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Friday, 3 June 2011

Writing Comedy Gold


The other day I stumbled upon a really useful book. I say stumbled upon, I actually nicked it from the bookshelf of my best mate, Jimmy Stroker. What the hell it was doing there, I’ve no idea. The man’s as funny as an online MMORPG franchise that allows you to spend several years of your life laboriously building up a kiss-ass orc, only to have a fucking Deathwing do a fiery piss over the lot.

I’m not going to mention the name of the book, as I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that – though I can tell you if you private message me, I guess. All I can say is that it’s not the classic “How to Sustain a 50 Year Career with Only Two Jokes” by Freddie Starr and that it’s very useful, and has more tips than a cat with three dicks.

As you know, I’ve just finished writing a sitcom, which I’m very excited by, so I thought I would help you to work on your own comedy by illustrating some of the book’s points using scenes from my own sitcom. How does that sound? Fucking awesome? 

Thought so.

Okay, so the main point, without which you don’t have anything, is Anxiety. This isn’t necessarily pointed towards the characters you are creating, although I find anxious characters absolutely hilarious (which is 65% why I go to my panic attack meetings), more towards the audience itself. You want them to feel anxiety, to be with (or against) the character, to feel the tension that the protagonist is feeling.

Before I show the scene from my sitcom that I think illustrates this brilliantly I should just explain a little bit about its premise.

 It’s called A Game of Two Halves, and it’s the first ever sci-fi football sitcom. It centres around the antics of East Pork United’s manager - identical twins Keith and Colin Halve who, due to a curious wormhole in the team’s stadium, both only exist for half the time. For the other half they are packed off to a very boring dimension. The tension, and thus the humour, comes from the fact that one of them is a tactical genius, whilst the other is a total bell-end, and the fact that nobody ever knows which is which, or even that there should be a which is which!

I’m not really into football - if truth be told I fucking hate it. Bunch of mentally retarded and insecure fucks getting unbelievably rich by running around on some grass, kicking a ball – are you taking the piss? Do not let children see this shit, it will confuse them. What do you want to be when you’re older? A thick, obnoxious cunt with no imagination, or literacy, but a demon left foot.  Exorcist? No, footballer.

You may, therefore, be surprised to hear that the idea itself was suggested by a friend of mine.  I was captured by the wormhole – you could say it sucked me in to its gravitational vortex! I’m relying on my mates for research into the football parlance, so if there are any inconsistencies there, whilst I’d like to know about it, I wouldn’t like to be blamed for it.

Here’s the scene.

The Halves’s team are one-nil down with seconds to go in the game, and its Keith in charge (he’s the cunt). The crowd are restless and have started throwing things on to the pitch. Not only that but a megalomaniac alien has got into the stands through the wormhole, and he’s been threatening to blow the whole stadium sky high - only nobody thinks he’s for real. 

Keith’s fitness coach, Limey, approaches.

                           LIMEY
            What’ya gonna do guv? There’s less
            than one minute on the clock, barely
            enough time for a wormburner from deep...

                           KEITH
            Who are you, my fuckin’ wife?
                     (to the players)
            Just fucking give it to Houdunnit!

A gigantic alien frog in the crowd opens its mouth.

                        ALIEN FROG
            10...9...8...

                        KEITH
            And will someone shut up that mouthy
            aquatic bastard!

Limey looks confused.

                        LIMEY
            Guv, Houdunnit’s your assistant manager.
            And he’s had to rush home to attend to
            the needs of his wife, they’re trying for 
            a baby, remember?

                        KEITH
            Well then, who’s that cunt?

                        LIMEY
            That’s the ref, guv.

                        ALIEN
            7...6...5...

At this point anyone watching will be practically shitting themselves, both from the hilarity of Keith’s stupidity, but also because they know that if he doesn’t turn into Clive and negotiate with the alien they’re all dead! That’s anxiety! Incidentally, if you want to know how that scene finishes leave a comment and I’ll post the conclusion.

The next key ingredient is Surprise.  This can come in many forms, but basically, you’re looking to set something up for the audience, and defy expectations. A lot of the time this can be achieved with running jokes.

In A Game of Two Halves one particular running joke concerns the assistant manager Harry Houdunnit, who is always on the end of Keith’s cruel jibes and practical jokes. Already in this particular episode Harry has been burned, electrocuted and made to expose himself to members of a nunnery, so when it’s time for the half-time talk and Keith puts a bananaskin down in the doorway, expecting the arrival of Harry we can see it all happen. But it’s not Harry that wanders through – but the referee – who slips and knocks himself out. Oh dear. Suddenly they have a problem –and guess what - it’s Harry who has to dress up and impersonate the ref for the whole second half  – will the opposition, the crowd and the TV crew buy it? Not only is it a surprise, but it builds up the anxiety massively. It should also clarify the scene written above.

Next we have Hostility.

I’ve alluded to this in the surprise section, so there’s no need to recount one of these occasions. However, it is important to note that hostility doesn’t just mean aggressiveness directed from one character to another, although this does get me every time, but to an external inspiration, too.

For example, in A Game of Two Halves I am able to fully vent my disgust at the football scene per se, and those that watch and care about it. In a later episode, which I have sketched out (no one will touch a sitcom sample without the whole series sketched out, so if your idea doesn’t stretch out for at least six episodes you haven’t got a sitcom on your hands. Which might make it a feature film instead – alright – big bucks!) the club hold a charity fundraising quiz night in the hospitality suite. This will give me a great chance to not only expose the ludicrous amounts of money grabbing twats in sport, corporatocracy in general, but also the general lack of imagination, knowledge and intelligence found in almost every single football fan. It will be done in an ironic way, so the idiots that like football can laugh, as if laughing at every football fan but themselves.

A massive weapon for the sitcommoner, and the next thing on our list, is Incongruity.

When something is unexpected, out of place, nonsensical, abstract, surreal, whatever word you know, it’s all the same – fucking hilarious!

Take this example from A Game of Two Halves.

I think you’re all getting the picture about Keith – he’s aggressive, cruel, egotistical and a thoroughly awful football manager. But we haven’t said much about his identical brother Clive. What we do know is that he is a brilliant football mind – one quick glance at the pitch and he knows exactly what it will take to get the ball to touch cloth. What you don’t know yet is that he is a homosexual in a happy and fulfilled single sex relationship.

Can you imagine then the anxiety, surprise, hostility and incongruity that transpire when, as he walks through the door for a candlelit dinner with his partner at the grounds corporate suite, the wormhole kicks in and transforms him into Keith?!

There’s no incongruity there you say – Keith punches the man out and ruins Clive’s life. No so. Keith has the time of his life and throws himself into this unexpected twist. He only punches him later – when a needless event re-establishes the status quo. Set something up and defy the audience expectation.

Finally, we have Truth. As Homer so eloquently puts it –“it’s funny coz it’s true”. And so it is. Think of all those stupid little things in your life, that you would do a stand up routine about if you didn’t have that horrendous tick and body odour problem, and integrate them into your script.

I must admit to finding fault in just about everything, and when I finished the first draft I was amazed to find it was 136 pages long – that’s 106 pages too many! After I had cut out a few of these little truths I managed to get it down to 34 – much better! Here’s an example.

INT. CAFE. DAY

Keith is sitting down with his assistant Harry, in the cafe. It’s quite nice, but the decor could do with a bit of a spruce up. Not a greasy spoon as such, but heading that way.

Harry goes to take a swig from his coffee when he sees the dead fly that’s floating in it.

                       HARRY
            Waiter, waiter there’s a dead fly 
            in my coffee!

Keith’s face is practically bright red from suppressing laughter ( we know from an earlier scene that he had been collecting dead flies from the hospitality suite windows).

                       KEITH
           Shut up, you cunt, everyone’ll want one!

                       HARRY
           Oh, very funny!

He goes to get up.

                       KEITH
           Where are you going?

                       HARRY
           To get a new one.

                       KEITH
           Sit down you pleb! Dont you know what 
           they do to the cups of complainers?

                       HARRY
           What?

                       KEITH
           Let’s just say it’ll come back with more
           than a fly in it.

                       HARRY
           Nah! That’s just an urban legend!

                       KEITH
           You’ll sit down and drink, or I’ll fucking
           do it myself!

Harry meekly sits back down and takes a swig from his coffee, wincing.

                       KEITH
           Good boy.

Keith takes a contented and smug sip from his coffee, but immediately spits it out in disgust - all over Harry!

                       KEITH
                (getting to his feet)
           This is fucking cold!

He stamps around the cafe with his cup.

                       KEITH
           Cold! You’ve sold me a cold cup of coffee
           you dead-eyed, slack jawed little prick!

He slams the cup down on the counter.

                       ASSISTANT
           I’m really sorry sir.

                       KEITH
           Not as sorry as I'll be when I'm on prison
           food for sticking that fuckin oven up your
           arsehole!

The assistant quickly takes the cup into the back, whilst Keith taps his foot impatiently.

We cut to the kitchen where we have a quick montage of -

A waitress farting into the coffee.
The cook pulling down his trousers and doing a little poo in it.
The assistant himself jizzing in it.
Two girls then come out of nowhere and drink the contents of the one cup before puking it back into the one cup.

Back to -

The assistant comes back round the front with the cup of ‘coffee’.

Keith dips his finger in, to test the temperature.

                        KEITH
               Better!

I hate it when they do that! Which I why I always take a pipette to the café with me and take a 5ml sample of every drink I have, which I then pass on to my friend Toby, who works at a biomedical lab and processes it for me.

Ok, so let’s recap with a nice diagram.


Ok, so to sum up Anxiety, created by Surprise, Hostility, Incongruity and Truth leads to an idea. It also mentions brevity, but I think Ricky Gervais and everything that has been on BBC3 this year have killed that tip off, so we’re binning that.

Actually, I’ve just seen what that all spells out, so, on second thoughts, I’d recommend ditching the element of surprise. 

2 comments:

  1. I have a theory of laughter (the none tickling kind). It is the result of a surprise that doesn't activate the "fight or flight" response. The surprise primes the motor brain region for action but because the body doesn't need to run away from a tiger it needs to "earth" so the adrenaline, or whatever it is, is released in physical laughter.

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  2. Hey Edward!

    I thought we decided to ditch the element of surprise?!

    I'm only kidding. Yeah, sounds feasible, although, whilst I haven't experienced it personally, I'm sure there are occasions when adrenaline is not involved in the laughing process. I myself only ever laugh to stop myself from looking like this.

    http://goo.gl/3J0oc

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