The challenges of writing a comedy driven character piece for television are not easily discernable to the spec screenplay writer. How does someone write funny, witty cinematic comedy without making the piece too talky?
The potential pitfalls are easy to fall into. When a writer comes from the world of stand up comedy, it is believed that the material will easily translate into the screenplay format, which , of course, is not true. The story must still be interesting cinematically, have a conflict that the audience will find to be compelling, and the conventions of cinematic structure must still be adhered to.
But, there are nuances and some very stark differences between a dramatic cinematic narrative and a comedic narrative, which most screenwriters who are writing for spec do not immediately, understand.
Cinematic comedy is derived through dialog, or, by watching everyday folks trying to get themselves out of an everyday situation with great difficulty. The preceding principles must be addresses both visually and cinematically.
The principle of show, and don’t tell, is always a primary concern with the writer. It is far better to crack up your audience (because that it your goal as the screenwriter) with funny visuals, than to have a chatty, talking piece. But there is a special challenge that goes along with writing comedy. Many of my past and present clients argue that with a comedy driven piece, that there is simply not way to write the comedy without more dialogue. Where can one find good examples of great comedy writing for the screen?
For the answer, look back no further than the nineteen fifties to early sixties American television.. Writers like Marvin Marx and Walter Stone (The Honeymooners) employed several basic principles that the modern day screenwriter can employ when writing comedy. To the degree that the writer is able, the following must be attempted:
Locations and shots: Multiple cuts do not aid comedy. What does this mean? Take a look at a great example from a film from 2000, HIGH FIDELITY with John Cusack. Written by Nick Hornby and D.V. DeVincentis the films uses conventions similar to nineteen fifties situation comedy models. Take a look at the scenes which take place inside of the record store. Most of the dialog, which employs irony and cynicism, works because of the contrast of character archetypes, which are placed in a single location, clash with one another over situations that center around the conflict of the lead character. The scenes are mostly static, single camera shots. Pull-ins, over the shoulder two shots and reverse shots are minimally used. The screenwriter simply identifies the situation, places the clashing characters in the room and allows the director and actors to do the work. This kind of writing begins with principles that come from improvisation comedy and from stage play writing. As such, writing this type of film is one of the very few examples where the writer can actually draw from other kinds of writing, that being writing for the stage. Stage plays are set, well, on a stage, where the audience watches the entire action take place. There are no cuts to other locations. Cinematic storytelling uses a juxtaposition of images to tell a story. But this principle is less prevalent in comedic structure for film.
When watching HIGH FIDELITY, there are also many shots of Cusack’s character speaking directly into the camera, speaking directly to the audience. Why do these shots work so well? Two reasons. First, we are being given a tour of the character’s ordinary world while we are listening to the history of his life, thereby getting to know him. The audience is shown, as well as told, about all of the things that make his ordinary world the place that it is. If these shots were taken while the character was, say, seated in a room, sitting on a chair, the film would fall flat. Also, the director smartly changes locations only while the lead character is telling us about himself and his conflict. A monologue which begins with the character seated on a train, ends with him standing on a bridge. The principle of exit with a question, enter with an answer is frequently used during these character monologues, and are very effective. The principles of cinematic storytelling, in the example of a cinematic comedy, are not abandoned, but they are bent.
It is the contrast of the characters trying to aid the lead character in solving a crisis that is the most important element to consider when writing comedy. And, the more simple the conflict, the higher the level of comedy will be. For example, if you had a car full of MIT students, driving away for the weekend that were suddenly stopped for the need to fix a flat tire, the funnier it becomes. By juxtaposing a situation where the characters, generally thought of to be the brightest and the best, who now struggle to figure out the simple operation of fixing a flat, the comedy rests in the ironic twist of the group, who would normally be expected to navigate the problem with ease, instead struggle. Taking this one step further, if the characters were all similar in appearance, social standing, etc., the comedy is deflated from the scene. But if they are each distinctly different in every way, the potential for comedic conflict is heightened. It is these contrasts of character which
provide the basis of the comedy.
Take a look at any character driven comedy film from the present age and you will see the similarities mentioned here. Groups of characters in single locations trying to navigate a crisis, which should not normally be difficult, trying to get out of or avoid, trouble. Simple photography, usually a master shot of the group with very few, if any cut aways to reveal character.
Many make the mistake of directing from the page when trying to write a comedic screenplay. Remember, that it is always the lead character that must act as the protagonist for whatever comedy ensues. The secondary and tertiary characters cannot be the protagonists of comedy as it relates to the lead character’s struggle; rather, they must provide comedy in their reactions or in their attempts to assist the hero character in his desire to achieve whatever goal they must reach. When you create a supporting character that you love, the trap of allowing him or her to drive the comedic action on the page is an easy one to fall into. Try to avoid this, as it will get your work the grade of “pass”.
For the best examples, watch lots of episodic comedy from the early, golden age of American television.
Those guys knew what they were doing. And after you watch some episodes, ask yourself: Why is it so hard to find that level of humor on the screen in 2011?
Peter Fox writes If You Write…Read This for IMAGINE. He is the founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has worked as a Reader and Story Analyst at Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers, and holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. For more information visit http://about.me/foxonfilm or www.peterfoxworkshops.com.