Notes on Comedy: William Miller’s Screenwriting for Film and Television

Miller explores comedy by referring to a number of comedy theories.

1. Disparagement or Aggression Theories. In these theories, humor is a substitute for violence and is seen as something cruel. The most common form of cruel comedy is derision, in which we enjoy the misfortunes of others.

2. Superiority Theories. These theories view laughter as a form of triumph that increases our self-esteem at someone else’s expense. In The Jerk, Steve Martin asks the waiter to remove the disgusting snails that are all over his plate. Unfortunately, this form of comedy is also a staple of ethnic, racial, national, and gender jokes.

3. Tension Release Theories. These theories suggest that we laugh as a release for excess nervous energy, as an outlet for forbidden sexual and aggressive impulses.

4. Social Function Theories. These theories see laughter as a socially corrective process that restrains unwanted behavior. These theories depend upon codes of civility and propriety. We laugh at people who sneeze at the wrong moment, walk funny, or wear ridiculous codes. We compare their behavior to the codes of “proper” behavior.

5. Incongruity-Resolution Theories. These theories concern the form of jokes. They assert that a joke contains two scenarios. It begins in one direction, then at the resolution it switches direction to the other scenario. We are surprised by the new line of meaning. The two scenarios seem incongruous at first, but we find the ways in which they are linked and make sense together. In Sleeper, Woody Allen’s character says, “As a kid I was neaten up by Quakers.” Quakers don’t beat people up, yet they are connected with violence by being the opposite-non-violent.

Miller also lists some comedy attributes. These include:

1. Detachment, also known as comic distance. We accept that what we are seeing is “not for real.”

2. Suspense and surprise. In surprise, our expectations are ambushed and things don’t turn out the way we assumed they would. In suspense, we know something the character doesn’t know and we wait for their response to the inevitable discovery.

3. Destructiveness. We can enjoy seeing things get trashed.

4. Iconoclasm. Comedy can be destructive of aspects of our society, can be impolite impious or sacrilegious.

5. Range of comic styles. From farcical slapstick to romantic comedy.

6. Comic characters. Funny people or groups of people who may be excessively neurotic, witty, cynical, self-centered, etc.

Miller addresses concepts useful to writing comedy.

1. Two premises. Either put a normal person in a crazy world or put a crazy person in a normal world.

2. High concept. A premise that can be described in a few sentences. E.g. Home Alone, a resourceful little kid is left alone and has to outwit two bungling burglars.

3. Comic prop or device. Malfunctioning gadgetry can be funny.

4. Physical comedy. Includes entanglement with props, but also misinterpretations of directions, such as “walk this way.”

Comedy Components

1. Comic sequence. E.g. In The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Inspector Clouseau tries to enter a castle although the drawbridge over a moat is raised. Every attempt he makes fails.

2. Comic bit. Shorter than the sequence. An example is the person who tries to get gum off his shoe while looking nonchalant during a job interview.

3. Visual joke. In Horse Feathers, someone tells Harpo Marx to cut the cards during a card game. He produces a meat cleaver . . .

4. Comic reaction. We often laugh at a character’s reaction to a scene rather than to the scene itself. Cary Grant’s famous “double take” comes to mind.

5. The Chase. Can include many other elements, such as disaster narrowly averted, comic bits, suspense, etc. It should build to a big payoff.

Comedy Techniques

1. Exaggeration, Absurdity, the Incongruous, and the Outrageous. Can develop from taking a character trait to an extreme.

2. The comic build. Pays off with a verbal or visual punch line.

3. Jokes, one-liners, gags, wisecracks, and funny stories. Verbal wisecracking.

4. Wordplay, puns, and malapropisms. This humor emerges from the misuse of words.

5. Running gags. Repeated bits, such as Igor’s hump shifting from right to left in Young Frankenstein.

6. Misunderstanding/mistake. A character is operating on a mistaken premise (e.g. That his lover is involved with someone else).

7. Reverse. A character says “I’m not scared!’ then sees the monster and yells, “I’m scared!”

8. Switch. The qualities of one thing or person are transferred to another, e.g. Ernie Kovaks is shooting at a duck in a shooting gallery. Suddenly the duck darts aside, revealing a cannon that shoots at Kovaks. Or a woman is giving birth and a man with her starts complaining of cramping pains.

9. Topper. A punch line on top of another punch line. A number of tall men emerge from a small car. Then a midget comes out. Then the car collapses.

10. Rule of three. Two set ups and a punch line or one setup and two punch lines. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, they debate taking Cameron’s father’s Ferrari. Cameron: “It is his love. It is his passion.” Ferris: “It is his fault he didn’t lock the garage.”

11. Deflating the pompous, the pretentious, and the self-righteous. People with inflated dignity get what they deserve, e.g. Inspector Clouseau gets into trouble while acting superior.

12. Recall or repeat. A comic bit used again in a different context is funnier when we recall its earlier use. In Tootsie, Julie tells Dorothy that she would respond to a guy who’s honest enough to say he finds her interesting and would like to make love to her. Later when Michael meets her at a party, he tries this tactic and gets a drink in the face.

13. Delay. We expect something funny to happen and it doesn’t, then it does. E.g. In Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, a man is seen carrying a large basket of eggs while a fight is occurring nearby. The fight knocks over some barrels that roll towards the man. They stop before they reach him. He walks a few steps then trips and falls into the basket of eggs.

14. The suggestive: sexual innuendo and double entendre. In History of the World, Part 1, the steward is pouring wine for the Empress Nympho. “Say when,” he requests. “8:30,” she replies.

15. Allusion/reference. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana is cocky when facing a swordsman because in the previous movie when he faced this same situation he simply drew his gun and shot the swordsman. This time, he reaches for his gun, but he’s not wearing it.

16. Satire, irony, parody, burlesque. These techniques make broad comic use of other texts (films, TV shows, and literary works). They exaggerate or mock the original. Mel Brooks does this repeatedly in his films, such as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, etc.

17. Anticipation. When we know that a scene is going to result in a funny disaster, we don’t even need to see it. Such is the case in Young Frankenstein when Frankenstein tells his assistant he will put his body between the closing book panel and the wall. From offscreen we hear an “oof.”

18. The insult, cut, and put down.

19. Na�¯vet�©, foolishness, and stupidity. Homer Simpson.

20. Cleverness and ingenuity. In this technique, the main character innovates and becomes resourceful, transforming whatever is at hand to solve a problem. In a Chaplin film, he is being chased by police. He hides in a store full of manikins and pretends to be one. As the police pass by him, he mechanically hits them over the head while staying in character.

21. Offscreen sound and dialogue. In Young Frankenstein, Frankenstein is playing darts badly. He throws one backwards and we hear a cat yowl.

22. Background comedy. While the main action is happening in the foreground, something funny is happening in the background, maybe even undercutting the characters in the foreground. In Harold and Maude, patients collapse on the grass behind them as Harold’s uncle extols the virtues of military life.

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