In his years of developing comedy projects, Luke Ryan learned that there were certain tools he could have in his toolbox to help make projects funnier. They’re useful tools to have because funny doesn’t cost much budgetwise compared to other genres. Which is often good news as sometimes it doesn’t make as much either. Comedy can be quite culturally specific and don’t export well because of that. There are exeptions of course, but generally things that work well internationally tend to be attached to an established brand. ‘Ted’ was a huge international success, but that stemmed from the well established ‘Family Guy’ franchise. There are other such examples.
It’s harder to pitch a comedy script when there’s no high concept idea attached to hang it off. Character driven comedy takes longer to explain. In terms of writing comedy you really have to ask yourself, ‘ist it funny?’ because the concept and casting are what we pay attention to when going to see a film in the theatres. We first ask ‘what’s it about?’ then ‘who’s in it?’
The first secret of making comedy funny is knowing that laughter is a defence mechanism against such things as pain and awkwardness. Pain can be physical or emotional and over or under reactive. Many of our comedians specialise in one or the other of the over/under reactive forms of comedy. There are a few all rounders but they tend to be the exceptions. In terms of funny characters, you can have ones that you like to dislike, but characters that you’re genuinely repulsed by will never work. You have to be able to like them too. Comedy comes in beats throughout the script. Single beat jokes tend to be incidental comedy, either physical or visual to add a quick chuckle in the moment. Two beat jokes begin with a set up that is paid off, which might come straight away or much later in the film. Three beat jokes are the funniest and have a set up, heightening, then pay off. It’s the rule of three. Most comedies will also have at least three big set pieces. A bunch of things building tension within a sequence and different levels of pain. Big set pieces are not only common but important to include. A runner is where a joke is spread out with the set up, heightening and pay off ongoing over the course of a movie. There may be three or more threads set up with the initial set up that can tell you different things about different characters, all of whom you then watch for the pay off. Watching some scenes from the bellhop thread of Hot Tub Time Machine, it was easy to see how the mechanism worked and worked well on several characters and levels. Tension was there right the way through. The runner can receive additional set ups and pay offs throughout the film until the loop is closed. As long as you can keep it going, you should keep it going. The second secret of comedy is knowing how to string it all together.
We were then taken, with video examples, through a list of the 21 things that are always funny. I didn’t catch them all but here’s what I managed to jot down.
1) I’m not going to..(and then we cut to them doing it)
2) Physical comedy.(Pain, escallation, teasing, over reactive comedy)
3) Comic Suspense. (set up of delayed pay off)
5) Gross out Humour (bodily functions etc.)
6) Invasion of privacy
7) Visual shock (when you can’t believe they even put that in the movie)
10) Doing exactly what you are told.
11) Playing to/against type
13) Comic reveal
15) Mistaken Identity
16) Defining the Underdog (we see just how far they have to travel from their current state to win the day)
17) Comic tirade. (Vicarious humour at a character losing it.)
20) Comic repetition (do it until it’s not funny and then keep doing it until it’s funny again)
21) Obsessive drive
If anyone managed to jot down 8 or 18 drop them bellow and I’ll fill in the gaps I missed.
All in all, this was a brilliant seminar that really helped me to understand comedy much better, to grasp how the techniques worked and to see examples of how they were used, interlocked, threaded together and piled up for maximum impact. Not only illuminating for my writing, but a pretty funny talk too. As comedy seminars go, Luke Ryan’s is a blast full of belly laughs with a bonk on the head that makes you finally see what you’ve been missing all these years. I had a blast! And I suspect that anyone who reads my comedy writing from now on will have more of a blast with it too.
Leilani Holmes at the London Screenwriters’ Festival
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