The Third Rule of Writing:
• Two heads can be better than one
Let’s say you’re a serious, reliable screenwriter with a clear understanding of not only the 3-Act Structure, but 5-Act and 7-Act structures, as well. You know that characters should be three-dimensional, have internal and external conflicts and be properly motivated.
You’ve immersed yourself in Joseph Campbell and Chrisopher Vogler so you know the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey inside and out. You’ve read all the screenwriting books (especially mine The Screenwriter Within), gone to the important seminars, studied, analyzed and deconstructed films, read the key biographies and autobiographies of screenwriters (Adventures In The Screen Trade, The Devil’s Guide To Hollywood, Bambi Vs Godzilla to name a few) and subscribed to the best screenwriting magazines.
There’s only one problem: you are incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue. Unfortunately, all the ideas you come up with are way too serious and downbeat (like that bio-pic on Damien the Leper you’ve been mulling over for three years).
You need to get together with a certain kind of person. The off the wall, rapid fire, life of the party, grown up class clown who has the ability to write jokes, great set pieces and funny lines and is hilarious 24/7, but if his or her life depended on it, couldn’t come up with a story and write a script.
It’s the perfect convergence of talent.
Check the credits on sitcoms. You’ll find at least one and often two writing teams on every show. Same with screenplays. It’s fair to assume that most of these teams got together because they each brought their strength to the table.
Finding your writing soul mate isn’t easy. It’s like finding someone to marry. You have to look around, see how you get on and hope that it works.
If it does work you’ll both be in a much better place than going it alone.
The Fourth rule of Writing Funny:
• Find your genre
When we go to a Farrely Brothers movie we expect a certain kind of product. Lots of gross out humor in largely unrealistic, high concept plots with a handful of genuinely inspired lines and moments. Woody Allen films, especially his early and mid-career efforts offered a witty, neurotic take on the human condition, especially romance. His fans know that we were going to see a unique, intellectual kind of creativity and wit. If Judd Apatow’s name is on a film be it writer, producer or director we know it’ll be something high concept with an abundance of sex jokes, but with an undertone of sweetness.
The thing is, depending upon the kind of comedy you’re writing, you may not need to be as funny as these guys.
Romantic comedies need laughs, but not tons of them. Take two Reese Witherspoon films. Sweet Home Alabama wasn’t a laugh a minute. Neither was Legally Blonde, but it was funnier and had a higher concept. Both had compelling stories.
Guy comedies (or buddy comedies) need more laughs than a romantic comedy. Think I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers, Talladega Nights, The Pineapple Express or Role Models.
Let’s look at television. I used to hear people refer to Sex and The City as a sitcom. It wasn’t. It was a drama with occasional laughs. No one watched Sex and The City for the humor (and nobody went to the film version expecting to laugh out loud for two hours), as opposed to Seinfeld, Family Guy or 30 Rock. Same with Entourage. Is it a sitcom? Not really. Parts of every episode are hilarious. But it’s really a drama with laughs that come from character.
Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe. Information crucial to the plot is given. Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there shouldn’t be one in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming.
So if you want to write a big, broad comedy (Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Dumb and Dumber) your script better be funny as hell from first page to last.
So if you want to write a romantic comedy or something serio/comic (serious topic with laughs) or a comedy/drama (lighthearted story with a serious or sentimental turn) you don’t necessarily have to have 3-6 laughs per page. Once again, here is where having a solid story will supersede lots of laughs.
In conclusion, can someone be taught to write comedy? Yes. Just like someone can be taught how to cook. If you take cooking classes, read a bunch of cookbooks, watch Food TV and spend enough time in the kitchen trying out recipes, you’ll be able to prepare a meal that you won’t be ashamed of.
Learning to write comedy is pretty much the same. You can find a class or program on sitcom writing, improv and stand up. You can read books on comedy writing (Writing The Romantic Comedy is very good, as is What Are You Laughing At?: How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories, and More). You can study comedies (you’ll learn more from the bad ones, than the good).
Lastly, if you don’t want to collaborate and if your heart is set on writing comedies, just keep staring at that scene that needs punching up until a funny line pops into your head. Then do it again and again and again. Just don’t try to analyze what’s funny or figure out where it comes from. E.B. White said it best: «Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.»