Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Few Things I’ve Learned About Comedy

It’s always funnier on the out.

That just means when you say something really funny, leave, so you won’t be tempted to say something else and everyone will realize you just got lucky the first time.

It’s a great feeling to hear that huge roar of laughter just as you step into the wings.

Fart jokes, people getting kicked in the balls, jokes about bodily functions, those are funny because everyone can relate to them. But good comedy should be like a really good Disney movie. You need some jokes that the adults are gonna like, too. So you have to have some clever humor, something witty, like a play on words or a great observation about the world or relationships. Like a guys says, “I was driving in my car at just below the speed of sound, and I sped up just a little, and there was a sonic boom, and then you know what happened? My wife suddenly became more bearable.” And all the smart, married people in the audience will maybe chuckle a little.

Then someone kicks that guy in the balls, and everybody else will laugh.

I tried to make up a rule of comedy I am calling “The Male Underwear/Footwear Correlation.” Jack Black is an expert in the use of this. It goes sort of like this: A guy in his underwear is funny, but never as funny as a guy in his underwear and also wearing shoes. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true. Something about the juxtaposition. And socks and shoes are funnier than just socks. If it’s black socks and dress shoes, even funnier. As for the underwear part, tighty whiteys are funnier than boxer shorts. I’m not sure if speedos or banana hammocks are funnier than tighty whiteys. I’m still working on this part of the formula. But it is possible that shoes and underwear can be extrapolated out to the point where a man wearing a diaper and a pair of snow shoes may be the funniest possible version of the Correlation.

Also, male full frontal nudity is hardly ever funny. I think the exception might be someone wearing a tank top and footwear, but nothing else.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. Too much.

I think the difference between sketch comedy and improv is it’s a lot harder to create bad sketch comedy than it is to create bad improv. With a sketch you have to write a first draft, read it to your friends, do a rewrite(s), agonize over every word, cast it, then rehearse and perform it. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, if it sucks, someone will discourage you from actually producing it, or they will help you make it better. With improv, you are only ever one audience suggestion away from performing a bad scene.

So with improv you are more or less just tossing out a bunch of first drafts at the audience.

The comedy for improv and sketch is different, too. A lot of it has to do with the audience’s expectations. They will laugh at a well crafted joke whether it was written or improvised. But they will laugh at the situation more in improv, because they know it is being made up on the spot, without a net. They are a lot more forgiving. They will also laugh at something because they know an improviser has just dug themselves a hole, and the scene becomes about that improviser trying to dig themselves out of it. The audience will go into the hole with them so they can watch.

With sketch, if you dig yourself a hole, nobody gives a shit if you can get out of it, because once you’re in the hole, the audience ain’t gonna follow you into the hole. They’re thinking “You should have covered the damn hole in rehearsal.”

I think sketch writers should take a turn at writing some stand-up comedy, at least once in their lives. If nothing else, it will make them see the importance of crafting a good set up and punch line. I see a lot of punch lines that are funny, but if the order of just two or three words were changed in the punch line, it would be even better. Same joke, just better. That’s the craftsmanship part of it.

The joke should hit them on the last word of the sentence.

I think ad-libbing in rehearsal is helpful, but as an actor you shouldn’t take it too far. Respect the script. Someone has (hopefully) spent a lot of time agonizing over every word in that script. But sketches are works in progress, so it’s okay to play around with it. It’s up to the director to kind of set the mood for how far you can stray from the script.

The first place to start when ad-libbing is to memorize what’s written. I had an actor at one time who was off book before they had even bothered to memorize the lines. That’s a good way to get a writer to punch you in the mouth.

I think if it’s funny, it stays. You can never have too many jokes in a scene, or in a show. The audience is there to laugh. The only time I think you have to get rid of a good joke is if it derails the scene by screwing up the logic or the pacing or if it’s coming from the actor or the writer and not the character. That’s where the director has to step in and protect the show from the killer joke you just made up. You have to keep the integrity of the scene.

I love a well executed, high concept scene. Like clash of context, or a social satire, or a great parody. But I think the scenes that audiences really love and remember are character scenes, where there is a really strong character. If you look at SNL and all of the scenes that went on to become movies (good or bad) they were all character-based.

Actors love character based scenes, too. Give them a great character and it’s like giving them the keys to a high-end sports car.

After they see a really high concept scene, audience members say it was “smart.” But then they try to tell their friends about it and end up doing the whole “I guess you had to be there” thing and then they just do their Ace Ventura impression and everyone loves it. So characters.

When it comes to comedy, the most common note I have heard as an actor or given as a director is “Louder and Faster.” That’s not just a sex thing, either. And it usually fixes the problem--in both areas.

Jokes about cancer, rape, abortion, etc., I used to think they were funny, but now I’m not so sure.

Of course, I think one of the main purposes of comedy is to be able to deal with some really bad things (like rape, cancer and abortion) that we wouldn’t normally be able to deal with. We laugh so we don’t cry. So jokes about cancer, rape, and abortion, there must be some good ones, I just haven’t written any lately.

A lot of times the difference between a tasteless joke or a tasteful joke is whether the humor is directed outward or inward. It’s not the fact that we are joking about the holocaust that’s funny, it’s the fact that the person telling the joke is oblivious to what everyone else thinks about what he is saying that is funny.

You can get away with almost anything if it is coming from a character. What I mean by that is I could never call someone the n-word, but if I wrote a redneck or racist character that would use that word realistically in the scene, you can get away with it. It helps if you are making fun of that character’s ignorance, though. And there should be a kernel of truth in it, too. And it better be funny.

Sometimes good humor offends, but that’s okay, unless the person you offended is holding a knife or a gun and you’re not standing near the door.

When people ask me what I do, I used to say “I work at so and so, but I want to be a comedy writer.” Now I just say “I’m a comedy writer and I also work at so and so.” It’s liberating.

When something happens to me, or I see something interesting, I usually say “That would make a great scene.” I say that so much my wife and friends get tired of hearing it. But that’s how I know I’m a comedy writer, because I’m always thinking like one.

The other way to know you’re a comedy writer is if someone is paying you, but I haven’t made it to that point yet.

If I’m standing next to you and you say something funny in a normal conversation, I will tell you “That’s mine. I’m taking that.” Then it’s the first one who puts it down on paper.

I bet over 90% of all the sketches I’ve ever written have never been produced. But I don’t mind, because I equate writing sketches to doing pushups. So by the time I write a scene that goes before an audience, it’s pretty damn strong.

Writing a lot of stuff also frees you up so you can write some bad material and get it out of your system. It takes the pressure off. Every scene doesn’t have to be perfect because no one will see it except for you and maybe your close peers. If it flops you can just stick it in a drawer and move on. Maybe someday your kids will discover it and think you were a horrible writer.

I think to be a good comedian you have to have a certain mindset about life, like “I get no respect” or “The world hates me” or something like that. You have to feel like you are getting a raw deal.

For me, the mindset is “It’s always one thing.” I feel like I’m doing pretty well in life, but a lot of times I’ll look at a situation and think “This would be great if it wasn’t for that one thing.” My example would be how I often have dreams of flying, and they are awesome, except for the fact that I can usually only fly at like seven miles per hour, or at a maximum height of sixteen feet. So I wake up and think, “Wow, that was an awesome flying dream, but damn, only seven miles an hour?”

So even my dreams are unsatisfying.

You always hear, “It’s all in the timing.” But what does that really mean? A slow pause or a quick retort? When in doubt go with Louder and Faster.

8 comments:

Nat Topping said...

I belive the reason why the Underwear/Footwear Correlation is so effective stems from the fact that, traditionally, underwear is the first thing one puts on and shoes the last. To be missing trousers means either the subject skipped a vital step in the process or has since removed aforementioned trousers while leaving the shoes on. This principle is particularly humorous if no explanation is tendered for why this occurred.

Also, boobs.

Gamer18548 said...

This blog rocks in general, but this post was particularly awesome! "I'm a comedy writer and I'm also a so-and-so." I'm going to start trying to do that!

Chris Othic said...

Nat, I think that's the key right there. Boobs are funny too.

Thanks, Gamer.

Catherine said...

I agree with the advantage of having an "underdog" world view. That feeds into my philosophy that it is nearly impossible for people who have skated through life to be funny.

It is also impossible for Golden Retrievers and ballerinas to be funny.

GW said...

My (and Crump's) video rebuttal to Catherine's comment can be found here...

http://rvdchicago.blogspot.com/2009/03/uh-oh.html

Nat Topping said...

Oh man. That video is hilarious.

Joe Janes said...

It would be funnier if the dog was wearing a tutu. And dress shoes with socks.

Catherine said...

Touche.