Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama currently rates as the absolute favorite of our book reviewer Jack Brislee.
To give you the opportunity to delve into Lavandier’s amazing knowledge and insight, we will be publishing a weekly excerpt from the book.
How to Write Comedy
[…] theoretical considerations may not be amusing in themselves, but despite the sighs of Cliff (Woody Allen) in Crimes and Misdemeanors they serve a purpose: they enable us to establish a few pointers on how comedy should be written. The advice that follows is the logical development of everything we have just seen.
i) The first step is to take the plunge.
Take a writer who loves comedy as a spectator, who needs no convincing of its nobility as a genre but who is afraid to have a go. He tells himself there are people who have a gift for comedy and people who do not. There is some truth in that. But just because you do not have the genius of Molière or Chaplin, or the elegance of Lubitsch or the humanity of the Italian screenwriters, that does not mean you have strictly no sense of humour. Seek and ye shall find! A sense of humour must be sought out and cultivated.
A sense of humour must be sought out and cultivated.
In writing as in all else, practice makes perfect. I recall a writers workshop in which I asked participants to write a scene involving a dramatic irony. A 50-year-old writer presented a very funny scene that had everyone laughing. Some of us had tears in our eyes. She had too, but for different reasons. She told us it was the first time in her life that she had written comedy, that she had made people laugh through writing. She found it magical.
ii) Make fun of your characters.
This is easy to say but less easy to do. Many writers take themselves too seriously or have too much affection for their characters to mock them successfully. Perhaps it helps to be able to laugh at oneself in order to laugh at one’s protagonist. This is another way of saying that to write comedy you need a well-developed sense of humour.
Perhaps it helps to be able to laugh at oneself
in order to laugh at one’s protagonist.
iii) Portray failure, which is a form of mockery of one’s characters.
Schematically, serious drama can be described as a character overcoming a series of increasingly forbidding obstacles. The protagonist does not achieve his objective immediately but he draws closer to it. In comedy, the first barrier is too tall for him to climb, and he has to try another. And after that things get worse.
iv) Show that the characters believe in what they are doing.
They have futile obsessions, absurd limitations, but they are absorbed by them. In other words, they have no detachment from themselves or what is happening to them. This rule also concerns the actors, who have to perform in all seriousness, absolutely straight. As we have noted, actors who show off, in effect winking at the spectator as if to say “see how funny I am?”, merely spoil the comedy.
v) Maintain the spectator’s detachment from the action…
…by avoiding suffering, exaggerating everything and creating disparities. Comedy writers usually do this unconsciously, without having to think about it. But it can help to understand the principle. If Francis Veber had thought “disparity” while writing the doctor scene (cf. Les Fugitifs, above), it might not have taken him six months to complete it.
vi) Maintain the spectator’s detachment…
…by creating one or several (heavy) dramatic ironies. By its very nature, dramatic irony is one of the pillars of comedy.
Dramatic irony is one of the pillars of comedy.
vii) Concentrate on the comedy of character and the comedy of situation…
…rather than staking everything on local gags or hilarious dialogue, which can be added later as a bonus. For comedy of situation you need meticulous preparation and attention to structure. Even the silent movie clowns who started out performing sketches realised how important this was when they switched to feature-length films.
viii) Do not confuse being loony with being funny.
Some writers imagine that by creating over-the-top situations, characters or accessories they are automatically going to raise a laugh. I regard this as a cop-out: incapable of genuine humour, writers in such cases veer off into fantasy. At best it becomes intellectual humour—a form which is not particularly funny. At its worst, it is simply imbecility. In any event, we are far from the comedy of character or situation.
ix) Exploit everything; even look for a topper.
As we have seen, milking often brings you comedy. There is a logic to this: laughter, like creativity, is characteristic of the Free Child. Which brings us to our last piece of advice.
Laughter, like creativity, is characteristic of the Free Child
x) Cultivate your Free Child (cf. the last part of chapter 7).
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Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.