BUT IS YOUR COMEDY SCRIPT ACTUALLY FUNNY?
For a relative handful of writers, comedy is a piece of cake. For other writers, other genres are a far more obtainable/realistic goal. But if comedy is your thing, if brilliant one-liners roll off your tongue, if you’re able to regale people with humorous anecdotes, if people have been telling you since childhood, “You should be a stand-up comedian!”...you need to know that having the ability to translate all your funny material to the pages of a screenplay takes a certain extra-special type of talent. Fact is, the comedy screenplay is very difficult to get right, and believe me when I tell you sooooo many wannabe comedy scribes have proven that statement absolutely correct. I’ve critiqued many “comedy” scripts in recent years and I found most of them to be about as funny as a traffic ticket. These writers—usually teenagers to early-20s—think “funny” is all about peppering a script with non-stop four-letter words and jokes about female body parts. Sorry, gang, but that sort of humor generally isn’t very amusing.
“OK, Jim, so what is funny?”
I realize comedy is a subjective thing. To be honest, I’m not really sure I can even fully articulate what goes into a well-written comedy screenplay. After all, they write entire books about this stuff—and I’m certainly not about to tackle it all here—but I think I’m a pretty good judge of what’s marketably funny and what’s not; what works and what doesn’t. I know there’s a particular structure and cadence to successful comedy writing. And I know this:
In comedy, timing is everything.
If you want examples of brilliant comedy structure, cadence and timing, then I suggest you turn to some of the comedy masters. There are many. Go read some scripts by Billy Wilder, Preston Sturgess, Woody Allen, or the brothers Zuker. You can surely learn quite a bit from those guys. There’s more recent brilliance from such writers as Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow. (Apatow certainly knows his way around the aforementioned “locker room” humor, but he does it with finesse and with heart.) Right now, let’s look at an excerpt from the script of the classic 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc?, which was written by the inimitable Buck Henry. In the following scene, naïve, timid musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) has inadvertently destroyed his upscale hotel room (smashing things, burning things), and now the stuffy hotel manager, Mr. Kaltenborn (John Hillerman), has dropped by to survey the damage.
INT. HOTEL ROOM – DAY
MR. KALTENBORN, the manager of the hotel, enters. He stands in the doorway, looks at the room in horror.
HOWARD (trying to be cheerful): Good morning.
KALTENBORN: No – I don’t think so. I’m Mr. Kaltenborn, the manager of what’s left of the hotel.
Kaltenborn is looking around the room. He looks like he might faint.
HOWARD: I’m awfully sorry about this whole mess here. Usually, this doesn’t happen.
KALTENBORN: Mr. Bannister, I have a message for you from the staff of the hotel.
HOWARD: Really? What is it?
HOWARD: Is that the entire message?
KALTENBORN: We would appreciate it if you would check out.
HOWARD: That soon? Listen – uh – I don’t suppose there’s another room you could let me have for a few –
He stops as he sees the expression of utter disbelief on Kaltenborn’s face.
HOWARD: Ahh – well –
He finds his other shoe and puts it on. He pulls out the (Van Hoskins) case and stands up, holding it.
HOWARD (indicating case): These are my igneous tambula drums.
KALTENBORN (carefully, as to a madman): Yes, of course they are.
Howard goes out into the hall. Kaltenborn, with a last look around the room, pulls the door closed and the other half of the door handle comes off in his hand.
INT. CORRIDOR (17th FLOOR)
Howard and Mr. Kaltenborn walk toward the elevators, Howard carrying the case and Mr. Kaltenborn carrying the door handle.
KALTENBORN (hopefully): Where were you thinking of going now?
HOWARD: Well – my fiancée, Miss Sleep, is still burning. Uh – Miss Burns is still sleeping. And I thought – uh – maybe I could just sit in the lobby and wait until –
Kaltenborn shakes his head. The elevator arrives and Howard steps in.
HOWARD: Well – I really am sorry about the room.
KALTENBORN: Oh, that’s all right. We have plenty of others.
The elevator door closes. Kaltenborn looks sadly at the door handle in his hand, turns and goes back down the corridor.
Here’s another excerpt from the same screenplay:
INT. COURTROOM – DAY
[This scene takes place in a courtroom full of suspects in front of a very old and very frazzled judge.]
JUDGE: Officer – what are these people being charged with?
COP: That’s kind of hard to say, judge.
JUDGE: Give it a shot.
COP: Well, sir, we picked some of them out of San Francisco Bay.
JUDGE: Entering the country illegally?
COP: No, sir, they drove in.
JUDGE: Into the country?
COP: Into the Bay.
JUDGE (making notes): Okay – unauthorized use of public waters.
COP: Mostly in stolen cars.
JUDGE: Ahh – that’s better. Grand larceny.
COP: Then there was the shooting.
JUDGE: That’s assault with a deadly weapon.
LARRABEE: They broke into my home.
JUDGE: That’s breaking and entering.
LARRABEE (pointing to Eunice): They brought her with them forcibly.
JUDGE: That’s kidnapping.
EUNICE: They tried to molest me.
JUDGE (looking at her): That’s unbelievable.
JONES: Your Honor, I can clear all this up in ten seconds.
JUDGE: You do and you’ll get a prize.
JONES: May I approach the bench?
JUDGE: Yes. (to Bailiff) Watch him like a hawk.
As you can clearly read from these excerpts, the writing is clear, concise and punchy. Yes, this is typically what you want in any screenplay, but in comedy, it’s absolutely essential.
In comedy, the actual premise of your scene must also be funny. The idea of some poor sap, alone in his burned out hotel room and being visited by the quietly agitated hotel manager, is funny.
How many newbie scripts have I read where the so-called funny premise is nothing more than a bunch of goofballs sitting around smoking dope and jabbering endlessly about what a cool movie Star Wars is? Believe me, plenty.
How many newbie scripts have I read where the entire punch line of a scene was...well, actually, believe it or not, I’ve read quite a few “funny” scenes that had no punch line whatsoever. There was no real purpose of the scene other than to have people running around in hysterics. The writers of these scripts have failed at one thing you must have in a screenplay: focus.
WHO is the center of attention?
WHAT is their goal?
WHAT is the obstacle keeping them from that goal?
If I don’t know these basics, then why should I care? If I don’t care, chances are pretty good I won’t laugh.
Another thing you’ll see in an unsuccessful comedy screenplay: too many words getting in the way of the intended comedy. Again, this is something you want in any screenplay, but you really want your comedy screenplay to zip along. That means you need to spit out your funny lines—and descriptive passages as well—in the most efficient and linear way possible.
There’s that great scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy looks down at the ground filled with slithering snakes and says to himself, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” He doesn’t say, “Oh, man, those snakes are yucky! I hate snakes!” No, as spoken, the line was perfect. It was to the point. No fuss, no muss. That’s the kind of writing that can and will make or break your comedy screenplay.
In the classically whacky comedy Airplane, when Ted Striker (Robert Hays) asks Dr. Rumack (Leslie Neilson), “Surely you can’t be serious.” Then Rumack responds in that perfect deadpan manner, “I am serious...and don’t call me Shirley.” He doesn’t say, “Of course I’m serious. I’m very serious. And please do me a favor. Don’t call me Shirley.” A cumbersome line like that would’ve killed the joke.
But funny dialogue is just one component of a successfully written comedy screenplay. You mustn’t forget how your descriptive passages are actually delivered. An unsuccessful comedy script contains unwieldy descriptions that detract from the overall hilarity you’re trying to convey. (Say that ten times fast!) A big mistake most first-timers make is adding what I refer to as LBOB. That’s my shorthand for “little bits of business.” These are things that, in the mind of many novice writers, seem amusing, but aren’t. For example:
Joe crosses his arms, tilts his head to the left, nods, and laughs.
Sure, maybe it’s important to know that Joe laughs, but we probably don’t care that he crosses his arms, tilts his head to the left and nods. All that stuff just gets in the way. Let the actors figure out the “business” they’re going to do. That's why they get the big bucks. “Joe laughs.” Nuff said.
You can also under-describe a scene, not gaining the maximum impact of its humor. For instance, let’s say you have a scene where some dopey bozo comes out of a bar, walks down the sidewalk, and slips on a banana peel. Here are two ways you could do it:
EXAMPLE #1: “Joe walks out of the bar. He walks down the street and slips on a banana peel. He falls down on the sidewalk.”
EXAMPLE #2: “Joe steps from the tavern. A smile on his face, he gazes into the perfect sky on this bright, sunny day. He inhales a deep breath of fresh air...starts down the sidewalk, whistling happily as he goes. Problem is...he doesn’t see the BANANA PEEL right in front of him. His foot goes down on it – ZWOOOOP! He becomes airborne...”
I think the second example is more effective. If you thought so too, congratulations, you get a cookie.
Again, they write entire books about what makes a funny screenplay, so I sure ain't making any huge revelations in this blog entry...but I hope I've given all you first-timers something to think about before you tackle that comedy idea you’ve had percolating in your brain for the last six years. Good luck!