Monday, October 24, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #101: Funniest Isn't Always Best

One of the reasons that writing comedy is so hard is that you have to serve two sometimes-opposing goals: You want everything to be as funny as possible, but you also want everybody to stay in character. You quickly realize that you can’t always use the funniest possible line or show the funniest possible action. Instead, you have to limit yourself to the funniest line or action that this character would say or do in this situation.

On “How I Met Your Mother”, if the writers comes up with a funny Barney joke, but he’s not in the scene, they have to resist the temptation to just give that line to Ted, who wouldn’t naturally say it. The worst possible solution is when writers give a Barney-type line to a Ted-type character, and then cover their asses by having Ted say something like, “Sorry, Barney’s not here and somebody had to say it!” Ugh. Do not do this.

This is even worse: one thing that happens all the time in kids’ books is that the author will mention early on that the kid has a word-a-day calendar, then every time the kid uses a word that no kid would know, they simply have the kid explain, “I just learned that word from my calendar”. Double-Ugh.
Bridesmaids had a wonderful ensemble of actresses and the script was able to come up with strong character arcs for four of the six ladies in the bridal party. Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, on the other hand, each had a lot of funny lines , but didn’t really get storylines of their own.

The proof that the moviemakers weren’t sure what to do with them is in the airplane scene. They have a funny conversation about their very different marriages, but the writers didn’t seem to know how to end it, so they have the two women suddenly kiss. It gets a big laugh, but it really doesn’t come from character and it doesn’t get paid off later.
In an otherwise rock-solid movie, it’s an example of choosing a quick laugh over character building, which isn’t the best choice. You can’t ask, “What’s the funniest thing they could do?”, you have to ask, “What’s the funniest thing they would do?”


j.s. said...

Good rule.

I see so many comedy scripts where the writers think it's sufficient to be funny, to have a hilarious concept, a few laugh-out-loud set pieces or witty banter in every scene...But they neglect the story. And they don't imagine their characters fully or remain honest about their motivations.

On a show like SEINFELD, for instance, the biggest and best laughs are the result of carefully considered character choices and precise plotting.

On the one hand, comedy is like horror, in that you get immediate feedback in laughs or gasps that either work or don't. On the other hand, to sustain an audience's interest for 90-plus minutes and to make them want to see it again or tell their friends to go, you're going to have to tell a darn good story too.

Matt Bird said...

Definitely, horror works the same way. Both for the bad guys (not the scariest thing they could do but the scariest thing they would do) and for the heroes (not the scariest situation they could get into, but the scariest situation they would get into)

Christine Tyler said...

I feel like a variation of this is exactly what happened in Juno. The writer had a quirky tone for Juno herself that they seemed to find so witty...they made everyone talk like that. Which completely defeated the purpose.

I feel like I've complained about Juno in your comments section before...or maybe there's just a glitch in the Matrix.

Matt Bird said...

I felt like that was more a problem in the first 20 minutes of Juno-- Rainn Wilson talks like Juno, but Jason Bateman doesn't. The first twenty minutes were about "Hey! Listen to this writer's quirky and distinctive voice!" but then they just settled down and told a story.

Anonymous said...

When Cybill Shepherd had her own show, where everyone worked for her, whenever a screenwriter would come up with a funny line for an actor, Cybill would say "No, give me that line instead," not understanding (or not wanting to understand) that the line was only funny when the other guy said it.

--Christine Bird

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Though I agree with your argument, I felt like the makeout session between Kemper and McLendon-Covey's characters and their subsequent disappearance were related for a different reason. I believe you have the logic backwards. The movie had a lot of characters, and there was a lot of story left to cover by that point with not much time to do it in. They could have been kept in play, but the movie needed to narrow down at that point, not expand. Maybe the idea was that since there wasn't much room for those two characters, why not send 'em off with a gag?

Just a hunch. I could be wrong.