Posts

Comedy Do’s and Don’ts

Scriptwriting is a completely different ball game when it comes to comedy, one that is often mistaken as easy, particularly if the gags are simple. But writing funny is different from speaking funny. Just because you’re good at cracking jokes or sprouting wisecrack comments, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have that same knack when it comes to transferring these onto paper. At least, not without practice.

The comedy genre is one of the hardest to crack, without even taking into account the fact that within the school itself, lie a whole network of subcategories. There’s black comedy, cringe comedy (an example which springs to mind is Borat), situational comedy, mockumentaries, spoofs, rom-coms, sketches… well, you get the point. Listed below, you’ll find a few rules, a list of do’s and don’ts if you will, to consider if you’re focusing your script in one of these areas.

Black Comedy

Defined as a sub-genre of comedy and satire, black comedy gravitates towards the taboo head on, covering subjects that are considered too dark for normal conversation in a fearless, humorous way. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, as it can often make light of serious topics which, in turn, can be a lightning rod for criticism. Get it right, however, and you’ve got some high-quality entertainment.

Don’t be dark for the sake of it. Don’t try to shock your audience with your edgy appeal just to gauge a reaction. A great storyline is above all, the most important aspect of any script, comedy or not. The comedic appeal or risqué aspects can always be inserted later, but don’t revolve your entire script around dark jokes.

Do collaborate. It takes a long time to get the punchline of any joke right, and it helps to have someone else scratching their head besides you to bounce good ideas off one another. Classic examples of black comedy include the Coen brothers’ Fargo or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Then you’ve got modern versions, like Edgar Wright’s Hotfuzz. Speaking of collaborations, Hotfuzz was a product of combined genius between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, who wrote the script together.

You can really tell that their combined senses of humour, the insertion of red herrings, the Agatha Christie mystery style and dark comedy really come into full excellence as a result of their collaboration.

Romantic Comedy

One of the most popular comedy genres ever, romantic films focus on the development of a relationship between two main characters in a light and humorous way, with plenty of humorous situations thrown in to disrupt the hero’s ultimate goal of finding love. There are a lot of rules to take into account when writing rom-coms, as these comedies are very structured.

Do your research beforehand. Look at plenty of rom-com aspects like the meet-cute, the embarrassing gesture or other narrative patterns that define the romantic comedy genre, as inserting these naturally will increase the quality of your film.

Do repeat yourself. Comedy elements are usually repeated three times to get the most laughs – it’s the rule of three- You set up an expectation, you reinforce it, then you break it down to get the most out of a punchline.

Don’t lose your audience (execs, producers, agents etc) by taking too long to start incorporating jokes into your script. It generally takes only one page – that’s one minute, folks – of screen time, so by the time they reach the end of the page they need to know whether or not they’re going to turn to page two.

Do consider misdirection as a feature in your storyline. Subterfuge and deceit might not get you far in real life, but they’re the backbone of rom coms. Deception, usually caused by the characters themselves, plays a big part in these types of films. The hero usually hides his or her secret from the other main character, either to protect themselves and this leads the climax. In the Silver Linings Playbook, Pat deceives Tiffany into thinking that by the very end, he still wants to get back with his ex-wife, when in reality he’s fallen for her too. Vice versa, she deceives him by forging a letter from his ex-wife.

Sitcoms

Sitcoms, otherwise known as situational comedy, aren’t written as films, but for TV. They are the defining and most enduring forms of entertainment, and now, what with the rise in popularity of Netflix, they’re all the rage with everyone. And also extremely hard to get right, as sitcoms are built on a number of unbreakable rules.

Do be familiar. Familiarity is your friend.  The running gag definitely belongs to the sitcom comedy. Take Barney’s actual job position never being defined in How I met your Mother, or Rachel and Ross’s “we were on a break” gag in Friends, to Leslie Knope’s inexplicable lifelong hatred of libraries in Parks & Recreation, running gags are hilarious ways to make your script stand out.

Don’t think comedy scripts are the same as stand-up comedy. Your script won’t get very far if it’s a long line up of running gags and joke after joke without any plot line. Every successful comedy has at its core a deep and meaningful story, a high concept, one that is interesting and intricately thought out. Take Gavin and Stacey, or Red Dwarf even, they’re both hilarious and the jokes are what seem to make the shows stand out, but really, both the plots are extremely detailed. One is profound and family-focused, the other is a high-concept sci-fi, a unique idea.

Don’t be scared. Writing sitcoms is no time to be shy.  Programmes nowadays are edgy, a lot of risqué topics are covered: narcissism, murder, alcoholism, sex. The 21st century is definitely not a time to hold back.

 

The TV Pilot Starter Pack

Writing a TV pilot is just about one of the most exciting ventures in the writing world, and if it’s comedy well, it just adds six feet more of pure, unadulterated fun to the mix.

But because it’s not all party crackers and knock-knock jokes, and the process itself can be murky terrain, it helps to have a checklist to guide you through the battlefield. If you’re looking to send a spec pilot out for the first time, and the terms tag and premise plot sound like something that belong behind the closed doors of stuffy exec offices, you might want to pay attention. This pilot checklist is for anyone looking to send out a spec pilot for the first time and needs a bit of background to create some… well, perspective.

The Pilot Checklist

Cast of Characters

Any show that’s become successful has done so as a result of three-dimensional, complex characters. If you think about it, every pilot that has gone on to have a successful run of seasons has at its core a cast of characters to pave the way to greatness.

Your pilot needs a goal that’s not just driven forward by the overall world introduction, but also by your character’s overarching goal and episode goals. And to understand these? You need to understand your character.

A character board is a great way to keep track of all this, by scribbling down names, physical descriptions, backgrounds and likes. Create a gigantic pinup extension for your wall that makes people fear for your sanity. This board should include main, recurring and extras – and have your entire cast well thought out before you move onto the next part.

Maybe not something quite a drastic and Carrie Mathison however…
‘Homeland’ – © Showtime

Your characters sell your concept. So whatever premise you’ve set out to explore, your characters need to fit in with your world-building concept.

What makes them unique? What are their quirks? Create a rich backstory and make them as complex and three-dimensional as possible. It always helps to offset certain personalities with polar opposites. If we look at BBC’s Gavin & Stacey, for example, Gavin is kind and romantic, Stacey sweet and naïve. What truly gives the show comedic value, however, is not the protagonists specifically, but Smithy’s and Nessa’s anti-heroic qualities and quirky traits.

The actors will bring your characters to life on screen, but it’s up to you bring them to life on paper. You can’t just create a one-off cast of recurring and secondary characters for your pilot, and then change these in your episode outlines: everything has to match. Producers need to see that you’ve thought about every single character in the show and to do this, you need a long-term game plan before you start writing your pilot. That way your cast introductions can be made accordingly.  It’s all about creating credible characters who clash, opposite personalities.

‘Gavin and Stacey’ © BBC

Character Intros

Character intros in pilots are tricky, volatile things, but they can be done. Channel 4’s Fresh Meat for example, sets up the first five minutes in a way that the characters all meet on-screen for the first time in the most awkwardly memorable way possible. Yet, if you watch closely, everybody’s defining characteristics are peppered throughout the entirety of the pilot, so it’s not overwhelming. If your characters aren’t meeting for the first time onscreen, however, introductions can be trickier, and a more creative approach is required. For example, in CBS’s Two and a Half Men, Alan and Charlie interact with one another in such a way that they describe themselves to each other, though really, they’re transmitting these ideas to the audience. The best thing to do is study characters’ introductions of other shows and you’ll see a formula start to develop, one you can apply to your own pilot.

Structure: the A & B Storyline

The pilot kickstarts a journey you will be taking over an extended period of time, at least for the length of one season, and as such, you’ll need to look at the different types of structure and format that make up a TV sitcom.

First, the pilot will contain a main storyline that stands on its own, while also expertly threading through potential for many more episodes throughout the first season. Every single comedy episode contains the following:

 

  • The teaser: This is an opening joke, a mini act that sets up the episode and relays the problem ahead in a comedic way. In the Gavin & Stacey plot, the couple talk over the phone and the premise of the episode is portrayed in the opening minute: After six months of distance dating, the pair will meet in London for the first time. It works across all pilots. In Friends, Rachel barges into Central Perk- and the friends’ lives – in a wedding dress, and the rest of the episode is focussed on Rachel’s integration into the group and her new independence. This teaser gets the audience hooked before the opening credits.
  • Story A is the main storyline, the principal focus of the episode. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s their meeting, and in Fresh Meat, it’s the gang getting used to living with one another.
  • Story B is the side story, the one that runs in parallel to Story A. It contains the more secondary characters and breaks up the A story with comedic gags. In Gavin & Stacey, it’s Nessa and Smithy’s mutual hate and hook up, and in Fresh Meat, it’s each of the student’s individual hang-ups and fears (take Oregon’s desire to be popular or JP’s loneliness).
  • The tag is the bookend scene, that comes before the final credits and is 1 to 5 minutes long to show the aftermath of another storyline following the episode’s resolution. You see it all the time in comedy shows like Friends, the Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.

The Bible

The Premise

Every pilot needs a premise. This consists of a log-line and defines your entire series in one or two sentences. It basically summarises the main hypothesis of your series. So before you do anything else, you should try to define your series idea as succinctly and as cohesively as possible. Regardless of its misleading size, log-lines can be the hardest part of your bible treatment.  Think about it. You’ve got three or six lines to provide the setup, your world, setting and of course your overarching style. The best ones are always the simple ones. For example, Gavin & Stacey’s premise is: a boy from Essex and a girl from Wales meet and fall in love – joining two very odd families from very different backgrounds. For Fresh Meat it’s: Six students miss out on student halls and live together in student housing for their first year of university – and hormones cause havoc.

The premise is essentially, the summary of your entire show, compressed into a few sentences. But you also need to take into account a few other details for your premise.

Will your show be multi-cam shot or single-cam shot? The difference is that single-cam shot shows are filmed on different sets much like a film. Examples include Gavin & Stacey, Modern Family and Arrested Development. Multi-cam shows on the other hand, involve those which are filmed in front of a live audience, and as such the dynamics of the comedy and acting are very different. Examples include the Big Bang Theory, Friends and Two and a Half Men.

You then need to figure out if your show will be a premise plot or a non-premise plot. Premise plots are those in which the pilot establishes a new circumstance and event, where a main character meets the other for the first time, for example, so we see that it’s the beginning of something. Exactly like Fresh Meat, as before the pilot none of our characters know one another. A non-premise plot is the opposite, it’s like a day in the life of the show, no one is introduced because the characters already know one another. A good example of this is the Simpsons.

The premise breaks down the barriers of your show and reveals to the audience/reader exactly what it is you’re trying to do, with who and why. It’s a summary of everything you know about your show.

Treatment – episode outline

So you’ve written your pilot and it’s ready to be sent out. Congratulations. But… have you written your episode outlines yet? Executives or producers need to see evidence that you’ve thought about the rest of your first season, and not just a one-off, random pilot episode. Breaking down the events of each individual episode with a quick log-line helps people see that there’s enough material to go the distance. It will definitely help the right people invest their time and their money into your show.

In three to six lines you’ll need to provide a summary of approximately 8-12 episodes more. This short statement should include a mention of the principal Story A and Story B as well as the outcome of your episode. You don’t need to write out the script of each episode just yet, but it’s really important to have everything laid out and written down, even if it is just the idea. Producers will want to see the potential of a whole season, so dedicate all your efforts into this. It’s all about seeing your story material on a general basis – a guarantee, if you will, that your series is well thought out, and viable.  I assure you that every series out there at the moment has gone through this process, and you’ll be a better writer for it.

Approaching Genre & Subgenre in your Scripts

A little bit about Genre

Genres pretty much define anything from the type of writer you are to the way your characters speak. You’ve a message to write, and genre determines the way in which your message is delivered.

After all, what you do with genre is create a niche which ultimately determines your audience; you’ve got your Western buffs, your Tarantino fanatics, your drama queens, the J-horror aficionados and your rom-com devotees. But whether you’re a noir intellectual who likes to sip warm wine and compare Kafka’s Village Schoolmaster to Haneke’s White Ribbon, or you’re just in it for Borat’s snappy but catchy one-liners, everyone’s tastes fit into a specific genre.

As a scriptwriter, when you begin to break down genre like this, you’ll see that it goes a long way in terms of it defining your characters and settings. You’re obviously going to need dusty towns for a Western or a futuristic spaceship for a dystopian. And let’s face it, a sociopath with a tangent for spilling blood isn’t going to be popping up in the Love Actually sequel anytime soon… and with good reason. We choose different genres because we like to fit films into boxes. We like to be amused, or horrified, or ultimately saddened. It’s how we categorize entertainment, and how we cope with the emotions they inspire.

 

So how do you categorize your script?

This first part’s easy. Even if you’re on the initial story stage, you can pretty much break down your script into one category, even if you’ve only developed your main characters. Do your main characters share undeniable chemistry? You might be leaning towards a romantic journey of self-discovery. But then let’s take a step further. Is it set in harsh Victorian times and there’s a social imbalance between the pair, making it a drama? Or are your characters fighting for their survival and have no time for romance?

Do you want to make your audience laugh? Do you want to pull a Stephen King and do nothing but inspire horror? Defining your script is also about the emotions you want your audience to experience.

There are so many twists and turns that influence the way you choose your genre, so the best advice is to simply experiment, and most importantly of all, don’t chase trends and fads just because they’re all the rage in that moment, but write the sort of thing you like to watch, regardless of popularity. If you do this, you’ll unconsciously be gathering enough research to know what works and what doesn’t (yep, watching the films you enjoy is legitimate research, I promise).

This doesn’t mean that you have to feel pigeonholed as a writer, but it is a smart move to determine one you like and write lots and lots of pieces in that specific genre. This is because practice makes perfect, and there are lots of different elements and story beats you need to know before you can dominate any one kind.

Which story beats fit which genre?

Genre establishes mood. Tone. Style. It’s a selling tool for studios and determines the demographics of the film’s audience. Knowing which genre you’re writing in will also help sell your script or acquire funding because it’s the first thing you’ll need to include in your synopsis, logline or elevator pitch. It immediately helps set the most important scene about your film’s setting and even helps shed light on what sort of budget you’ll be requiring. It is vital.

Down below we’ve helped outline the most common genres, and some of their unconventional sub genres, alongside a list of examples to help you visualise. Whether yours is a noir film, psychological thriller or a western sci-fi, there are certain elements you’ll want to include.

Drama

Dramas rely on exploring real-life issues through realistic and flawed characters, triggering an emotional response in the audience. If you’ve chosen drama, you’ll need to incorporate the ability to tell an honest story of human struggle and perseverance. When developing your character arc, you’ll need to take this into account.

Drama Subgenres:

Biography (Gandhi, the Sea Inside)

Courtroom (Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men)

Dramady (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

Historical (Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech)

Melodrama (Brief Encounter)

Period Piece (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice)

Political (The Ides of March)

Romance (Brokeback Mountain)

Tragedy (Titanic)

Comedy

Comedy films are designed to make the audience laugh, using humour as its staple. An element you’ll need to include in script-writing is reversing the audience’s expectations, by creating scenarios that are the opposite of what they think will happen.

By subverting expectations with amusing–and often ridiculous–situations, the audience will find the humour.

Comedy Subgenres:

Action (Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street)

Black-Dark (Burn after Reading)

Parody/Spoof (Scary Movie, Austin Powers)

Rom-Com (Bridget Jones’s Diary)

Slapstick (The Jerk)

Action

Action films are designed to represent the spirit of physical action through chases, stunts, fights, battles and races. In the action genre, the protagonist will find it incredibly difficult to achieve his or her goal, as the action makes up the bulk of the stakes.

Action subgenres:

Adventure (Indiana Jones, The Mummy)

War (Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan)

Disaster Film (Deep Impact, The Day after Tomorrow)

Science Fiction  

Sci-fi films need several elements to make them work, but most importantly you’ll need an advanced, authentic universe, one that is supported by technology and science combined. Science fiction will explore how this world affects the protagonists’ lives.

Science Fiction subgenres:

Fantasy (Blade Runner, The Hunger Games)

Alien (Alien, Prometheus)

Apocalyptic (The Road)

Dystopian (Brave New World)

Time-Travel (Back to the Future)

Horror  

Horror depends on stimulating fear in the audience, so if you’re writing a horror script, make sure to exploit people’s fear of the unknown. The antagonist will often represent protagonists’ fears. You’ll also need to include suspense and the surprise factor. Think about horror films you’ve watched, and how the pacing is often slow before it reaches its climax for maximum impact.

Horror Subgenres:

Comedy (Shaun of the Dead, Gremlins)

Teen (Scream, I know what you did last summer)

Monster (Jaws, Cloverfield)

Slasher (Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Supernatural (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring)

Zombie (28 Days Later)

Thriller

Thrillers aim to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by intertwining suspense and tension into the plotline. If you’re going to write a thriller, you’ll need to focus entirely on plot and your character will be proactive, working to unravel the mysteries of the thriller.

Thriller Subgenres:

Action (The Departed)

Film-Noir (Pulp Fiction)

Psychological (Memento, Shutter Island)

Crime/Heist

Crimes are all about focussing on the antagonist and the makings of a criminal. If you’re writing a crime film, you’ll need to have a real psychological passion for understanding the inner workings of a criminal mastermind.

Crime Subgenres:

Mob/Gangsters (The Godfather)

Neo-Noir (Mulholland Drive)

Crime-Thriller (No Country for Old Men)

Western

Western films portray fictional life in Western settings, and will often explore the lives of cowboys. Main elements will include horseback races, gun shootings, train robberies and sheriffs.

Western Subgenres:

Contemporary (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Revisionist (Dances with Wolves)

Spaghetti (For a few dollars more)

 

This doesn’t mean you need to religiously stick to one genre or the other. You can be original and start mixing genres to make your very own hybrid–like HBO’s Westworld, for example, a series that mixes contemporary science fiction within a classic Western setting, by making this setting a virtual game. Whatever you choose, however, just be aware of your genre requisites when it comes to character arcs and setting, particularly as they all form part of an effective selling tool.