MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

FUNNY FOR A MINUTE


You know the difference between a really bad SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit and a really good one? The bad skit starts with a funny premise, but doesn't explore it. Sometimes it's just a character that's funny, sometimes it's a situation, sometimes it's just a concept. It's as if the basic idea is supposed to be funny enough to carry the whole 10 minute skit. No one idea is ten minutes of funny. A funny character isn't funny for ten minutes (which explains why the movie SUPERSTAR flopped - that character wasn't funny for a whole skit!) - the character is funny when introduced... then you have eight or nine minutes left in the skit with nothing funny happening.

A really good SNL skit takes the funny idea or character and comes up with a series of escalating comic events that explore the situation. Each of these events is funny on its own - a gag - but when combined with the funny skit or character creates one laugh after another, each gag topping the one that came before. Basically, you need more than one funny thing to sustain a ten minute skit. The premise or character is the FRAMEWORK that you hang funny gags on. Each gag EXPLORES the premise or character but is also funny on its own.

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS does the opposite of a bad SNL sketch - it begins with a fairly mundane premise and then manages to find both jokes and real emotions buried deep within that premise. It doesn't just milk the concept, it gets gallons of milk from a stone.

The concept: Harold & Kumar must find the perfect Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve.

The film begins six years after they escaped Guantanamo Bay Prison, with the Hope & Crosby of the stoner set no longer roommates. Harold (John Cho) has finally married his long time girlfriend Maria (Paula Garces) quit smoking weed, gotten a real job on Wall Street, and settled down in the suburbs two years ago. Kumar (Kal Penn) still lives in the apartment and still spends his days smoking weed on the couch... depressed after having broken up with Vanessa (Danneel Harris). When a package for Harold is delivered to the apartment on Christmas Eve, Kumar figures it might be a Christmas gift and decides to take it to Harold's house and dump it on the porch, then split. But Harold is home alone, and invites Kumar in for a moment. In that moment, Kumar manages to torch the Christmas tree that Harold's hard-ass father-in-law (Danny Trejo... in a sweater) has grown from a sapling... and now the pair must find a new tree before the rest of the family comes home from Midnight Mass... and hijinks ensue.

The story manages to find everything that could possibly be related to Christmas and the holiday season and find a large selection of gags for each. There's a department store Santa (Patton Oswalt) and the real Santa (Richard Riehl) and Christmas parties and the most popular toy that is sold out (Wafflebot!) and Jesus and Neil Patrick Harris dancing with a chorus line of Rockettes and Angels and that Midnight Christmas Mass and the reindeer and painful scene recreations from A CHRISTMAS STORY and Rosenberg and Goldstein pop up at White Castle for a discussion of Christmas from the Jewish perspective and... well, just about anything and everything that has to do with Christmas is in this film... and they find as many gags as possible from each. Plus, the usual Harold & Kumar drug humor and a Russian mobster and some Occupy Wall Street gags and dozens of gags about how stupid 3D films are... in a 3D film. And the odd thing about it is that it is still a heart warming Christmas story about friendship and family and what you will freely give up for the person you love. Oh, and Charles Dickens A CHRISTMAS CAROL sneaks its way in... Uncle Timo (who is anything but tiny) shows up on crutches after escaping from prison for the holidays - and we think that is the joke... until he ends up having Tiny Tim's lines from the holiday classic. They milk the concept of Christmas for jokes... and still manage to make a film about the spirit of Christmas. Plus, there are scenes at a Christmas tree lot run by a pair of African American brothers who take turns being the "gansta brother" to pressure white people into spending more on a tree than they'd planned to. Just as Harold and Kumar are the Hope and Crosby of the stoner set, these two brothers are an old fashioned comedy team. No joke is left unturned!

Another set of brothers can be found in the 92 minute comedy film THE BROS which I saw at the Raindance Film Festival back in 2001... but wasn't released until 2007. Unfortunately this film did *not* do a good job of milking its comedy premise. The film is about a pair of white suburban kids who dream of becoming gangsta rappers. That's a funny premise.... but that's all the script has to offer. They rap in mall parking lots, they steal credit cards when they need new sneakers, they smoke dope, they make a demo tape on their K-mart cassette recorder... but they don't do or say anything particularly funny, nor do they become involved in any situations that are funny. The film has a loose, improvised style - and I suspect that most of the dialogue *was* improvised. It's cluttered with pauses and padding. Some film makers think the improvisation makes things more real - and it does... but no matter how clever someone is they always come up with the great line an hour later... which is why actual written dialogue will trump improv every time - an hour later you can go back and write that great funny line. Without clever lines or gags or situations or even an over-all plot, the film just kind of sits there. The movie has one joke: White guys pretending to be Black. We get that in the first 2 minutes, which makes the remaining 90 minutes tedious.

Never underestimate the importance of funny stuff in a comedy.

So where do you find that funny stuff? Mine the conflict! THE BROS never establishes any conflict, it's just a string of events. They meet with a manager who thinks they have no talent - this seems like a conflict, but there's no struggle involved. It's a dead scene. There are conflicts built in to "White guys who think they're Black", but the script never explored them. Think of how funny the scene with Eddie Murphy is the redneck bar was in 48 HOURS... why not do a similar scene? Many thought Elvis was Black from listening to his music, they were shocked when they met him. What situations could you get these two suburban white guys into where they'd be fish out of water? Performing at a Black Panther rally? What if they became some gangbanger's favorite rap stars and he invited them over to the crib? There are a million possibilities - this film explored none of them. It stuck with the initial concept, never escalating the conflict or exploring different aspects of it.

Compare this to UNDERCOVER BROTHER - a film with a funny premise that keeps the jokes coming. Once we introduce UB - who seems to be trapped in a 70s movie - the story involves him in an adventure right out of the 70s: The Man - who lives in an island fortress has an evil plan to drain Black culture of its soul with drugged fried chicken. The film contains gag after gag - all mined from the premise. Though not every gag works, there are so many that there's always something funny happening. Plus - we get those great comedy set-pieces, from the kidnapping of James Brown to UB going undercover as a completely bland middle class Afro American, to a car chase featuring UB's version of James Bond's spy cars (funny 1970s gadgets). The film digs into the premise to find more and more humor.

PARODY PLUS

I missed MEET THE SPARTANS, but thought the SCARY MOVIES got better in 3 & 4... when there was a parody of a film that *also* had jokes... and I liked SUPERHERO MOVIE, too. I think that's the key to Parody Films - they can't just chimp some other movie, they have to have jokes as well. They need to start with that parody scene then mine it for every possible gag - so that instead of waiting for the next joke, we are laughing so hard we *miss* some jokes and have to (pay to) see the movie again.

If you look at a film like AIRPLANE, they do a parody of the beach scene in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr make out in the sand as waves crash over them. This is a famous scene because when that film was made it was pushing the envelope as far as sex was concerned. You couldn't show a woman in bra and panties making out with a man in his underpants at that time, but they did something sneaky and had a man and woman in their bathing suits making out. Not much difference, really... except when those waves came crashing over the couple we had *wet* bathing suits that showed every curve of Deborah Kerr's body. So this was a really hot scene in its day. A bad parody movie would just run their characters through this scene - hey, it's a famous scene from a movie! Let's just put our characters in it!

But the AIRPLANE version doesn't just chimp the scene...
When the waves wash over the couple making out, they leave seaweed and other debris behind. That's joke one. And every time a wave crashes over them, it leaves something else behind - crabs, kelp, fish... this is the joke that keeps on giving!

The couple continues kissing with all of this junk on them... then they have a great *story-related* dialogue scene about him leaving on a top secret mission in the morning - he tells her the exact target, where they'll bypass the enemy radars, etc - every single detail of the mission. But when she asks when he'll be back... he tells her that's classified. So there's another bunch of jokes.

Oh, and the names of the cities they're attacking are the names of tropical mixed drinks. A half dozen cities mentioned is a half dozen other jokes.

Then, another wave washes over them... practically taking them out to sea! The last gag and the end of the scene.

They not only parody the scene, they add a ton of jokes - and it's *story related*! They mined the story, the characters, the premise for the jokes. They didn't go wider - they went deeper. And one scene ends up not just a parody of a famous scene - but also supplying a couple dozen jokes on top of the parody.

In my 2 day class I show a clip of the most important scene in AIRPLANE. It's the one where she has to re-inflate the automatic pilot using a tube on his belt-line. Okay, that's a really funny scene, but it also shows that the autopilot is unreliable and they need a real pilot to land the plane (our hero) and shows the flight attendant moving on with a new relationship after breaking up with our hero *seconds* before boarding the plane. The scene does some other story related things as well - you CAN NOT cut that scene from the film - it's critical to the story. Without that scene, they don't need our hero to fly the plane, "Auto" can do it. Hey, that's the physical conflict part of the story! And the end of the romantic relationship with the flight attendant is the emotional conflict! That's the whole story! A scene needs to be funny *and* story related.

It's important to brainstorm as many gags as you can - don't censor yourself. HAROLD & KUMAR has jokes to offend almost everyone (the Nun's locker room at the church! Getting a 2 year old high on every known illegal substance! Altar boy pillow fights! No shortage of racial jokes!) - if it's funny: write it down! If the guys in THE BROS are going to pass as Black, will they need an Ebonics Dictionary? Maybe a Berlitz audio course? Will they watch video of Snoop Dogg an imitate his moves? Will one experiment with Coolio hairstyles? Could the master-plan be a reverse Michael Jackson - where they get plastic surgery to look more Black? What about penis extenders? Can we use humor to explore racial cliches and misconceptions? Make a huge list of funny ideas so that you can pick the best for the script.

Comedy can also be found in the relationships with other characters. The best way to do this is through contrast - Harold & Kumar are complete opposites (there's a Script Tip about Comedy Opposites that uses the pair's introduction in GUANTANAMO as an example). The premise of THE BROS lends itself to using contrast humor to explore the character's search for identity... too bad they never used it! We have these two suburban White kids who pretend to be Black... but instead of bringing out the humor in this situation by making their parents contrast with their choice by being ultra-suburban and ultra-white, But the chartacters are Springerized white trash. The parents create NO contrast - so there's no chance for humor from scenes featuring the family. UNDERCOVER BROTHER henchman Chris Kataan's previous film CORKY ROMANO makes the same mistake - by making all of the mobsters quirky, they dissipate the humor from the situation. Corky FITS his family perfectly... and there's no humor in that! The more contrast between Corky and his family, the more humor - which means the mob guys have to play it straight!

THE BROS could have mined humor from the contrast between the wanna-be-gangsta-rappers and their suburban parents, then mined humor from the white gangsta rappers and the REAL world of gangsta rappers. They could have been fish out of water TWICE! But the film doesn't even use comedy method this once.

About 60 minutes into THE BROS we get our first comedy set- piece: a couple of robberies. This points out a serious pacing problem. The film not only has one joke, it has one comedy set piece! In over 90 minutes! Any genre needs something exciting happening about every ten minutes, or else it will drag. Pacing is the heart beat of a script, and you don't want to have one beat in the entire script! That's a dead film! A funny set piece about every ten minutes insures that the audience has something new to laugh at on a regular basis, and that you'll have at least 9 funny really situations in your film. But that means you have to come up with the 9 really funny situations! One funny situation in a 92 minute film isn't enough. You need more than one joke to make a movie... You need to have as many gags as UNDERCOVER BROTHER or HAROLD & KUMAR or AIRPLANE or SUPERHERO MOVIE so that when some don't work, there are plenty more coming! UNDERCOVER BROTHER has so many gags that they've saved a handful for the closing credits... and SUPERHERO MOVIE has about *a hundred gags* in the closing credits! There are characters who only show up in the closing credit gags (like Toilet Paper Man). Does your comedy have enough of that funny stuff in it?

For every scene, brainstorm up a page of gags. That way you can select the best gags, amd still have enough in the script so that if some fail you still have laughs (plural) in the scene. That's why the HAROLD & KUMAR movies work - they keep the gags coming!

Writing comedy is not easy.


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