by John Pellegrini
A few years ago, I was doing some free-lance production for a friend of mine who had started his own agency. His agency ultimately failed and went out of business. There were a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones, I'm convinced, is that the guy simply could not write funny spots. He fancied himself to be the next Stan Freberg, but his writing fell far short of that. Example:
Man: "Welcome to (fill in the blank) car dealership."
Woman: "I'd like to buy a vowel."
Man: "I'm sorry, but this is (fill in the blank) car dealership, not Wheel of Fortune."
Woman: "But where are Pat and Vanna?"
And so on. He thought this was hysterical. You and I both know it isn't. Why not? Because, as our parents used to tell us, "That's not funny! That's stupid!" And this is one of the big points about comedy writing that many people fail to see. Re-read the script. Where is the premise? Where is the logic? For comedy to work, both must be evident immediately. There is nothing funny about someone being so stupid that they'd mistake a car dealership for a game show.
But why does this happen? Why do comedy writers make this mistake, and why is it so easy to make? Because we forget that the set-up is as important, if not more important, than the punch line. "How do you give a hillbilly a circumcision? Kick his sister in the jaw." Note that the operative word is hillbilly. Lose that, and the joke fails. A pie in the face isn't funny by itself. The reason for the pie in the face is what makes the humor. So many people make the mistake of throwing pies in the face with no reason. But when you examine Laurel and Hardy, you'll remember that there was always an incredibly elaborate series of actions that led up to the pie in the face. Exaggeration must build on reason and logic.
John Cleese, in an interview on PBS, once said that he and Terry Jones used to get into screaming arguments during the writing sessions for Monty Python because he firmly believed that there must always be logic and reason for chaos, and Terry just wanted plain insanity. When you watch Python, you can see evidence of those arguments. Some of the sketches are hysterically funny, and some leave you going "what the hell was that all about?" But the ones you remember best are usually the ones with some connecting logic or reason to the premise.
Now, I know what you're going to say. "Alright smart-ass, what about the Three Stooges? Where's the logic and reason in that?" Their logic and reason lies within their performance and presentation. I'll explain. The Three Stooges were insane. They were lunatics. But, they were almost Shakespearian in their lunacy. They fully believed that they were perfectly normal. In other words, they were deadly serious about their goofy behavior. They didn't mug and wink at the camera. They didn't point and say, "Aren't we being goofy?!" They were totally convinced that they were as normal, if not more so, as anyone else. The same with the Marx Brothers and Larry Daryl and Daryl from "Newhart." Why is it that all Larry Daryl and Daryl had to do was enter a room and people would start laughing? Because they were totally serious about themselves. They never believed for one second that they were weird.
So many times humor fails, not because the writing isn't clever, but because the presentation isn't believable. A funny spot must be produced with as much seriousness as a great dramatic tragedy. But, don't overly emote! Over-acting is just as dangerous in comedy as it is in drama. Don't overdo your goofiness or your seriousness. Just be as normal as you can, and everything will flow.
Of course, having something funny to say would help....