How to be a screenwriter


They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian, but they're not laughing now!

This is one of the reasons why comedy is difficult. The audiences are divided by age, by sex, by race, by religion, by wealth, by history and anything else you can imagine. And not all humour can transcend those divisions. The infamous universal story is something of a myth and it explodes when trying to deal with humour. We laugh at each other, and often do not find it funny at all.

But some humour always works and one can just about discern why. A script writer will have their character say, “No you will never get me wearing women’s clothing in public, carrying a placard saying I may be butch but I’m still a bitch!” And then cut to a scene where the character is doing just that.

You saw it coming and the whole set up was so obvious that you marvelled at the audacity of the writers to even contemplate using that old gag and then bang, you laughed. You had to. That’s the rule of that joke. It is always funny. And the reason is simple: we all make promises to ourselves that we instantly break. That is the last piece of chocolate I will ever have. And straight away my hand reaches into the chocolate box.

A lot of humour, particularly in narrative comedy as opposed to the shorter sketch and joke telling variety where the cultural context becomes all too important, is a variation of the same joke. Someone does not want to do something, but they do it. Someone does not want to think something, but they think it. Someone knows what they should not say, but for some reason everything conspires to make them say it.

The same duality of purpose or identity underpins the following variant. Here the character has competing social pressures on him, for instance the phone rings just at the moment he has finally got the girl friend naked and hot. He finds himself talking to his mother who tearfully informs him of the sad death of his much beloved grandmother.  As he whimpers orgasmically because of the girl friend's endeavours, his mother comforts him with how long and productive the grandmother’s life was. The more grotesque you make the scene, the funnier it is.

Another gag that always works is that the character mishears something and operates under a complete misunderstanding, misinterpreting everything around them.  Our hero, on his way to a fancy dress party, comes across a kidnapping scene and thinks the gangsters are all acting in character for the party. The more aggressive the gangsters get, the more convinced our hero is of the brilliance of their performance. The more you pile on the misunderstanding and the danger of the situation, the more we laugh.

These gags work perfectly in narrative comedy because they have built in drama. Drama is all about lies and deceits, struggles and conflicts and misunderstandings.  The audience understands what is really going on and the bigger the disjuncture between what the character thinks, feels, intends to do, or thinks is happening and what actually is happening, the funnier it gets.

What distinguishes comedy from drama is hard to pin point. Characters in comedies are usually smarter and dumber than those in drama, often the same character at the same time! A comic character is often literally in two minds about something. In drama, characters are more compromised, less innocent, and strangely unable to ask obvious questions for fear of exposing the artificiality of story telling! In comedy a character can suddenly realize they are trapped inside the workings of a fiction, even ascribing it to the workings of a malicious writer as opposed to a malicious universe. Such self-awareness never happens in drama.

Where comedy departs from drama can be discussed forever and one can never get to the bottom of it. It is a continuum. A David Lynch movie is a comedy of sorts, but the darkness of the absurdity makes it a very uncomfortable sort of comedy. A Tarrantino movie is a comedy of sorts, despite the brutality and gore, and slips and slides between genres giving a knowing wink each time. With these sort of stories we can often shock ourselves at finding humour in such dark imaginings. And what drama is worth watching that does not have wit and humour as a component?

Another variant of the same basic ideas of failed promises, two mindedness, and misread situations, has a character trying so hard not to be offensive to others, that he cannot help but be increasingly offensive! And as they desperately try not to offend, and try to explain what they really meant to say, we watch them in morbid fascination as they dig themselves deeper into the hole they are in. A character endlessly back peddling, trying to explain away inadvertent double edged meanings just gets funnier and funnier. And whatever you do when you meet the Germans, especially if your name is Basil Fawlty, do not under any circumstances mention the war!

Little things of no significance that become disproportionately important are funny. And the more dangerous the situation gets, and the more painful it is, the better. And if you can bring in a range of acceptable behaviour in one situation, and put it in a situation where it is completely unacceptable, the better.  Being told that it is polite to slurp noodles and belch in Japan, can only lead one to conclude that it is even politer to fart as well. Perform this honourable act in front of royalty and it gets funnier. And then introduce a man who insanely thinks they are The Emperor and proves it by reciting all the varieties of Cheese, then empties a vat of blancmange over everyone - a size of vat mistakenly ordered by a misplaced decimal point on a web site - and you now begin to see the dark workings of our universal love of just plain silliness. Breathless absurdity is funny especially when a character with no sense of humour whatsoever is involved in the process. A quick study of the works of Margaret Dumont should show you how you just cannot have humour without supremely serious people. "I have never been so insulted in my life!" "Hey, stick around a bit longer and we'll see what we can do."

What then is funny? The world conspires against us. We can never be as smart as we want to be, as open minded, as efficient, as respected and respectful as we wish. Despite our best intentions, everything conspires to make fools of us, and when it does it rewards us for all the worst possible reasons.  And in the end stuff just happens that no matter how unbelievable we find it, or how frustrating, just keeps on happening until we surrender to the idiocy and give up the illusion that we can do a damn thing about it. Now, that’s funny.