When asked to do development notes on a comedy script (feature, sitcom or TV pilot), one of the things Bang2writers inevitably want me to comment on is this question: “Is the dialogue funny?” Most are surprised then when I answer, “Is it important at this stage?”
Now of course the **obvious** answer is “Duh, it’s a comedy, OF COURSE it’s important!” But let’s look at the evidence:
Show It, Don’t Tell It. Every writer knows scriptwriting is not JUST about dialogue… Except, it seems, when they’re writing COMEDY. I’ve lost count of the number of comedy scripts I’ve read – both specs and commissioned, especially features – that seem to rely wholly on dialogue for laughs, so we end up with very little physical comedy at all. This seems a wasted opportunity, since even the most cerebral of comedy also demands a small level of physical interraction or visual gags/back up in the very least, else the comedy feels “one-sided”.
Comedy relies on structure. The best comedy is almost “inevitable” in its approach: we’re led TO the punchline or comedic moment in the pay off. In order to do this then the best we can, we need a proper SET UP. Yet writers are so frequently hung up on *how funny* the dialogue is, they forget about set up and pay off, the very basics. If we then add structure *as a whole* – The Three Acts in features, the story of the week vs the serial element in TV pilots or the A & B Strands of Sitcom (returning to the status quo per episode) – then the problem with structure at grass roots in comedy is exacerbated. This then means a huge proportion of comedy scripts are doing the rounds which are essentially *just* a string of gags, rather than a holistic story; some even lack an identity altogether, leading script readers to write “what *is* this?” in coverage, in terms of where it “fits”. Sounds strange, but then knowing your audience and what they expect in terms of conventions is very much part of comedy (as it is all genre). So isn’t it better to work on the STORY and how it WORKS OUT before you work on the “funny dialogue”?
Comedy quips are underrated. I’m always surprised by how many comedy scripts forget about quips. Instead, they will frequently rely on rants to get the laughs, instead of asides, which I would argue is a staple of comedy. Quips are what grabs an audience’s attention – and *makes* the Comic Relief character across ALL other genres, particularly the Action Adventure movie, but even Horrors and cop shows. NCIS of course has the effervescent DiNozzo, who recently exclaimed:
“I’m a male between 18 and 49 with a loud mouth and a gun… I AM The American Dream!”
It’s The Comic Relief character that often endears a movie or show – or even an entire star’s career, don’t forget Arnie was famous for his quips – to Joe Public. On this basis then, I often assert to Bang2writers they NEED more quips to their actual comedy scripts on the same basis. Yes, they’re difficult, a lot more difficult than comedy rants. But that’s what makes them GREAT, like this one:
MARGE: I don’t want you weaselling out of anything.
HOMER: But Marge! Weaselling out of stuff is what separates man from the animals… except maybe the weasel.
Context # 1: Comedy takes “normality”… and skews it. I get a lot of surreal and hysterical comedy via Bang2write. Whilst both can no doubt be funny (I’m thinking TV comedy GREEN WING for the former, Rom-Com JUST FRIENDS for the latter), *just* being surreal or hysterical – especially via dialogue – does not automatically mean “funny”. Equally, whilst gross-out comedy CAN work, just being gross does not guarantee laughs either. I would argue the BEST comedy takes what we all see everyday and turn up it upside down. This is why the “dysfunctional family” works SO well in sitcom. If we actually think about THE SIMPSONS for example, what we have is a an incredibly selfish, lewd and gross patriarch; a neglected wife; a physically abused son and ignored daughters! Hardly very funny, if we reduce it like that – but then we’re applying REAL LIFE logic to THEIR world. Yet within the context of THE SIMPSONS’ world, their situations are “normal” and we can excuse Homer’s excesses; Marge’s being a victim; Bart being one step away from an ASBO; Lisa from being a know-it-all; Maggie from being… Maggie. But writers frequently forget to “re-create” the world in which their characters live in like this. This then means readers judge characters according to REAL LIFE – and comedy characters should frequently be as far away from “real life” as possible.
Context # 2: Comedy situations do not automatically equal funny. Sometimes, it’s quite obvious we’re dealing with a comedy just from the way it is expressed in the logline. If we look at one of my all-time fave comedies, LIAR LIAR, the story of a lawyer who cannot tell a lie thanks to his son’s birthday wish is *bound* to be *meant* to be funny: what else can it be? I can’t really see it lending itself that well to Horror or Thriller, for example. Yet many comedies are much more ambiguous. One of my favourite kids’ films was and remains, HOME ALONE. About a little boy who gets involved in a face/off with some burglars, if you just look at the logline, it’s quite clear this *could* lend itself to another genre: Thriller. Combining slapstick humour, Tom-And-Jerry style contraptions and Kevin’s exploits against the burglars are what *makes* it funny, then.
Context # 3: Catchphrases are not automatically funny, either. Catchphrases are a integral part of comedy writing, especially sitcom, so I’m always surprised by how infrequently I see them. If we consider sitcom Mack Daddy THE SIMPSONS again, just about every character has at least one (and in the case of Homer and Bart, multiples!) – in fact, Lisa Simpson is the unusual one by NOT having one. Yet if we look at those very famous catchphrases, few of them are amusing solely on their own merit. “Doh!”, “Ha-ha”, “Thank you, come again”, “Eat My Shorts”, “Mmmmmmmmmmm…” are just a few and do they make you laugh out loud, just seeing them written here? I doubt it. If they DO make you laugh, I’m willing to bet it’s because you’re REMEMBERING various situations you’ve SEEN them in. Like this one:
BART: The burglar even took my stamp collection!
LISA: You had a stamp collection!?
(everybody laughs … Bart is stoney-faced. *phone rings* … Bart answers)
NELSON: Stamp collection!? Haha!
Sitcom is a master of the catchphrase – how much funnier, is a funny situation, when you JUST KNOW what’s coming next? (“I don’t believe it!”… “Feck! Women’s Knickers!”… “He’s from Barcelona.”) Again we’re back to this notion of “inevitability”. But feature comedies can still capitalise on the catchphrase, too. Going back to LIAR, LIAR, Fletcher’s lament, “The pen is blue!” is not really that funny on its own, is it? Yet fans of the movie are willing to yell it at each other, tweet it and Facebook it, even out of context… and people will laugh IF they’ve seen that movie and have a clue what you’re going on about!
Comedy is collaborative. If you read the script of LIAR, LIAR you will find the famous “pen is blue” scene and discover that… actually, it’s not really *that* funny on the page. OK, the only draft I could find as a PDF is a rough one apparently, but it seems pretty *close* the finished movie at first glance, give or take a few scenes and bits and pieces in terms of that “holistic story” I mentioned earlier in this post. We basically HAVE what we GOT, right? But there are significant elements that we cannot account for in the script – the principal one being the performances of the actors within it (not to mention *how* they are directed), the most obvious of which being its star, Jim Carrey. I won’t apologise for being a die-hard fan of Carrey: I think his comic timing is genius and that he’s a far more versatile actor than he’s often given credit for (THE TRUMAN SHOW, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS, anyone?? Of course the fact I find him DROP DEAD GORGEOUS also helps!!!).
If you compare the script’s pages and then watch this clip, you will instantly see Jim Carrey has “added” bits in – whether that is on Director’s Tom Shadyac’s say so, or if all the crew got to pitch in ideas, who knows. It doesn’t really matter. *HOW* an individual actor plays a part and/or scene depends on many factors, whether it’s personal whim, directorial instruction or the teaboy adding his tuppenceworth. As blooper reels on DVD specials of Carrey’s films often show, he seems to play the same scene various different ways (even from the same angle), so the editor will have had his or her chance to add in their favourite bits too from the cutting room floor, even. So – my point at last: every writer knows there HAS to be room for others’ interpretation of the material, so why be so didactic about comedy dialogue and whether it’s “funny” or not? Maybe an actor, a director or an editor has a funnier way of phrasing it/playing it? Could happen.
So, to conclude: how funny is your funny dialogue… or how ABLE is your script to JUMP OFF THE PAGE and get others to want to make it? Oh, like any genre then.