MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
Imagine eating your favorite meal... every day for the rest of your life! After a while it would become boring, bland. Then you would grow to hate it. Too much of anything becomes boring. Variety is the spice of life, and the key to writing a great screenplay. If your script is all serious drama, soon that drama becomes meaningless. There's no contrast. Even Shakespeare's most serious tragedies have comic relief characters which serve to INTENSIFY the tragedy by giving the audience a point of comparison. We want our scripts to be a balanced diet...
Which means even the most serious script can benefit from a little humor.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON has a simple concept, Benjamin Button is born a withered old man/baby and grows younger with each passing year... ending up a baby again. Someone in the film says we begin in diapers and end up in diapers - and, honestly, how many babies look like bald little old men? That's probably what sparked the short story ages ago, and it's what makes this film from the writer of FOREST GUMP both interesting and insightful. The film gets to deal with aging and loss and being different and feeling old when you are young and young when you look old... and how we see things and people differently. Oh, and it's a romance and an adventure and kind of does that FOREST GUMP thing with history - though more with time periods than with specific people and incidents.
Benjamin's mother dies in childbirth, and his father is unable... and uninterested in raising this freak-baby that killed his wife. So he dumps the baby on a doorstep...
The doorstep of a retirement home. Where he is taken in by the African American woman who helps care for the old folks. She raises Benjamin as her son, and the retirement home becomes *his* home. Throughout his life and his adventures, he always returns to his home and his "mother". Benjamin is surrounded by old folks who look just like him... and many have reverted to childhood. But the main thing about living in an old folks home is that characters are constantly dying. Many of the residents of the retirement home become important characters in Benjamin's life. And Benjamin learns about death at an early age. Sounds like serious stuff, right? That's why we need some balance...
One of the old guys at the retirement home tells anyone who will listen that he's been struck by lightning seven times, "Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning seven times? Once when I was in the field, just tending to my cows." Then we get a quick flashback of the guy just tending to his cows and getting struck by lightning. And every time Benjamin comes home from one of his adventures, this guy greets him by saying he's been struck by lightning seven times, and we get another one of the lightning strikes. By the end of the film we've seen all seven, and they seem to get stranger and stranger as the film goes on. This is spread throughout the film and always gets a laugh.
A running gag is a humorous incident that plays over the entire course of the story. The same basic "gag" or event that happens again and again. A recurring character or prop or line of dialogue. In TV it's called a "runner", and some running gags can run over the entire course of a TV series. On FRASER, they used the unseen Maris character as a running gag. By spacing out running gags over the course of the film, we tend to forget the joke... then it pops back up. The great things about running gags is that they can become like that guy who was struck by lightning seven times - an old friend we are happy to see again. You want to space the gags out so that the audience has a chance to forget about it - seven lightning strike stories in a three hour film seems about right.
In the movie THE BLACK BIRD George Segal parks his car on a steep street in San Francisco and forgets to set the parking brake. The car rolls down the hill and out of frame, and we get all of those comical movie crash sounds. But that's not the end of this gag. Throughout the course of the film, that rolling car will pop up in the background of scenes, causing havoc. This is another element of a good running gag - it's often in the background, not the foreground. Instead of being what the scene is all about, it's a funny little detail that happens behind the main action in the scene.
In one of my favorite movies, Savage Steve Holland's BETTER OFF DEAD, early in the film a newspaper boy comes to collect his $2 for delivering the paper, and spends the rest of the film chasing John Cusack and screaming, "I want my two dollars!" This kid becomes more and more obsessed with getting his $2 and eventually there is a nightmare sequence with a bunch of paperboys on bicycles hounding Cusack. By the end of the film, the newspaper boy saves the day! Another running gag in this film are the two Asian street racers who pop up from time to time whenever Cusack pulls up to a red light... and they challenge him to a race, complete with Wide World Of Sports Howard Cosell play-by-play.
In the action film THE BIG HIT, a rented video has to be returned by midnight or there will be a late charge, and throughout the action scenes - in car chases and shoot outs - returning that video tape becomes a factor. At one point, it's dropped and they must go back into the middle of a dangerous situation to recover it - because getting shot is not nearly as painful as those late fees. In the comedy-action film PULP (from the director of GET CARTER) there are a pair of competing taxi cab drivers who have a little war going on in the background of the film - and their cabs become more and more beat up over the course of the film until they are complete wrecks by the end.
ALL IN THE DELIVERY
If you can find a way to change the "delivery" of the running gag to something less obvious and unexpected, it has even more power. There's a thing I call the "AIRPLANE spit-take method" - we've seen a million spit-takes (where a character is drinking a glass of water while another character says something outrageous and the first character spits the water in shock), but in AIRPLANE there is a scene where they don't focus on the guy doing the spitting, but on the other character as the spray of water shoots past them. Instead of the obvious version of the spit-take, we get a different and unexpected version.
In David Mamet's STATE AND MAIN there's a pot hole on main street that a couple of city maintenance guys never get around to fixing. Cars keep slamming through it throughout the film... sometimes we are in a building, in the middle of another scene, and just HEAR a car hit the pot hole outside! By *not* showing the pot hole, the pot hole running gag becomes unexpected. That's a great example of the AIRPLANE spit-take method.
In the stand up comedy world, a running gag is a "call back", where a punch line or funny twist comes back later in the routine and is applied to a completely different situation. By using the same punch line on a different situation it ends up being funny in two ways, both as a running gag and as an absurd connection between seemingly random events. A running gag or call back isn't only something that can be used for humor - experiment with your tools whenever possible - you can create a serious or scary or emotional runner. In one of my scripts the protagonist witnesses a relative step onto a chair, put a rope around their neck, then kick over the chair and hang themselves. It's a big traumatic scene. Later in the script, I have the protagonist standing on a chair changing a lightbulb... and the chair begins to wobble and tip. I'm hoping the audience connects that with the previous suicide scene and are afraid something terrible will happen to the protagonist. It's a visual call back.
I got the idea of using call backs / running gags for non-humorous situations from the great horror film DON'T LOOK NOW where Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie's daughter drowns in the pond behind their house while wearing a bright red raincoat. After the funeral, they go to Venice, Italy to escape the pain... and Sutherland keeps seeing a little girl in a bright red raincoat in the city. A reminder of his dead daughter. Like a running gag, this person in the red raincoat isn't in the foreground, but deep in the background of scenes. The scenes are not about them, but when the audience and/or Sutherland catches a glimpse of that red raincoat in the distance it brings back a flood of memories of the dead daughter. This running gag pays off later in the story when Sutherland finally catches up with the person in the raincoat thinking that it may be his dead daughter's ghost. It is not. So don't only think of running gags as something that has to be funny - you can use the tool in a variety of different ways.
COMEDY IN ACTION
Nothing shows the power of a good running gag like Steven Seagal's (no relation to George... I think) film EXIT WOUNDS. Seagal films had gone from entertaining action to deadly serious films that ended with long boring political speeches to direct to video cheese (one is even a remake of one of my films). Before that fall - EXIT WOUNDS smartly balanced its action scenes with humor. It's a messy film with a script that often doesn't make much sense... but the running gags save it.
EXIT WOUNDS opens with Seagal in a big action scene... where his pick up truck gets exploded real good. He gets a brand new truck, and treats it like gold. Early in the film he stumbles on a drug deal, and carefully parks the new truck before going after the dealers. He captures Henchman #1, handcuffs him to the grille of the truck, the chases after the Drug Kingpin (DMX). After a chase and fight, he loses DMX and returns to his truck to find the Henchman gone... along with his truck grille! Later in the film, Seagal is going to go into the Villain's lair without backup. His partner asks why he's doing something this dangerous. His response? "I want my grille back." Near the end of the film Seagal finally corners Henchman #1, who says "I have your grille downstairs if you want it," to avoid getting beat up! Just when we've almost forgotten about the pick up truck grille, it pops up again... in an unexpected way. By using the pick up truck grille as a running gag, the writers successfully balanced the action scenes with a little humor and made a standard action film a lot of fun to watch.
Running gags, call backs and runners are great tools to balance your script with a little humor... or create a recurring element that creates an emotional response in the audience. They work just as well in a comedy film like BETTER OFF DEAD, an action film like EXIT WOUNDS or THE BIG HIT, or a piece of big Hollywood Oscar-bait like THE CURIOUS CARE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Does your script offer a balanced diet? Could you use a little humor to add variety? Think about adding a running gag!
"Did I ever tell you I been struck by lightning seven times? Once when I was just sittin' in my truck just minding my own business."
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