Structure of Comedy
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I've rolled my sleeves up for the last 6 months and analyzed the f#ck out of comedy structure. Even went so far as to take a stand up comedy class. Discovering the structure of comedy is hard, so fingers crossed this will illuminate!
COMEDY IS HARD
1. Set the joke up CLEARLY. If the audience isn't 100% clear on what the concept behind the joke is, the punchline is meaningless. Just like a feature film, you can spend a little longer up front making sure everything is clear.
2. Keep it real. If the joke isn't based in fact, then the people who like Gallagher and Carrot Top will think you're great. But the other 98% of the population will be lost. Look at John Hughes movies (the early ones). They work because all the humor comes from real life, things we can relate to. As soon as you strip that away you're fighting an uphill battle.
3. Keep it simple. Economy of words/thoughts/time. If the audience forgets what the set up was cause you've led them down some tangents or took your sweet time...you've killed the joke.
4. Have a strong attitude. I found that the delivery is more important that the joke. Let me restate that...how you tell it is as important as what you say. Case in point, Robin Williams. 80% of the jokes he tells aren't funny on the page...but when he acts them out...its funny.
5. Suspense. Listen to a great joke..its like a mini-story. The audience wants to know 'what happens next?'. If you pause for a bit, right before your reveal, the tension is released and the laugh is bigger.
6. Target. Who is the joke aimed at? If you don't aim a joke at a target, then it probably will only get a minor laugh. Always have a target. Ex wives and bosses always make for great fodder.
The interesting thing here to note is that all those principles of telling a joke apply to storytelling.
Jokes are, as stated previously, little tiny stories. And those principles that work for stand up are the foundation of all larger jokes (ie, bits in movies).
Most film comedies, or at least the ones I like, exist in an honest world. Annie Hall. Tootsie. Ghostbusters. Superbad. Obviously those aren't realistic in relation to reality, but in the world they've set up, they make perfect sense.
Comedies that don't work so well are the ones where the world is 'wacky'. 'Meet the Spartans', 'Little Nicky', 'She's all That.' Funny is not mugging for the camera and shocking the audience. Comedy that stands the test of time let's the humor come from the character.
Watch this clip and make note of where you laughed.
In the above clip from Animal House the joke works because
A) Clear target. The pansy with the guitar.
B) Clear setup. Belushi, a rebel rouser, will undoubtedly hate this guy.
C) Suspense. The minute Belushi stops, we wait to see what will happen.
D) Punchline. Its not when Belushi destroys the instrument...its the reactions. The guy taking his guitar is funny, but Belushi, in character, sweetly saying 'sorry' is the capper.
Look at the shot structure.
1) guy with guitar.
2) LS, Belushi stops and reacts.
3) CU of Belushi, somewhat pokerfaced, so we're not sure what his reaction will be.
4) cut back to guitar guy....who is clueless. This creates suspense.
5) Cut back to CU of Belushi. Pause. Then he reacts...
6) Cut to a LS of him destroying the guitar. Note that this could be construed as violent, but because no one gets hurt or screams, it stays comic.
7) CU of guitar guy reacting. Its an honest reaction...he's a little in shock.
8) CU of Belushi reacting to his outburst. He does the opposite of what you'd expect (expressing anger) and he simply shrugs. This is where the big laugh, for me, comes. Primarily because I didn't expect that reaction.
Check out this clip from Spielberg's 1941:
Not funny at all? Why?
What's the target? The gas station? Targets should be people or ideas that need lampooning.
What's the setup? It should be that the station owners are fixing up their business, and right when they've got it perfect Belushi rolls up and destroys it all. This could have been a quick shot of them finishing up a coat of paint on something.
Suspense? Not really.
Punchline. NOT FUNNY. Why? There is so much going on in the frame that we're not looking at the actresses reaction. And once she says her line, she moves. We don't get to process the joke.