We all have our favourite films, don’t we? My comedy favourite is Planes Trains and Automobiles – for three reasons – the story is funny and heartfelt (the ending is a stomach punch), you love and care for the characters and every single small character is hilariously observed. The actors have gone to to town on them and each one of them is brilliantly hilarious.
Like all the best comedy (for me that would include BlackAdder, Seinfeld, Father Ted, Red Dwarf, The Office, as well as many others) they’ve aged really well too.
Using Father Ted and Seinfeld as an example… the characters never learn anything. They never develop, they never improve – they are imbeciles in the hundredth episode, as they are in the first and it it just works.
But writing comedy is terrifying. When I wrote Past Tents with Seth Jones, we would have hour long conversations about every joke… is it funny? Can we do something funnier? We stressed about every piece of it – then, when we performed it on stage, you cannot imagine the relief when people laughed – at the bits we thought weren’t funny too!
But you have to be careful of feedback when sending scripts out. A lot of comedy is visual, a lot of it is down to the clowning skills of the actors and the expert delivery of the lines – the editing to make sure the joke lands… but also, comedy films are really looked down on by critics in general – comedy is so diverse that some people just don’t get it and are a bit sniffy about it.
I wrote a script recently and sent it to someone who hated it – he didn’t find it funny at all. I was so depressed – and then feedback started coming in from other people I sent it to, that was very complimentary – people loved the characters and the situations they got into and most people liked it and nearly everybody said it was laugh-out-loud funny.
So what’s the answer here? How do we as comedy writers, make sure a joke lands? Well, I think it’s simple. If we find it funny, we have to trust that most of the audience will too. It won’t work every time (trust me, I tried stand up once and it was a disaster) but you have to roll with the punches. Get people who like the same things you do, to read it – and ask them if they think you’ve missed any jokes – you’d be amazed how many people can think of funnier things than you and this can only enhance your scripts.