How to Write a Comedy Scene

Here are some simple things that you can do to make a great comedy scene.

There are no absolute rules – but here are some ideas and examples to get you started.

Characters

Try and make your characters as exact as possible. Give them an “attitude” – which is a bit like an emotion, or an outlook on the world. eg. excited, sad, suspicious. Good “attitude” words often end in “-ful”. Such as playful, careful, bashful. (But not things words like spoonful or cupful!)

In the incredibly successful sitcom Friends, the characters are superbly drawn. For example, Ross Geller is gloomy, dispondent and pessimistic. He often walks into the room and says “Hi-ii” in a gloomy way.

The clearer the character’s attitude, the better. Attitudes are emotional words – so “shy”, “tense” and “enthusiastic” are good. Words that aren’t so helpful are judgemental words like stupid, clumsy or wrong as they are not about the character’s feelings. Also, descriptive words like heavy, tall or well-dressed don’t give any information about the character’s feelings, so they aren’t as useful either.

Plan

Each character must be trying to do something in a scene. So if your character is entering a room, give them a definite reason – eg. looking for his lost keys, coming in to get changed, hiding from someone outside. You could get the “plan” from his or her attitude. So a shy man could be coming in to escape from a noisy party in the next room. Or an angry mother could come in looking for their naughty teenage son.

Problem

Something happens that hinders the character’s plans. The problem might arise from the characters conflicting “plans”. eg one might be trying to put clothes away, while the other might be taking clothes out to try on.

In the following scene, we see Chandler planning to eat a cheesecake. Rachel causes the problem by pointing out to him that it is immoral to eat it.

Reaction

Comedy scenes really get going when the characters start reacting.

When they react, their attitudes change. And they try to do something to solve the problem.

These reactions and attempts to solve the problem will result in further reactions and further attempts to solve the problem. And this is the core of your comic scene.

Using the clothes example again:

Betty is excited about going out. (Attitude)

She wants to wear exactly the right clothes. (Plan)

Betty’s mum, Mrs Crocker, is cross because of the mess. (Attitude)

Mrs Crocker tidies up the clothes. (Plan and Problem!)

Betty gets cross. (Reaction)

Betty grabs the dress from Mrs Croker. (Trying to solve problem)

The dress gets ripped.

Betty starts crying. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker starts laughing. (Reaction)

Betty gets cross at Mrs Crocker’s reaction. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker teases Betty for getting angry. (Reaction)

etc…

Re-incorporation

To keep the audience interested, the writer must keep everything within the bounds of credibility.

But to really excite an audience, the writer should try to re-incorporate as many ideas as possible. In other words, keep using objects, phrases or ideas that have been mentioned or noticed earlier.

In the Betty and Mrs Crocker scene, it would be great to re-incorporate the ripped dress. There’s other things to re-visit too – where is Betty going this evening (to meet her estranged father?) Why is Mrs Crocker so stressed out about keeping the place tidy (a lover coming round while Betty’s out?) So many options! So much fun!

In this Chaplin boxing sketch, he re-incorporates the bell, the hugging and the hiding behind the referee to great effect. Watch from about 1 min 15 secs into the clip.

Rhythm

It is worth noting as well, that in the Chaplin boxing scene there is a crackling rhythm. The bouncing movement of the boxers and referee gives the entire scene life.

So, give it a go! With just a little bit of practice, you will come up with wonderful, satisfying comic scenes.

To see some of my attempts at one-man scenes, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com

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How to Make a Film on Your Own (or How to Keep a Beard Too Long)

A few years ago, I decided I was going to make a film.

Being fairly optimistic, I turned up with just a camera and costume – and a beard that I wasn’t terribly keen on.

I had my shooting list for the first day which covered three scenes of about 2 minutes each. Easily done thought I. The whole hour of film should be ready in a matter of weeks and the beard could come off.

When I actually finished, it was two and a half years later – and I had learnt some valuable lessons. I have listed the main ones below.

MY 14 FILM MAKING COMMANDMENTS

1. All I had was a camera and myself, and for a first go, it was enough.

2. A good location is essential. It is the foundations of your film. If your location is good, it will help everything. If it doesn’t quite fit your script, it will undermine everything.

3. Leaving the house to go and film yourself is one of the hardest things I have known – and it never got easier. Accept this! The sense of accomplishment at the end of the shoot was always exhilarating.

4. Rehearse the shoot properly – including filming a walk through somewhere easy like your back garden. I could have saved myself days of re-shoots and re-edits by doing this.

5. Keep writing and filming – you will get a feel for it.

6. Simple technical rule: Each shot of the same scene should be at least at a 30 degree angle from the others. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

7. Simple technical rule: Don’t cross the line. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

8. Apply the photographic rule of putting the subject of the shot one third into the frame. Google this as I can’t explain it very well!

9. When it comes to editing, trim as much as you can.

10. When it comes to the “final cut” be happy to cut out scenes that took a lot of money and time to film!

11. Google as much information as you can, but don’t worry about it too much.

12. Use a costume that can be easily replaced for continuity.

13. Be brave and get other other people to feedback throughout the entire process.

14. Finish it!

THINGS I’D DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME:

1. Concentrate more on narrative.

2. Have a clearer idea of the target audience.

3. Use more characters.

4. Don’t start filming with a beard that you don’t really want.

In summary, all I can say is, do it!

And keep doing it until you are done.

Because when you are done, you will have done something amazing.

IN A NUTSHELL

You’re going to need the basic kit:

labelled filming stuff

Then, you’ll need the specific props:

FILMING EQUIPMENT props and

And very importantly, you’ll need a location:

FILMING EQUIPMENT location and

And when you’ve got a first draft, you’ll need some friendly critics:

friendly critics long

GOOD LUCK!

(If you want to have a look at my efforts, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com and watch the trailer.)

Help Your Audience Laugh!

shouting           iPodGirl

One of my favourite jokes in my double act show is when my character suddenly can’t hear.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the basic idea: the clown character puts something over their ears – eg ear muffs, a hat with ear flaps, ipod headphones. The boss character talks to him. But the clown can’t hear and doesn’t even notice that the boss is trying to communicate with them.

It’s so silly, but it is a great joke for all ages.

But the other day I came across a little trick to make it work to even better.

AUDIENCE DOUBT

Within the joke, there is an important moment where the audience realises that the clown cannot hear. But this moment can be vague. Individuals in audiences don’t want to laugh at something alone – that would make them feel weird. The individual will let him or herself laugh at the exact moment that they know for sure that it is meant to be funny.

A good comparison is that moment in group singing when everyone has to start singing the first note. We feel comfortable starting to sing if a conductor tells us when. But if there is no conductor and the pianist gives a vague, meandering introduction, no one will want to be the one to risk singing first – and I’ve been in lots of situations where no one starts singing and the group collapses into embarrassed giggles!

In the “can’t hear” joke, the audience will be thinking that the character probably can’t hear, but they are not absolutely sure. So they need a little indication to confirm their guess. They need clear confirmation that the character can’t hear. And the sharper the moment of confirmation, the better the laugh.

So, how to give confirmation quick and subtley?

I had often played “not hearing” absolutely straight, doing nothing – and the anticipation built until an audience was sure enough of the fact to allow themselves to laugh. But recently I have started using very delicate breathing to give a clearer indication that the character “can’t hear”. I do this with a distinct release of breath – either audibly or physically. It is enough confirmation to the audience that their guess is correct.

This tiny indicator releases a big laugh from the audience.

Try it! It’s easy… and great fun to perform!

Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here! 

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

How to be Wild

Having read Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Groucho Marx, it is clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness comes from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.

This is the case for most vaudeville performers – but I think repetition provides something unique for clowns  – something different to the obvious benefits of practice needed by skills-based performers such as jugglers and acrobats.

I call it “petulant deviation”. Groucho’s wild conversations are great examples of it.

Petulant what now?!

Apologies for making up terminology – let me try and explain myself!

Most performers who have done a show more than 40 times will know that there comes a point when you know it inside out. After that, there comes a period when the performer is so familiar with the show that little cracks start to appear.

Maybe you see things that don’t make sense, or you notice things that don’t quite fit the rhythm of the show. Maybe you get the feeling that there should be more or less emphasis on certain sections.

But more importantly, little opportunities offer themselves up. And as long as the performers stay in character, the theatrical illusion can be maintained to allow some improvisation.

That is what I mean by “deviation”.

“Petulant” deviation occurs when performers are so familiar with a show that they start actively looking for opportunities to improvise. It is often in these moments that real truth can be found in a show. It can also be where performers start destroying a show – the Marx Brothers were particularly good at that. Groucho and family were well known for being wild and unreliable. Their film bosses would insist on a tour of a stage version of each film to “run it in”. This was a great way of ironing out any problems – and testing out new material. But Groucho and the gang were so “petulant” that they would improvise with little regard for the fact that shows would over run by hours.

In his brilliant biography, Kanfer describes an incident where a young starlet who had offended the film company bosses was sent to work with the Marx Brothers as a punishment.

In the clip above, you can see how a pretty straightforward comedy scene may have been expanded through wild improvisation. In the clip below you can see how years of repetition and messing around has allowed Harpo and Chico such effectiveness as comic performers.

As I said before, this process feels quite different from the repetitive practice needed by jugglers and acrobats. It is about accessing a unique “zone” of clowning – the chaos zone, the boredom zone or the messing around zone. If you wanted to make up another piece of terminology, you could call it “finding an anarchic impetus”. But I wouldn’t – it would be too pretentious.

Without it, we have to be satisfied with well-rehearsed, technically accomplished performances.

But, with it, we get that unique wild quality which makes great clowning great.

If you want to have a look at the Groucho biography mentioned, click here:

Groucho Book

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

How to Get a Laugh

Here’s is a really simple way to get a laugh in almost any scenario… on stage, film or animation.

I am going to call this technique a “transition”.

So how does it work? There are 3 simple stages.

Part 1: Be Emotional!

Reacting to something with a clear emotion will really help a gag work.

Watch how Friends actors Courtney Cox and Matthew Perry get big laughs from their intense panic.

For TV, Cox and Perry clearly emphasise the emotion with their faces.

For stage work, use your whole body to physicalise the emotion.

eg.   being embarrassed could mean looking at the floor with your feet turned inwards

being terrified might mean hopping from foot to foot very fast

be revolted might mean trying not to wretch!

Part 2: The Transition or “Change of Emotion”

“Transition” is the term I use for a physical and emotional change.

It works by having a completely different emotion before your emotional reaction at the laugh point.

The trick is to anticipate the emotion you’re going to use for your reaction – and then setting yourself up for a really strong change by having a very different emotion before the reaction.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t!

About 10 secs into this clip, David Schwimmer does a wonderful change from resigned to angry :

Using the examples above…

you could be confident before you become embarrassed when you drop something

you might be enchanted before you become terrified when you see a cuddly toy

you could be excited before you become revolted when you look inside a box

For stage work you should again have a completely different physicality before your physical reaction at the laugh point. The more different your body shape before the reaction, the easier it is for the audience to see the change. Emotions with different speeds are perfect (eg enchanted is slow, terrified is fast).

Look at the wonderful Cirque du Soleil actor in yellow physicalise his transitions perfectly. (Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at comedyforanimators.com for this link.)

So, to conclude, using the examples above again…

– You start slow and confident, with hands on hips, chin up, chest out.

You drop something.

You suddenly become embarrassed and look at the floor, with your feet turned in.

– You start enchanted, floating around dreamily.

You see a cuddly toy.

You suddenly become terrified hopping from foot to foot very fast.

– You start excited, quickly rubbing you hands together, grinning wildly.

You look inside a box.

You suddenly freeze in revulsion and slowly try to hold back a wretch.

Part 3: Sharpness

The sharper and more defined the transition, the better the gag.

Overall

The key to nailing a transition is clear, strong emotion, contrast, and sharpness.
That’s it! Try it and have fun!
We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Creating Simple Double Act Material

This blog should help you create some funny material quickly and easily.

This Martin and Lewis routine is a really good example of one of the ways you can generate some great content.

I want to concentrate only on the section from 2.23 to 3.03

Here are the 9 steps:

1. To make things easy: one character should lead the action. The other gets things wrong. In this case, Dean Martin leads, and Jerry Lewis gets it wrong.

2. The routine will be about both characters trying to achieve something specific. The clearer the point at which “success” happens, the easier it is to create good material leading up to it. In this example video, the first “point of success” is Lewis getting over to his dance partner.

3. The leading character must take responsbility for stopping and starting the attempts at achieving success. The foolish character must allow lots of space for the leading character to do this. Watch how much time Jerry Lewis spends just listening to Dean Martin telling him off and giving him more instructions.

4. The lead character must clearly state the success point for the audience. In this case, “Walk over to her and ask her to dance.”

5. For really great gags, the foolish character must do as asked, but “in the wrong way”. In this case, Lewis first walks over trying to look proper, but ends up doing a ridiculous version of a “posh” walk.

6. The leading character then stops the fool before he reaches the “point of success”.

7. THE MOST IMPORTANT PART! The lead character then suggests “how” the foolish character should have done it. Preferably suggesting something that has an emotional content. In this case, Martin says, “Relax, relax!”

8. The foolish character does what he is told, but again, “in the wrong way”. In this case, Lewis does an overly-relaxed walk.

9. Repeat parts 6, 7 and 8 as much as you feel appropriate. Always pay attention to stopping and starting the action cleanly.

That’s it!

This is a simple structure that provides a really strong foundation for double act interaction and is great fun to do.

Think of examples for the following situations:

1. PLACE: A quiet library. AIM: Go and get me that book of the shelf.

2. PLACE: Climbers on a steep dangerous mountain side. AIM: Get something out of my back pack for me.

3. PLACE: The middle seats in the row in a crowded, rowdy sports stadium. AIM: Go and get me some food.

Have fun!

 

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Slapstick & Street Dance – Not So Distant Cousins

I’ve got an idea… it could be huge, so keep it secret…

Let’s combine street dance and slapstick in a new artform called slapdancing.

Maybe?

Anyway… here are 3 areas where slapstick and street dance professionals can learn a lot from each other.

NUMBER ONE: The Extremities

Big shoes, wigs and white gloves?

As Gok Wan might say, it’s all about the extremities.

In big arenas like circuses or dance-off pits it is difficult for audiences to see. Clowns use white gloves and big shoes. Street dance crews can use a similar trick.

In the following clip (start watching at 40 secs) the stripey tights and accurate foot position help the audience pick up the visual gag.

On the other hand, in this clip of a street dance crew, the movement is lost against the dark background.

Start watching at 2.20min

BUT remember, simply being seen is for cyclists, not performers.

Performers must concentrate on the extremities.

In this next clip, an all-white costume causes problems – we don’t get a sense of how sharp the movement is – because we can’t see the hands and feet.

Watch from 1.57

NUMBER TWO: Body Isolations.

Try swirling your neck around with out moving your head.

Try swirling your hips, without moving your torso.

The result could be sexy – or hilarious. (It’s a fine line!)

Here is eccentric dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker showing off his extrordinary body control. Sexy or hilarious – you decide:

Bill Irwin moves his body parts around to great comic effect – watch his wiggling from about 6 mins 45.

All these performers have great body control and it is a great tool for a visual performer to have up their sleeve. Or up their baggy trouser leg!

NUMBER THREE: A Sense of Humour!

Using the body to “mess around” is a great way to get laughs – and to create variation in street dance.

This street dancer has combined great skill with fun to create a fantastic (though sometimes rude!) performance.

So, maybe all you trendy young dance dudes can learn something from old slapstick clowns – and maybe you trendy young slapstickers can learn something from those old dance pros.

Maybe we could have slapdancing clubs all over the country.

Maybe?

 

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com