Enemies of Comedy | Script Revolution

Enemies of Comedy

Introduction: 

The key to entertaining screenwriting lies in provoking a range of emotions in the audience. One of those most powerful emotions, so powerful in fact it surpasses the typical need to adhere only to beats that drive the story forward, is humour. In this article, Ville Nummenpää, a man who is far funnier than he claims he is, breaks down some of the core elements of this black art in a way that's so simple even I can understand it - CJ

Comedy is a brutal game where the feedback is immediate and absolute. Your material will be met with laughter or silence. The latter can be crushing. If you can’t take a punch, best to do something else. Perhaps write a story about incest and cancer in a concentration camp, and say ”I never meant to entertain, this is serious and significant”.

But in comedy you can’t hide behind anything. It is simply hit or miss - brutal.

This post comes from a comedy fan, a connoisseur, who is not funny in real life, and therefore overcompensates trying to write funny. This has lead to actual work in the field, but to call myself a pro, let alone a veteran would be a stretch. So who am I to lecture? Someone, who takes his shit seriously, and takes every lesson to heart. Comedy is a life-long lesson, but the warning lessons I have learned simply by watching comedy, have sadly proved to be spot on in making it.

Let’s highlight some enemies of comedy.

1. Fear

The #1 nemesis of funny. Fear comes in many forms, but ultimately leads to same results – silence.

To subcategorize fear, there’s:

- Fear of failure. Fairly self-explanatory, but should be addressed. It is very destructive, sometimes leading to actual self-sabotage.

The logic behind self-sabotage apparently is: ”If I fail deliberately, I’m at least holding the reins”. This is a very toxic logic, but sadly real. Very few people will ever admit acting on this logic, but many know better deep down. Ask yourself which is better: To try your best and fail, or fail on purpose and say: ”I knew it wouldn’t work”?

That nagging doubt in the bag of your head must be silenced. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you really go for it?

- Fear of succeeding. Yes, you read that right. This is a real thing, and happens more than you’d think. I have come to recognize a certain look on people’s faces. That look usually follows a high-five moment of excitement. The look says: ”Oh oh, this looks alarmingly like a jackpot”. This is when the ’fine tuning’ starts. It usually means hitting the brakes, watering down, and cutting out the best parts. The logic behind this is lost on people who are doing their best. Maybe it’s the fear of raising the bar too high for the future? Or is it low self esteem at work, where you see yourself as a failure, and won’t let yourself succeed? Is it some form of twisted, false modesty that forbids from standing out? I wish to learn more.

- Fear of controversy. The seven scariest words you can hear in a writer’s room are: ”What if someone is offended by this?”. This is followed by a collective gulp, and every sphincter in the room cramps.

You can try to shrug it off: ”Let’s not worry too much, someone will get offended no matter what we do”, but you’re not fooling anyone. The match has been struck, and this fear spreads like wildfire. ”Could this harmless piece be misunderstood? Could there be a scandal?” This also leads to watering down, and cutting out the best parts, going against everything comedy is supposed to be.

Take it from Mel Brooks: ”Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior.”

(To back this up, this writer has had the displeasure of watching a censored version (perhaps an airline-edit?) of Blazing Saddles.

Imagine it, every forbidden word, every naughty bit, everything controversial was cut out or muted. Hell, even the farts were muted. Picture it, a farting scene without farts?! There was nothing funny about this version, and as such, was very educational. The movie in its original form is not only a riot, but it also takes a bold stance against racism. Take all the risky stuff out, and you end up with nothing. No laughs or message.)

2. Ego a.k.a ”I wanna be funny too!”

As with any kind of creative work, the artist should always remove oneself from the equation - Let go of the ego. The work of art is not about you, it’s about the end result. Not everyone is capable of doing so, and sometimes you can’t really blame them.

If you end up doing comedy for realzies, you may end up working with actors. An actor is often vulnerable and insecure (see:fear). An actor may feel threatened if it seems everyone else gets to be funny, but he/she gets all the serious lines. Somewhat understandable, but oh so destructive. The seriousness is usually the very thing that enables the funny. To break that balance often means taking away the laughter. Don’t believe me? Go and watch Airplane (1980). This is a gripping thriller, it’s all dead serious, and you really want the passengers to land safely. The seriousness makes it hysterical:

”These people need to get to the hospital.”

”The hospital, what is it?”

”It’s a big building where they treat sick people. But that’s not important right now.”

The most efficient way to make the audience feel uneasy, is to demand attention in a ”Look at me, I’m funny”-sort of manner. This would be sacrificing content over ego, and this is where laughter dies. There is only one exception to this, and its name is Jim Carrey.

3. Underestimating the audience

A.k.a, talking down to people. Have you ever texted something funny to a friend, and paused before sending? ”What if they don’t get it? Better add :) just in case”. That smiley face says: ”This is a joke, get it?!” Your joke could have been funny, but we’ll never find out now.

Let’s create a hypothetical situation:

You’re all having a good time in the writer’s room, reading each other’s material and howling with laughter. As you’re wiping your tears, someone says: ”No one’s going to get this”. This is weird logic, since just seconds ago everyone in said room undeniably got it. Why wouldn’t everyone else? Now we start underlining the jokes, and adding smily faces, basically saying to the audience: ”This is a joke, ha ha, funny isn’t it?”

It’s very dangerous to elevate yourself above mere mortals and start dictating what people like.

As a member of the audience, which would you like better: To be treated like an idiot, or to be treated smart? You don’t want jokes explained to you, and neither do ’they’. You don’t need canned laughter, but guess what, ’they’ don’t either! We have all just learned to tolerate it. Should this come to debate, the issue may develop into a matter of insistency and stubbornness. And now we have just entered back into the realm of enemy #2.

4. Obeying the rules

It’s supposed to be anarchy, but many people never let go of the rulebook. This is fear, in a way. A set of rules might give you a false sense of security. Rules, such as:

- Every joke has been told.

Really? Then how come we keep hearing new ones all the time? This is propaganda from people with no imagination, to people with no imagination. Replace ’joke’ with ’song’, or ’story’, this piece of ”truth” is as old as time itself. Cavemen propably used it when they ran out of ideas for a new campfire story.

This is a cop-out. A license to steal for lazy people. Don’t go there.

- Comedy is all about mishaps and misfortune

Really? There are people out there, who take great pleasure in other people’s misfortune. But do you really want to cater to that group? In just about any comedy movie, our hero will face hardships, yes. But the hardships enable the good stuff to take place, and the best bits are usually the ones where things go our way. Ok, there is an ounce of truth here, but nine times out of ten, the hardships themselves are not funny.

- Comedy never changes

Really? Do you find stepping on a banana peel hilarious? (Also, see previous) How about a pie in the face? Do stand-up comics still complain about their wife’s cooking? And if comedy never changes, how come I have no clue what’s happening in my son’s favourite Youtube videos, and he is howling in tears. Have you ever actually read Shakespeare’s comedies? Did you split your sides? (Vice versa, it’s safe to assume Shakespeare would not find Airplane funny one bit. Or my son’s Youtube-favourites.)

Comedy changes.

What if all of the enemies above join forces, and take over an entire project? You will end up with lukewarm results at best, a complete shitshow at worst. Hopefully you’ll never experience the latter. To stand there helpless, watching a slow motion train crash, where your own name is written in bold letters on the side of the train. Should you be so unlucky, it can be very educational. Don’t get bitter, get better.

There are more of enemies to slay, of course. Please join in and contribute. Let’s learn from each other.

About The Author

Ville Nummenpää's picture
Real name: 

I'm a screenwriter and a novelist. Three official credits on IMDB (There should be a couple more, who knows who updates them?). I have one 12-ep. TV-series to my name, two stage plays, five books (three for kids, two for grown-ups), and various stints here and there. Episode here, a few sketches there, short movies and short stories, etc.

I do comedy, cause I'm not funny. But why stop there? I also want to do horror, action, science fiction... in one word, entertainment.

I live...Read more

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Comments

Bamutiire Jerry Edmund's picture

Thanks for the wake-up call, Ville. I think imitating another writer's style other than being oneself can be an enemy to one's authentic comedy writing voice. Probably this falls under the enemy you've called fear.

Ville Nummenpää's picture

Thanks Bamutiire, good point. I guess imitating is playing it safe in a way, and it's not going to bring us anything new and awesome. So yeah, fear. And it can still go south. I feel it's better to go down in flames having given my best, than play it safe.

Bamutiire Jerry Edmund's picture

You're right, Ville; the safe path is cunning.

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