THE COMEDY SCREENPLAY: BUT IS IT FUNNY?

I’ve been wrestling with whether or not I even wanted to write this blog entry. I mean, comedy is such a subjective thing. Just because I think something is funny doesn’t mean you’re going to think it’s funny...and vice versa. But I felt that I should go ahead and write this entry anyway. I figured if I could help one or two budding screenwriters stop and think about their comedy script before sending it out into the world, well, I’ve done my job. So, without further ado...

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?

KALTENBORN: Goodbye.

HOWARD: Is that the entire message?

KALTENBORN: We would appreciate it if you would check out.

HOWARD: When?

KALTENBORN: Yesterday.

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!

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8 comments:

Bo said...

It was a stimulating read for me, a somewhat first-timer.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

A lotta good points here. One thing I might say is that as a writer whose work is seldom produced, I tend to over-describe because it helps whoever might be reading to visualize what I've got in my head. If Joe's crossing his arms and tilting his head is integral to the humor as I limn the moment, I include it. I think writing spec scripts (or any scripts for consideration) and writing shooting scripts are two very different things. First you write to make a producer or director or whomever laugh (or at least get them interested). Then you write to give the actors the tools they need to make the audience laugh. Obviously the best scripts do both at the same time, but I try to err on the side of quality and specificity.

Jim said...

Thanks for the comment, Jon.

If tilting a head and crossing arms is integral to the story, then sure, include it. But 99.8% of the time, that sort of thing just isn’t necessary. I find that many non-pro writers tend to write as you do, writing what’s in their head. Unfortunately, what they’re trying to do is describe what they’ve previously seen in movies. Sure, it looked good in those movie, but the descriptions just don’t come across on the page. Believe me, I’m always reading amateur screenplays where “bits of business” such as head-tilting is included in the description. I think this is a big mistake. Just give us the basics – the meat of the scene – and let the actor and the director fill in the rest.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Thanks for the quick response! Just a small, enumerated retort:

1) Don't all writers write what's in their head? Where else is the content supposed to come from? If there's another source then maybe I have more to learn I originally thought...

2) I'm not saying to turn a script into a novel. If you want to labor over action, write prose and not scripts. My only point -- not necessarily disagreeing with yours -- is that I would never omit information because I was afraid of stepping on someone else's toes. If a camera angle or a character movement is essential to the scene, I'll include it. There are also instances where a screenwriter is planning on directing their own work, in which case the script could act as a kind of written storyboard for certain sections (doesn't happen as often, but I have seen it).

3) The other problem here is that the kind of action that is integral to a story changes from script to script. Some character-driven films might have subtle action -- even as a subtle as a blink or a hand gesture -- that the original writer would consider VERY essential. Other films might only need as basic a direction as "JOE ENTERS" and then dialog (a lot of TV writing tends to be like this in my experience). I've read successful shooting scripts on both sides of the spectrum, as I'm sure you have.

But, I just wanted to clarify that I am not encouraging verbosity, I just don't think screenwriters should be afraid of being specific if they need to be. But with screenwriting even more so, perhaps, than other forms of writing, less is indeed more.

Jim said...

(I should clarify, I’m referring only to spec motion picture screenplays and not television scripts or scripts you’re planning to shoot on your own.) But I had a feeling you’d respond with “don’t all writers write what’s in their head?” Actually, I was referring specially to your comment about visualizing “what I’ve got in my head.” And that’s a major problem with most non-pro screenplays: writers trying to articulate on paper what they've previosuly seen in movies (and I touched on that in my previous post). But yes, I think you’re absolutely right, you SHOULD include certain descriptions...as long as those descriptions are integral to the character/story/plot. I’m merely trying to keep writers from writing things such as (I’ve changes character names, but this is an actual excerpt from a script I recently critiqued):

Joe lightly pats Frank on the middle of his back.
JOE: It’ll be okay, buddy.
Frank turns to the right and sees Joe standing there. Frank slightly smiles, then he looks at the ground for a long while, and then he turns back to Joe, wiping a few tears from his eyes.
FRANK: He was a really good guy, wasn’t he?
Joe thinks about this. As he does, he pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, removes a cigarette, puts it between his lips and then lights it with a Bic lighter, then turns slightly to look at Frank.
JOE: I guess he was a pretty decent guy.

You summed it all up with, “Less is indeed more.” So true.

The Reel World of Zachary Hayes said...

When my comic strip was published I found that the best reactions came from the character's expressions when one character would say something funny. For example a banker tells a guy "You have outstanding payments on your account," the man he is talking to doesn't understand the banker's terminology and thanks the banker. You can stop there or follow up with the banker's dumbfounded reaction. Word play is a pretty easy form of comedy because most people will get the joke, though not everyone finds puns to be funny. However, word play works a lot better in comic strips and not so good in screenplays. Personally I like subtle comedy more than the outrageous kind that you see in more recent movies.

I have 30 days to come up with a short film and I'm thinking of doing a comedy. Thanks for the helpful blog post.

Jim Vines said...

Thanks for the excellent post, "Reel World." Good to know you're out there!

Screenwriting 101 Pro said...

Very insightful...

So true: "For a relative handful of writers, comedy is a piece of cake. For other writers, other genres are a far more obtainable/realistic goal."

This can be very helpful for aspiring screenwriters. One of the best screenwriting tips to take is not dive head-on into comedy writing if this is not your genre. Learning to write comedy effectively takes mastery. Though there are naturally funny people, it takes more than just a sense of humor to make a really hilarious material.