Over the last few weeks, we’ve gone over the five basic elements of comedy. If something is funny, it includes at least one of these elements. Usually, it includes some kind of combination of the five.
We’ve also begun to treat comedy not as something that is a series of jokes, zingers, or one-liners, but as a series of scenes with comic elements. In good comedies, the process of the scenes is set in such a way that, after a certain point, people begin to laugh at every line, even if those lines aren’t funny.
To achieve that, I’ve shown you that you need scenes with comic elements that advance as the scenes advance; you need characters that are different in how they process the world (they react differently to distress, and they deal differently with problems); and now we’ll add the third element which helps support the comedy rather than make the laughs.
That element is distance. Some of you may have heard that tragedy plus time equals comedy. Well, that is a subset of the big rule. Many funny things are, indeed, actually dramatic or even tragic.
To get the players to laugh at something that’s potentially painful you have to tell them what they’re looking at isn’t real or serious. The way to do it is, rather than to be totally engrossed in a person’s tragedy, to help the player put some distance between the character/situation/story and himself. There are two major ways to do that:
Distance through Style
If you style the world visually so as to make it seem man-made rather than real, then you’ve gained distance and made it easier for the players to laugh. Symmetry is the most basic way to achieve a style that the subconscious perceives as man-made and unreal. But, of course, there are others.
Watch Little Shop of Horrors again (directed by Frank Oz) and you’ll find that most scenes are stylized visually: the chorus of three, the walking in straight lines (right-left, in-out) rather than walking in arcs or diagonally. Take a look at the picture below (At last! A visual example!) and analyze it. See the way it’s set up screams ‘unreal’ and ‘manmade’ and, not coincidentally, makes it real easy to laugh?
Take a look at the Looney Tune cartoons and watch how they’re stylized. Now, the Looney Tune cartoons create style not just by setting up the composition, the background, and the characters in a certain visual way – they also made sure that the characters move in a stylized way, the way they speed from one position to another.
Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, for example, when they’re riled up, do not move smoothly. Rather, they take one stance, then zoom to the second stance, and so on. That is, on the one hand, unreal and man-made, and on the other hand, contains the essence their real emotion. But it turns their emotions to humorous rather than serious. Stylizing helps the audience laugh at the funny things.
Stylizing your art is not the only way to stylize your game. There are other things. Speech is another way. Take Moonlighting. If you haven’t seen their remake of Taming of the Shrew, in Shakespeare style, run out and get it. In this case, they used the Shakespearean language to achieve distance.
Cybil Shepherd, playing the shrew, asks her husband, Bruce Willis: “Husband, are we married merrily?” He answers, “Yea, verily, we are married merrily.” Another time, the wife tells her husband she can’t have sex with him. Rather than say “I have a headache,” she claims in faux Shakespearean, “I havest a headache.” When you put a lot of those in the script, it makes other stuff funny. That’s the beauty of stylizing.
Stylizing speech can come in many ways: rhymes, alliteration, using a certain language, using words that sound alike, and more. Here’s another example from the same episode of Moonlighting. Do yourselves a favor and read it aloud,
Man: “Stay! Such unusual fortune that we meet here and now, and in such similar straits. A moment ago, what was it thou said? […] Didst I hear, ‘I cometh to weddeth wealthily in Padua’?”
Bruce Willis: “Pray, sir, yea, sir, I dare say I did say.”
Man: “Yea, sir? You do say you did say?”
Bruce Willis: “Yea, I say. But why do you pray? Do not ‘gain say what I say so that we may make headway. I foray this way that I may be home e’ery midday.”
Man: “Hooray for this day and the words that you say! And forgive my display, but I have something to say.”
Bruce Willis: “Then without further delay, I say: fire away.”
Here’s another form of stylization is through wording. Soap was a comedy that made fun of soaps. Every episode begun with a ‘Last time on Soap’, but one that made things complicated rather than simple. Read this and watch how, at the end of it, that everyone who sees it in the beginning of an episode is now ready to see a comedy and not a drama:
“Remember the Tates? Jessica and her husband, Chester? Chester’s a guy who fools around with everyone but his wife. And poor Jessica, because Chester’s been so busy, has taken up with Peter, the tennis pro, who in turn has been busy with Jessica’s daughter, Corinne. Of course, Jessica doesn’t know Peter’s been busy with Corinne, and Chester’s been busy with everyone. Jessica just wishes she’s gone shopping, instead. Remember the Campbells? Jessica’s sister, Mary, and her second husband, Bert? The Campbells have problems. Mary has two problems: her son, Danny, is in the mob. Her other son, Jody, is gay. Danny and Bert have a problem: they don’t get along. Jody and Bert have a problem: they don’t get along, either. Mary and Bert have a problem: Bert can’t make love to Mary, and she doesn’t know why. Bert has the biggest problem of all: he knows why – he murdered her first husband.”
There are many, many methods to achieve the stylization required. Music does it pretty well, too. In the same way that music can instantly turn a scene into a scary one, music can tap into the comical rhythm of the characters, making it easy for the players to think ‘comedy’ rather than ‘serious’. For starters, check out Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
Other methods includes: giving your characters ridiculous names, giving the locations ridiculous names, putting unlikely things in the background, giving your characters outlandish clothings, and more. All these fall into the category of telling the players to create some emotional distance between themselves and the events they see, making it that much easier to laugh at the funny things.
Distance through Speaking to the Players
There is another way to create distance between the seriousness of the subject and the players, and that is: speaking to the players. Make it known that you, the creators of the game, and even the characters themselves, know that this is a game and that there is a player out there. Talking directly to the players by stepping out of the story for a second is one way to do it.
In Taming of the Shrew, the writers of Moonlighting have decided to make a point of how different it was for women in the 16th century, as opposed to today. Thus, when Bruce Willis tries to build his spirits up before meeting the famous shrew (or, as she would be called today, ‘bitch’), he begins with Shakespeare’s monologue, but quickly veers off to quote Popeye: “Say that she shriek, why then I’ll tell her plain, she sings as sweetly as a nightingale. Say that she sneer, why then I’ll say she looks as clear as morning roses, newly washed with the dew. And failing that, always am I the man. And as a man, and a man’s man at that, must I man the proper place of the man. Over woman, that is. For I am what I am, and that’s all that I am. As the man is the man is the man.” And, having delivered a speech that fits into the first part of this article, he exits. A second later he returns, and says straight to the camera, “If you’re a man, you’re gonna love the 16th century!” And exits.
And so he began his monologue creating distance through the use of Popeye, and a greater-than-needed use of the word ‘man’, and ended it with creating distance through talking to the audience. Doing this makes funny things, whether they are in the monologue, or following it, become much funnier.
Another way to make it known that the creators of the game or the characters know that they are in a game, and to thus wink at the players, is to suddenly become aware of the structure of the game. Here are two examples about the characters suddenly becoming aware of the structure they are in. From the same episode of Moonlighting:
Bruce Willis’ friend: “I’m off to meet the fair Bianca!”
Bruce Willis: “Go, then, my friend. Until we meet somewhere in the fourth act.”
Another time, in another episode, Bruce Willis suddenly solves the mystery brilliantly. Cybil Shepherd is astounded: “When did you solve that?” Bruce Willis answers simply, “During the commercials.”
In another episode, the two main characters were talking directly to the camera, and then asked the camera/audience a few questions. The camera went up and down for ‘yes’ and left and right for ‘no’.
There’s an infinity of possibilities.
Well, we’ve covered the five basic elements of comedy. We’ve had over-exaggeration, under-exaggeration, the comic distress, the comic problem, and distance. We’ve also covered a short-cut to writing comedy, which allows you to bypass years of learning, if you do it right. I hope these articles have helped you change your approach to comedy and provided a first stepping-stone from which you can learn and learn-how-to-do better comedy.
Next time, in the last article in this series about comedy, we'll talk about the role of logic in comedy.