The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing

If you are writing comedy screenplays, here is a short document that is worth your time to read. It’s by television writer David Evans. I have mixed feelings about “laws” and “rules” in art, but generally these things are simply guidelines on how to go about the work. One of the laws here is a “step sheet.” That is simply another term for an outline.

I also have a post based on the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. Eight Rules of Comedy

The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing

If you like this, you may want to check out my book about physical comedy, it’s full of valuable lessons you won’t find anywhere else.

Comedy for Animators on Amazon

Playful characters

Recently I’ve been thinking about conventional wisdom in creating stories. What I mean by conventional wisdom, is the stuff I’ve seen in blog posts, giving direction to animators in creating stories.  Some of it comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers. Rather than go into the entire list, I’ll paraphrase the basic ideas that I want to comment on.

  1. Make the character want something.
  2. Be a sadist to the character.  Throw all kinds of problems at them to see what they are made of.
  3. Have them overcome the obstacles.

All of that is valid advice for starting stories. However, I’m concerned that some people will start to think of these as “rules.” People like Kurt Vonnegut and Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, are giving advice to writers, not animators. Animators create characters, and not all characters follow the rules. I’m thinking of characters, I will call “playful.”

For instance, consider Bugs Bunny.    Bugs doesn’t want anything.  Some people will argue that Bugs Bunny wants to be left alone, but I consider that to be nothing.  Elmer Fudd wants something.  He wants to kill the rabbit for food.   Elmer is also the one who is faced with the many obstacles to his goal.  The obstacles created by Bugs.   Bugs becomes the sadist.   Following the above advice, Elmer should be the protagonist.  But Bugs Bunny is the character people come to see.

Bugs easily masters the situation with Elmer, or Yosemite Sam, or whoever.  Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is the same sort of character.   While he is usually poor and needy, and he faces challenges from bad guys, he so easily controls the situation, there is never much doubt he will succeed.

Playful characters are full of life, and energy, and wit.  They are bold.  They are confident.  They do not shy away from challenges.  They engage in the situation and master it with style.  From the clever servants in old theatrical comedy to the Marx Brothers to Ace Ventura, such characters are performers who run the show, not puppets of the godlike writer.  These are the characters this blog is concerned with.

What inspired the word “playful” was this quote by Johannes Galli, from his book Clown: Joy of Failure.

The clown should never be mistaken for being obstinate. Contrariness provokes an encounter, but the clown is seeking an encounter, because he wants to play.

The literary protagonist, who yearns for one thing, and ultimately gets it, is satisfied, and done.  The playful character is never satisfied, he is always ready to play again.  And audiences will come back for more.

Primitive comic structure

Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of moving pictures, and “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is his oldest surviving movie. Made in 1889, it is considered to be a comic film. Just watching a man sneeze was thought to be entertaining. At this point, films were extremely short, measured in seconds, this one lasts as long as a sneeze.

Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind, identifies this as a piece of “comic business”.

He contrasts that film with “L’Arroseur arrosee” from 1895, which I posted previously.

A gardener goes about his business of watering plants with a hose. A boy sneaks up behind him, steps on the hose, and the water ceases to flow. The gardener stares at the hose to find the source of the trouble, the boy removes his foot, and the gardener receives a faceful of water. The gardener then discovers the source of the prank, chases the boy, catches him, spanks him, and the film ends.

… The extreme simplicity of the compound makes it very easy to analyze it’s chemistry. The elements of the film are four: (1) a comic protagonist who wants to perform a task. (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance. (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon. (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery.

Think about it this way, if a character slips on a banana peel, it can be funny. That’s like Fred Ott’s sneeze. But if a monkey intentionally threw the banana peel, then laughed at the man who falls, and the man then man gets angry and throws the banana peel at the monkey who gets hit in the face, you have a basic story. These two films represent the very first steps toward comic stories. Mast continues:

As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films. The protagonist: Who is he? What does he want to accomplish? What is at stake? Why? The antagonist: What is the basis of his antagonism? What does that antagonism imply? How does he go about it? The comic object: How familiar is it? What is it’s usual function? How many are there? What metamorphosis does it undergo? To what unfamiliar uses is it put? The comic discovery: How does it come about? What does it in turn produce? What would happen without it?

Eating: The elements of comedy for animators

EatingTitle

I am happy to present my latest video.  Eating is all about the subject of food in comedy.  Great comedy is about common things that all people understand, and food is the most common subject of all.  It has been explored by comedians for centuries, if not millennia.  This video is filled with examples of how comedians have used the various elements of food, such as cooking, table manners and simply being hungry to create laughs.

One topic I didn’t include in the video is the idea of “signature” food.  That is, characters who have specific foods associated with them, such as:

Popeye – spinach

Wimpy – hamburgers

Wallace – cheese

Cookie Monster – cookies

With a lot more research, I could see a part two video that would include “food out of control”  The Three Stooges and Little Rascals, for instance, have had created crazy food in the kitchen.  I fondly recall a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies where Ellie May cooked up some popovers that literally breathed as though they were alive.  I avoided pie fights, as they are well known and practically a topic to themselves.

I would very much appreciate any feedback and suggestions about this topic!  Please comment.

Book review, FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room

 

Cover

While most of the animation world is clamoring for Andreas Deja’s new book, The Nine Old Men, I have been waiting to get my copy of FUNNY!: Twenty-Five Years of Laughter from the Pixar Story Room.  This hardcover book is a nice collection of gags drawn by Pixar story artists for all of their feature films up through and including The Good Dinosaur.   A few of the drawings are the original concepts that made it into the films, but most are not.  Huge numbers of ideas are generated in the making of feature animated films, and the vast majority of them are tossed to make room for those that work the best.  Still, many of the rejects are quite funny as well, and I find them all very interesting.  I particularly liked this unused gag by Matthew Luhn from Monsters Inc.  It is a slightly twisted reminder of a famous scene from Lady and the Tramp.

pixar-pasta-small

There is quite a range in the quality of the drawings. Some are pleasantly rendered, and others are crude doodles.  What matters is whether it gets the idea across.   One of the real insights in the book are the drawings that include content outside what is typically acceptable in a Disney-Pixar film. Meaning, not everything is “G” rated.  Such ideas show they will push their boundaries.  Imposing too much self censoring is not conducive to creative thinking.

The book doesn’t name an individual author, since the bulk of it is a collection of drawings created by numerous artists.  It has a foreword by John Lasseter, and an introduction by Jason Katz, who is one of the Pixar story artists who has been with the company since the first Toy Story.  It has a few paragraphs explaining some of their working process.  For my purposes, I would love to have had much more of that.  Here is one quote from Teddy Newton I found informative:

The secret to a great story gag has less to do with it’s novelty and more to do with the truth it possesses.  The me, the funniest moments in The Incredibles are not the outrageous bits of spectacle, but the banal moments we recognize from our own lives.

Ultimately, the book is more entertaining than educational.  It is not a large coffee table book, and I went through in about an hour.  If you are a big Pixar fan, or an aspiring story artist, I would say it is worth the reasonable price.

 

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