Thursday, April 30, 2015

Broad comedy tips: avoiding the "over the top" note

Jace asks:

Hope all is well! I'm hoping to get your insight on a topic based on your experience as a reader and observer of the industry. Specifically, my question is, is the word "broad" now a dirty word in the comedy spec market? I ask this because I've read a number of articles in the recent past that claim that buyers these days prefer comedies that are "grounded" - more realistic in nature. And also because I've seen a proliferation of these types of films at the theater, from "Horrible Bosses" to "Identity Thief" (notice how these scripts tend to have simple, obvious, straight-to-the-point titles).

My concern is that I've found a number of comedies that fall into this category well, rather unfunny. They take a situation that people can relate to, yes, but they seem to emphasize situations over actual jokes. As a result, they often leave me with a chuckle rather than an outright laugh. The 90s and the early-mid 2000s were rife with broad comedies, from "There's Something About Mary" to "Rush Hour" to "Anchorman", and the thing about these movies was, they were pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh because of their over-the-top situations. But it seems like managers/agents may look down on this category now. And also readers -- for example, I recently received feedback on a read for an R-rated comedy. The reader had mostly positive comments, but dinged it for being too "over-the-top". The thing is, that's exactly the tone I was going for! I thought people went to comedies to see exaggerated situations and characters -- things that would never happen in real life. I thought that's what made people laugh. But maybe I was wrong.

Anyway, was just curious about how you (and other readers) feel about broad vs. grounded comedies, and whether writers should try to "tone down" their scripts so they will have a more realistic shot in the marketplace (or avoid writing anything broad altogether). Would love to hear your thoughts!

Broad comedy is hard to do well, particularly on the page. I'd argue that when you're writing an ANCHORMAN-type film, it's critical that you nail the character voices. There's so much silliness in ANCHORMAN that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would probably read as if it's all over the map, with the writer just going broad in the hopes that balls-out jokes will be funny.

The reason ANCHORMAN works so well on the page is that Ron Burgundy and all of his news team are incredibly well-defined. You read that script (as I did a year before it came out) and you can hear Will Ferrell's voice delivering it. Champ, Brick, Brian - all of those guys have specific voices that don't sound at all like each other. The worst wacky comedies I've read often have interchangeable character voices.

Also note the size of the ensemble. If you're writing a two-hander comedy, you're going to have to give the characters depth beyond "One's the 'normal guy,' one's the fat, sex-crazed, beer swilling party animal.'" ANCHORMAN has guys who can be summed up in a line or two, but they're given really clever stuff to say and they all play off of each other like great jazz musicians jamming with each other.

Example - my favorite Brick bit might be the "I would like to extend you an invitation to the pants party." The joke is based on the well-established trait that Brick is really, really stupid. But that's just the starting point for the gag, which is that Brick mangles what the other guys told him to say to Veronica, "There's a party in my pants and you're invited." Also, it isn't just "Brick gag" as Veronica figures out what's going on and responds with exasperated patience while across the room the other guys snicker.

So we have a whole dynamic going on there - the middle-school mentality of the boys (they think this stupid joke is funny AND they have no problem taking advantage of Brick's nature to send him to do it), Veronica feeling like the only adult in the room and rising above it rather than railing against the immaturity, and Brick not really understanding what's going on. Everything there comes from character. It's not just a gag to check off the notecard "Brick says something stupid to rile Veronica."

There's a reality to that world, despite the broad gags. In a bad broad comedy, it feels like anything goes. That's where I - and I suspect many other readers - start to tune out. Give us character consistency and genuine development (by the end of the film, Ron has come around to Veronica in his own way) and you might see better reactions.

Tone plays into this too, and mastering the tone of a script that can go crazy broad like that news team rumble and snap back to something resembling reality is a high wire act. I don't even know if there's a good way to explain HOW to do it. It's more like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography - you know it when you see it. My own belief is that the characters and the story MUST be more important than the gag.

Character first. Elastic realties only thrive when the character is able to enter and exit them without being compromised.

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