How To Be Funny in a Comedy Film
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A lot of you might be wondering 'how to be funny in a comedy film?'. This can apply to filmmakers, actors, writers, or even bloggers. Making people laugh gives them value. And if you give value they'll love you for it. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on how to successfully shoot comedy!
Let's talk about how to shoot comedy. There's a right way, and a wrong way.
I'm gonna pick on 1941 again. It tries so hard to be funny and that's where it fails.
Here are the problems with the way its shot:
1. Its too busy. The wind blowing, the smoke, the camera moves. It doesn't FEEL like a comedy.
2. Camera moving on the jokes. If you move the camera, the joke gets lost.
3. Lighting is dark (actors reactions sometimes in shadows).
NEVER move the camera on a punchline. NEVER.
NEVER obscure a reaction from camera (frame and light actors CLEARLY).
Check out this clip from Curb:
It works because the camera work is simple. Its only to service the performers. The lighting is high-key, and though the camera is 'shaky', it never moves during a funny bit. Overall, the humor is supported by the filmmakers as opposed to being trampled.
What about night scenes? If most comedies are high-key lighting (brighter) then how does one pull off a night shot?
Notice that Walken is partially obscured by shadows, which adds a creepy flavor to his character...which is the the joke. But the laugh comes on Woody's reaction to him. Which is very well lit. In both reactions from both scenes.
REALISM OF THE WORLD
Here's the opening of DATE MOVIE:
NOTE: I got this off Youtube, so excuse the bad quality!
Its tonally 'silly'.
Which means its more akin to animation, which excels at characterizations.
When you do this in live-action, you take away any sense of reality. The characters are doing silly things, trying to be funny, and it doesn't work. Why? Because they haven't explained why the characters act this way.
In the clip above from Airplane!, they play it totally straight.
Its a silly world, but they don't mug for the camera. The actors always have big stakes, they REALLY want to do what they're doing.
The reason Airplane is a classic and Date Movie is in the bargain bin, is that right off the bat with Date Movie, it doesn't make sense. Why is this chick dancing?
In Airplane, they set it up right away...the stewardess wants to do something nice for the sick girl. We can all relate to that, so we're down.
If you're going to have a comedic stylized world, HAVE IT BE BASED IN TRUTH.
PRODUCTION DESIGN CREATES TONE
How you design the world will inform the audience of what the tone is.
What's the tone???? Everything is muddled. There's no style or charm. And if the audience can't figure the tone out instantly, they check out. Why? Cause they figure you (as a storyteller) aren't doing your job. So why listen to you?
A great world that supports the characters is The Muppet Movie.
Its whimsical and stylized and perfectly compliments the characters. They shot it at real locations, but they picked props (the Studebaker) that have a sense of fun. And since they've introduced puppets as the leads, they can do wacky things like have it snow for one shot.
Once they set up those rules, and stick to them, we buy it.
Notice how Woody keeps it fairly toned down. Its silly, he pulls a character from offscreen. But the acting is realistic and you know what the motivations are. Also the camera work is fairly minimalist. Even the lighting looks natural.
Here is a really stylized world. Its consistent. And the camera work leads you to the jokes. Burton will reframe quickly and then lets his camera settle.
Here is a list of comedies that visually range from stylized to more naturalistic. Notice how they all have simple camera work, very defined visual palates, and consistent rules (talking to camera, pulling things offscreen).
Also, even near the 'naturalistic' side of things, they're fairly stylized (both Annie Hall and Ferris Beuller break the 4th wall.)
3. Muppet Movie
4. Dr. Strangelove
6. Ferris Beuller
7. Annie Hall
9. Sixteen Candles
All the above films have in common:
1. They respect the main characters. They laugh with, but never at.
2. They set the world up in the beginning and then never break their rules.
3. The stakes are big for the characters, so the harder they keep trying (and failing) the more we laugh.
4. The emotions are all real. Nothing wacky.
- The number 1 rule to shooting comedy is let the world/camera work/production design support the characters.
- The tone should support the personalities of the characters.
- Never let the camera move on a punchline.
- Never have a reaction in shadow or obscured from camera.
- Never have the world be too unrealistic that we can't relate or are confused.
- Never be inconsistent with your tone. DON'T BREAK THE RULES OF YOUR WORLD.