the one the audience can relate to (30th Rock, Seinfeld) and then surround them with more eccentric characters.

The session was then thrown open to questions from the audience and the first one was about swearing in scripts. This was particularly interesting because most script readers are put off by it, yet it is still very common to see a lot of it. The reason being it's just not done well enough. It's thrown around for impact, but of course the more you do something the less impact it has. And I've found, probably unsurprisingly, that the younger the writer, the more swearing there'll be. That's possibly cos younger people generally swear a lot more than older ones. You just have to ride the bus round where I live to notice that. And there is probably the influence of things like Skins and The Inbetweeners too. The consensus in the panel was that there is probably too much of it, but when it's done well it can make the dialogue pop. But it has to come from character and should probably be inventive. The obvious example is The Thick of It. However when you get the sense that the writer is just sticking in swear words instead of actually telling a joke, it just becomes bad and lazy screenwriting.

The next question was about structure, and whether comedy structure differed from say, drama? It specifically referred to feature films and the overriding opinion was that it essentially didn't. But something interesting did crop up in that there is often a danger that comedy films are less funny in their final act. In a three act structure, when you say what's that film about, it's normally about what happens in act one. So take The Hangover for example. It's a film about a stag party in Vegas with a few guys and they wake up with no recollection of what happened the night before and have lost the groom. And now they have to find him. So the end of act one is often a very funny moment and quite often the very first idea of the film. Once you get to the end of act two, and it's a crisis point for all the characters, it's very easy to slip into drama. And then in act three you're dramatically paying off the emotional threads you've set up at the start - and there tends to be less laughs. And what you have to make sure is that there isn't no laughs at all in act three. You need the heartfelt moments. But make sure the laughs are in there too.

Something that had been picked up from Robert Mckee was that comedy is possibly the only genre where you can get away with having a scene, or scenes, that don't further the plot - if they are funny enough. Richard Curtis often goes back over a script he's written and looks for the funniest scene and then just extends it. A great example of this is the press junket in Notting Hill. It doesn't advance the plot in any way shape or form but that sequence is one of the funniest in the movie. But a cautionary word too. This has to be used sparingly. By and large you absolutely have to keep the story moving forward. You can't string a bunch of funny scenes together that don't do this, and then defend them because they are funny. One or two maybe, but probably no more than that. And it can happen that you have a scene that you love, think is really funny, but doesn't help the story at that juncture. You've got two choices then. Cut it - or cheat a bit and find a way to make it integral and work for the film and story as a whole.

But one final comment. Try not to take the so-called rules too seriously. For example comedy does tend to be more dialogue heavy and that can work. Sometimes things work and no one knows why. And vice versa. Two great examples in a couple of the biggest films in the last year or so. The Hangover has no central character. Up is a film about an old guy with a house with loads of balloons, talking dogs, a kid and oh yeah, the first ten minutes are really sad. Can you imagine trying to pitch those to a studio?

In conclusion, I once heard Gary Lineker talking about the difference between strikers and midfielders. A midfielder can be brought into a club, plays okay, a few nice touches here, and couple of good passes there, etc, and the fans will think he's alright and give him a chance. But with a striker, even if his all round performance is good and better than the midfielder, he will be judged purely on his goal tally. I think so to with drama and comedy. A drama can have nice moments. It can do a bit of everything, make you laugh, cry, whatever. And like I said above, some people will like it and find it interesting, and others won't. Comedy will be judged and defined but how many people you make laugh and how often. How many comedic goals do you score? It's probably the hardest thing to do. Both on the football pitch and in a script. It's tough and it's risky. But very often, with high risk comes high reward.


Anonymous said...

A great post about comedy that references Richard Curtis, McKee and Gary Linekar. Sometimes you spoil us Jez.

Jez Freedman said...

I know. Anyone would think it's nearly christmas. Or Chanuka. Which is next week as it happens.

Piers said...

On the difference between comedy and drama structure, I recall reading many years ago (though annoyingly I can't recall where) that the difference is this:

In drama, the threat is to life (or life as the main character knows it).

In comedy, the threat is to dignity.

This has always worked as a touchstone for me.

Jez Freedman said...

That's a really interesting take. It actually reminds me of something Paul said in the session. Can't remember exactly but it was something like in drama things get more dramatic, and in comedy things get more absurd/farcical.