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 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

Performer Analysis: Larry Griswold

Thanks to Tim Eagle, aka Skinny Bean for this clip.

This isn’t just a presentation of great acrobatic skill, it is also a perfect example of how repetition in front of a live audience generates wonderful comic detail.

Larry Griswold’s sharp fumbles and pacey pratfalls are the result of years of adding new ideas and wittling away unnecessary flab – making this one of the sharpest routines I have ever seen.

From start to finish, you can see years of slight adjustments of timing and equipment to allow the act to be executed safely and at pace.

So what specifically is he is doing?

CASTING A SPELL

Right from the start, Griswold’s quick chatter creates instant excitement.

His declaration that he is a stand-in causes expectant laughter, and a brief mention of drunkenness makes us cheerfully alarmed.

Without waiting for any audience reaction, he sets off – and has whipped us into horror within seconds.

This type of attack on the senses early in a routine can be very useful for a performer. It’s a form of hypnosis – the striking pace and rhythm causes a clear physical reaction – even a hysteria. This makes his audience far more receptive to the rest of the routine. Performers can do this in many ways. In our childrens’ show, we have a very staccato introduction, giving abrupt instructions, and provoking quick short responses. It sets the tone for the children to react appropriately to the show. So from then on, we get strong, sharp bursts of laughter, but we don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand.

After his first fall, Griswold maintains the pace, quickly re-inforcing his likeable drunk character by confronting Sinatra, and before the laughs have subsided, he is at the top of the ladder again.

MAKING THE MOST OF MOVEMENT

His first fall appears to be enormous. His body rotates through a small area, but he lets his feet travel a large distance in an arc, exaggerating the size of the movement.

FLAB-U-LESS

He immaculately executes gag after gag, not even using a one-two-three style set up.

The character is always directly trying to get diving – hindered by sharp, sudden interruptions of genuine incidents.

IN TROUBLE

I don’t think I have ever seen such a perfect example of performer looking like they are in trouble!

When he hits his face on the board, his silence afterwards is a great professional touch – giving us a real sense that maybe something has gone wrong.

This is one of the greatest skills that a slapstick performer can have. A bit of doubt in the viewer’s mind is a wonderful thing to achieve. The laughs and gasps are so much better when it looks like it’s really gone wrong.

It is no surprise then, that all this fast, detailed work ends up in a routine of just 4 minutes.

But what a perfect 4 minutes!

IN A NUTSHELL

Being in trouble and danger makes for great comedy

Practice and repetition allows the impression of chaos

Vocal noise can give rhythm to a visual performance

Using an appropriate character adds to the fun

Keep character’s overall intention sharp

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