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Thread: Week 27- Being Funny

  1. StevenForbes Guest

    Week 27- Being Funny

    See how fast the week goes by? I was just telling someone the other day, Tuesdays are great. I get stuff done, and the biggest thing I do is help people. How?

    By giving them some Bolts & Nuts!

    So, you're back again. Gluttons for punishment, all of you. You might want to go get that checked out. You'll thank me later.

    This week, I thought we'd talk about something I know very little about: being funny. Some of us are just naturally funny, and are able to tell jokes without breaking a sweat. Some of us are good with physical comedy, some are storytellers, and others are situationally funny. Personally, I think I'm the last sort, but that's neither here nor there.

    None of these personal types of comedy are worth anything if you can't get it down on paper. That's the long and the short of it right there.

    I'm always learning. I've said that before. Part of the reason I'm always learning is because I'm slow on the uptake. [No jokes yet!] I had a conversation a few months ago that had me thinking about comedy, and how its hard to be funny on paper. I was making the mistake of confusing witty banter with comedy. The two are vastly different things.

    Let's take Spider-Man as a prime example of my stupiditude. I mistook the fact that Spidey is funny for true comedy. It's not. It's witty banter, but it's not comedy.

    And that was the problem I was having with myself, in thinking that I wasn't funny. I was thinking “witty banter” instead of “ludicrous situation.” Those of you who are better at comedy than yours truly will already know this, but at the same time, there are some things to think about when you're working for a visual medium.

    The first thing to realize is that, while writing is hard, writing comedy can be even harder. You don't have to know how to be funny, you have to know when to be funny. That's the ultimate difference. Comdey, besides being all about the laugh, is about timing. Any comedian will tell you that. If you pull the trigger on the gag too soon or too late, then you've lost. For comics, that's pacing. [No need to go back and look at that column for nuggets on how to be funny. You won't find it in there.]

    Want to learn something about timing? I want you to go look at three things: any Richard Pryor concert movie [Live on the Sunset Strip is good], Eddie Murphy: Delirious, and any recent Chris Rock concert. [Be advised, there are TONS of cursing in these three acts. You've been informed.] Here's what I want you to watch for: joke setup and timing. Richard Pryor was the master of setting up a joke and telling a story. Chris Rock is very good at yelling to get his point across [he's no Sam Kinison, but still]. Eddie... I recently watched Delirious, and was shocked to see that he rushed through a lot of jokes! He could have had more pauses and such for better effect. Sure, it's a seminal work, people still quote it, but it could have been better. It's all about the timing.

    There are tons of books out there that tell you how to be funny. I'm not going to go over too much of that material here, but I have to mold it as it pertains to comics. I'm not going to talk about how to write witty banter, either. That's not what this is about

    As Mark Evanier likes to put it, comedy is about contrast. You have something sweet, you need something sour. Simple, but it can be hard to follow when you're in the middle of writing. [This is why it's good to plot before you write!] So if you're going to write comedy, you need something to contrast the funny stuff with. That's just the way it has to be. For comedy, you have to have a straight man.

    A perfect example of the straight man is Bud Abbot and Lou Costello. Abbot is the straight man to Costello's antics. [You're on the internet, go watch/listen to Who's On First.] In that entire setup, you have Bud trying to tell the story straight, with Costello just not getting it.

    It's also a great setup for ludicrous situations that I briefly touched upon. Let's look at it for a moment.

    The joke is told in the context of a baseball game. “Who” is the name of a player. “Who” is on first base. “What” is on second, “I Don't Know” is on third. This joke is classic. It has all of the earmarks of great comedy: a familiar setting, a ludicrous setup, someone playing it straight, and the fool. When Costello doesn't understand, hilarity ensues.

    Costello: Well then, who's on first?

    Abbott: Yes.

    Costello: I mean the fellow's name.

    Abbott: Who.

    Costello: The guy on first.

    Abbott: Who.

    Costello: The first baseman.

    Abbott: Who.

    Costello: The guy playing...

    Abbott: Who is on first!

    Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first!

    See what I mean? It only gets better. When you listen, you're listening for pace, tone, and inflection. Pace will also give you the pauses you need.

    Try translating that joke into a script. You're looking for rhythm and pace within the structure. Pauses and page turns. It'll be an interesting exercise.

    Comedy! I do a little bit of it in this column. I use ludicrous imagery and situations to highlight some points. Zombie Leper Teenagers in Love, Wolverine in a tutu, or the plot of almost any 80s horror movie [zing!]. These all work to help me illustrate my point, and the “comedy” comes because I've been serious before. No, I don't always succeed in making you laugh, but that's not my real goal. If I do, great. If I don't, at least I [hopefully] got my point across.

    Comedy! Like I said before, and will say again, writing is hard, and it's hard to be funny on paper. It takes practice. I'm constantly amazed by good strip-writers. They do this daily, with varying degrees of success. They've honed their craft, and look at the world around them for inspiration, processing it through their own personal filter and comment on the state of their world through their work. Daily. With four or five panels. Yeah. Hard work. Streamlined storytelling right there, because they're setting up the gag with four or five panels, limited space with a beginning, middle and end of a story, all while being funny.

    And I want you to try it.

    Besides being all about timing, comedy is about exaggeration. Don't think black and white. Think black and yellow! The exaggeration has to be within the context of the setup, and it has to stand out. A clown among clowns isn't going to stand out. A giraffe trying to disguise itself as a lion will stand out. See how I did that? I stayed within the same realm, but went on the high side [HA!] with the exaggeration. It could have easily have been an elephant or rhino, but not really a hyena. Housecat, sure, but you get the idea.

    That's really about it when it comes to the subject of comedy. Yes, we have a short one this week. There are just a few takeaways I want you to have: witty banter is not true comedy. Witty banter is funny, sure, but it's not true comedy. Ludicrous situation. Straight man. Fool. Timing/pace.

    The best thing you can do to help when it comes to comedy, though, is to both study what does and doesn't work in comedy, and get to the underlying reason why. Study strips, study stand-up comics, get a few books. Comedy isn't for everyone, so if it's not for you, don't worry about it. It's not really my bag, either.

    For homework, I want you to script out the entire Who's On First joke by Abbot and Costello. Send it to me for The Proving Grounds if you wish. That's part one. Part two is to do a gag script. The format will be either one panel [The Far Side] or four/five panels. If you're doing four/five panels, there has to be a beginning, middle, and end to the story, and of course, the end has to have the punchline. You can send that to me in The Proving Grounds if you wish, as well.

    And that's it! See you next week.
    Any specific questions, ask them in this thread, and I'll answer them. If it's something of a more delicate nature, e-mail me. I check my e-mail constantly, and will do my best to get back to you within twenty-four hours, depending on the number of you who decide to flood my inbox. No attachments, please. They'll be deleted without being opened. (I know, I know, but blame the virus-makers.)

  2. tylerjames Guest

    On my bus ride to New York this weekend, I treated myself to reading the screenplay to "There's Something About Mary."

    It's an absolutely genius script, and nearly as funny on the page as it was in theaters.

    I chuckled the whole bus ride there, and shook my head at how well done were the comedic sequences. Here's just a snippet of the first one, on paper, that I can distinctly remember causing fits of laughter in theater. Sure, you've all probably seen it, but I think it perfectly illustrates Steven's point on situational comedy:


    Ted dabs his head with a tissue, then moves to the toilet. As he
    TAKES A LEAK he glances out the window to his left.

    TED'S POV - two LOVEBIRDS are perched on a branch.

    Ted smiles... the SOUND of these beautiful tweeties singing their love
    song for themselves, for the spring, for Ted and Mary, and
    suddenly they fly away and we...

    SNAP FOCUS reveal Mary in the bedroom window DIRECTLY BEHIND WHERE THE
    BIRDS WERE, in just a bra and panties, and just then her mother
    glances Ted's way and MAKES EYE-CONTACT with what she can only
    presume to be a leering Peeping Tom.

    ON TED...

    ...he loses the smile and ducks his head back into the bathroom,

    PANICKING NOW, he hastily zips up his fly and



    I mean, is this not a textbook in comedy in just a single scene? You have a scene that already starts awkward, with a nervous teen at his dream girl's house, having to go freshen up in the bathroom after embarrassing himself.

    The scene begins innocently, with the birds, only to turn to Ted being mistaken for a peeping Tom. Mortifying. Can't get any worse, right? You think you know where this scene is going, right?

    Wrong. It get's worse. He gets his junk caught in his fly, and every guy in the theater howls with him.

    What's even more genius about this script is that this is just THE BEGINNING of this comedic sequence. It gets worse...Mary's parents and then a cop enter and try to help, embarrassing him further. And then EVEN WORSE...he ends up bleeding severely after they get it unstuck, has to go to the hospital and misses prom with the dream girl.

    Brilliant, brilliant stuff. And very funny.

    If you want to read the rest of the screenplay online, you can do so here.

  3. Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Post Thanks / Like

    I write "funny" better than I write "straight". But then, I think.....differently.

    Anyway, Forby, I know you (and some of the others) have read this, but here's a link to my humorous attempt at a 24 hour comic, as posted by FAMOUS FACES & FUNNIES (the shop that hosted the event).

    Some of the jokes are, admittedly, "in" jokes inspired by the BAWLS energy drink enduced madness of the late night event, but I think you can still get enough of the timing to judge what worked.
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  4. Marrrrkie Guest

    Oh man, i am way far behind on this column.

    I need to re-read all the back issues.


  5. MrGranger Guest

    I'd like to add that taking a class in stand-up will help you a lot. A friend of mine decided to do that years ago to improve our writing skills. I chickened out and got books instead. I did work with some friends in the biz and I'm sure it helped me, but not as much as the class would have. It's still a goal.

    My friend took the class. Now he's touring the world doing stand up getting paid big $$. Check him out if you want.

    Point is, stand-up classes (or even just reading comedy books from the library) will help. And who knows, you might be entertaining a Sheikh from Dubai next year too.

  6. StevenForbes Guest

    Thanks for the insight, Mr. G. It's appreciated.

    Even though I don't think I'm overly funny, I was thinking about trying some stand-up at an open mic night. I have a few minutes worth of material--about five. Add 10 more to that, and I might try it.

    But I can definitely see how taking such a class would be beneficial. Thanks again!

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