Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Tension


Looking a little more at the idea of tension: last night I watched a dvd of comedy classics. It struck me that many of the greatest comedy payoffs are resultant through the initial creation of incredible tension, or stress. Or high stakes if you will.

Victor Meldrew is lying in a hospital bed in a private room. In walks a male nurse. They chat a little as the nurse lowers Victor's blankets, smears shaving cream over his nether region, and then pulls out a cutthroat razor.
Eek! Stakes are certainly high - there's much to be lost!
This is compounded by the gradual revelation that this male nurse is not all he seems. His conversation turns from the mundane to the cost of properties on the moon and the problems with moon bricks.
The door opens and a doctor peers in and tries to persuade this imposter to return to his bed.

So the tension evolves from nothing into critical mass. High stakes.

Another classic is the Only Fools and Horses sketch in which Del, Rodney and Grandpa are taking down a priceless chandelier in order to clean it. Grandpa goes upstairs to remove the floorboards and unscrew the fixture. Meanwhile, Del and Rodney have erected two step ladders and hold a blanket with which to catch the chandelier.
So the stakes are once again high and tension prevails: there is a priceless chandelier; there are step ladders from which one might fall; there is the heavy chandelier vs the flimsy blanket. There are any number of terrible fates all established.
When Grandpa releases the wrong chandelier and it smashes upon the floor, the tension peaks and is subsequently released as the trio hurry away in the three-wheeler.

The pic above is to mark the earthquake that made me soil my pyjamas last night. Which, coincidentally, occurred as the result of tension and relief (both the quake and the soiling).

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Squeeze


I must confess, it never occurred to me how intensely gags are squeezed into a thirty minute comedy show. The rule of thumb is three gags per page (that's around ninety gags per thirty minute episode). Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large proportion of comedy techniques are geared towards squeezing every ounce of humour from those pages. So, going into the final (before submission) edit, I'm looking at every word in every line, making every word count.
Here're a few cool ways of mining that last diamond:

Topping the joke
A quick google comes up trumps.
Stan Laurel has an accident with a dump truck which leaves Ollie sat in his 'practically new' car, neck deep in sand (Blockheads). Super. Now they could move on to the next gag ... or, they could top the joke and add another punchline.
Stan begins digging out Ollie with his hands.
Given that all exposition - all set-ups - are expensive (and, as such, need to be blended seamlessly and amusingly into the forward momentum, such that they become indistinct from the other gags), it makes sense to get all the hits possible from them.

Repetition
Once we have seen Father Ted phone his friend Father Larry Duff with hilarious consequences, we learn that, each time Ted picks up the phone to call Larry, we're in for a wonderful gag. We're conditioned, and the gag is set-up by the merest touch of the phone and mention of Larry's name. Here are some of the consequences that befall Larry - the results of Ted's distracting calls:
(From Wikipedia)
These events include car and skiing accidents, an avalanche, a disastrous donkey derby, a very painful mishap with a stapler, an unlucky incident with a knife-thrower, being ravaged by a dozen Rottweiler dogs, and losing out on a £10,000 prize.
Moreover, it's basic good writing to reuse existing characters and props and the like.

Malapropisms
John Sullivan squeezed so much humour from potentially expositional/functional lines by having Del Boy remark 'Good to be back on the old terracotta'. And so on. I imagine that it's possible to imbue every single line of dialogue with an incongruity in this manner.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

drop your trousers here for best results


I was sat with a work colleague on bus#2 this morning. He was recounting several stories about previous jobs, and concluded with the tale of his run in with a horrible manager.
My friend lamented:
I really wish I'd told him to shove his cock up his arse.
To which I sympathetically replied:
Isn't that every man's dream!

There then followed a pregnant pause (a beat) as we both mulled over the double meaning of my response, before bursting into laughter.
This has also given me a much stronger line for the scene in which MC1 has a run in with his own manager-from-Hell.

This is a super type of gag, and invariably requires every single word to be perfectly positioned in the sentence, and in the narrative.

Here are some classic newspaper headlines that contain double meanings (incongruities):

March Planned For Next August
Patient At Death's Door - Doctors Pull Him Through

Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

Never Withhold Herpes Infection From Loved One


And more:

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Drunks Get Nine Months in Violin Case
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead
Miners Refuse to Work After Death
Stolen Painting Found by Tree
Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter
Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Space
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

Check out these hotel signs too, for such classics as:

You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.

(N.B. The heading of this post was allegedly seen in a Bangkok Dry Cleaners.)

And, if you've never typed 'Engrish' into google, now's the time!

Monday, 11 February 2008

What Happened Next?


Homer Simpson:
I saw this movie about a bus that had to SPEED around a city, keeping its SPEED over fifty, and if its SPEED dropped, it would explode. I think it was called 'The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down'.

Just as in novel-writing, the creation and exploitation of expectations plays a crucial role in comedy. Moreover, much humour is created by the subversion of that expectation. As I tidy away episode one of my brilliantly funny sitcom (oh, if only subjectivity and objectivity were the same thing!), it's worth having a look at the many lessons I have learnt, beginning with humour created from the subversion of expectations.

In the gag above, expectation is created from the viewer's awareness of the basic plot of the movie Speed. The Simpsons writers, in this instance, rely on the audience's knowledge of pop culture. Without this knowledge, the gag loses its power. It's a risky approach.

A less risky approach is to present a pattern, usually through repetition.
I saw some tv advert for some fun run thing the other day. It begins with a man wearing a red tracksuit, jogging through a park. He jogs out of shot, and we see that he is pursued by a woman, also wearing a red tracksuit.
My brain went - ah, I'm expecting this trend to continue, ultimately presenting a funny twist.
And then, following the woman, four kids jogged by - the tallest at the front, the smallest at the rear. My brain went - ah, there's a size thing going on here (which I hadn't noticed from just the man and the woman) - size and family (I hadn't initially sussed that the woman was the man's wife either). And red tracksuits. Ergo, there'll be a dog wearing a red tracksuit next.
I was right! But the shot didn't end as the dog dog-jogged by and my brain went - ah, there's something else coming. Think ... I guess ... a tortoise!
It was a hamster in its plastic exercise ball. In a red tracksuit.
Very quickly and very effortlessly, this pattern hung out with my brain and they got on just fine.
However, it wasn't really funny because my expectation was pretty much fulfilled. Only the incongruity of a hamster wearing a tracksuit gave me any pleasure.

So Homer Simpson, in desperate need of some way of reaching the top of a huge glass dome (The Simpsons Movie), breaks into a toolshop. Dominating the centre of the shot, a jetpack hangs on the wall. Here, the expectation relies on very little knowledge (certainly, my son was expecting Homer to choose the jetpack) and is actively thrust into the viewer's face.
Homer walks up to the shelf next to the jetpack, takes a tube of glue, and smears the glue onto the palms of his hands.
Expectation followed by subversion.
An incongruity is created, and incongruities are key components of comedy (so says Evan S. Smith, author of Writing Television Sitcoms, who describes humour in terms of tension and release, before devoting the remainder of his book to explaining why comedy writers must go live in LA).

What I particularly love about this type of humour is that it absolutely relies on the writer's imagination - the writer's shunning of clich├ęs.
Take this line:

Homer Simpson:
I'm not gonna lie to you Marge ...

The set-up is complete, and the viewer's brain fervently predicts the punchline (remember, Hitchcock conducted his audience, allowing them to indulge in their little predictions, before ripping those predictions to shreds).
The writer needs to stay one step ahead of the viewer.
And here's the gag with its punchline:

Homer Simpson:
I'm not gonna lie to you Marge. See ya soon!

On a final note, it is the incongruity of the subversion that creates the mirth.
On my way home this evening, my second bus broke down.
My expectation was simple: Get on bus; go home; maybe encounter a gibbering oddball.
My expectation was confounded. But I didn't find myself in fits of giggles as, fifteen minutes later, I boarded another bus - a bus smelling of vomit. Not simply because this was happening to me and not to some other poor fool, but because there was no incongruity: this unexpected twist bore little surprise and no amusing juxtaposition.

Funny to think that it wasn't so many years ago when I found the reader's assumptions frustrating, and now I thrive on them. It feels a bit like revenge! Ha!

P.S. Whilst looking for a 'What Happened Next?' video on YouTube, I encountered a clip of some deer grazing in a field. I watched for a minute and a half, wondering if a bear was going to attack, or maybe a parachutist would land in the tree ...
I think the comments sum up my ironic hysterics:

Commenter: What happened next ... Not a darned thing!

Vid Poster: there was another video...we put down deer corn...what happened next is that the deer came.