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Friday, October 5, 2007

Pull My Finger: Comedy so Funny it Hurts

By Margaux Froley Outhred

Sounds like the ad for CBS’ Monday night line-up, doesn’t it? What is it about comedy that is intrinsically painful? And, the more painful, often the funnier it is. But, how do you know where to draw that line between tragically funny, to just plain tragic? I’ve been working on writing funnier jokes and creating funny characters, and it almost seems unfair that I am mining my own and my friends’ personal sob stories in order to give these characters comedic dilemmas. Unfair, or maybe just good research?

America’s Funniest Home Videos,… the amount of babies taking a baseball bat to their father’s crotches has never stopped making audiences guffaw. Or someone slipping on a banana peel; that will always be hilarious. No one stops to watch the home movies when Dad is rushed to the hospital and will never pee standing up again. Or when the banana man fractures a vertebra on his pratfall down. We don’t want reality, we need to laugh at reality. Look it right in the face and throw a big creamy pie right at the real world.

A friend of mine got some bad news this morning, and I tried to comfort her by saying in 5 years she will find this situation funny. Maybe not now, but with a little perspective the emotional sting will wear down and you’ll see how futile all this stressing is. Maybe it’s the inner Buddhist in me, or just pure escapism, but if we can’t laugh at the things that don’t work out in our life, then we’ve got to find a way to. But, my own personal philosophy aside, why is the tragic so funny?

Lately, it seems that comedy in general is having a tough life. Stand-up comedians can’t tell jokes without being picked apart or called traitors to their country. 2 and a Half Men is one of the most watched comedies on television. When did Charlie Sheen really become funny? I don’t buy it.

Feature comedies are tough sells these days too. While Judd Apatow’s raw humor made KNOCKED UP and SUPERBAD the hilarious pics they were, a comic god like Steve Carrell drowned in EVAN ALMIGHTY, the most expensive comedy ever made (and probably one of the biggest flops of 2007). And in the development world? No one is really sure what is funny anymore. Kevin James seems to be the Development world’s answer to funny for now. The new TV comedies didn’t make me laugh once (Sorry, CARPOOLERS). Thankfully 30 ROCK and THE OFFICE can reclaim their comedy thrones for another year. But, sadly, no one wants to buy comedy because they just don’t know if they can guarantee it will be funny. I guess development execs feel the fear of their corporate bosses more than they can laugh at a good joke.

While there is always the Monty Python school of random acts as comedy, it seems that audiences enjoy the tragically funny. Why? Because they can relate to it. All the bad dates from SEX AND THE CITY? Those came from someone’s terrible first date, or awkward sexual experiences. SUPERBAD and KNOCKED UP did a great job with making those jokes relatable, although at times somewhat harsh. So, Wavers, if you are looking for a funny joke here, or a comedic setpiece there, the question is, do you buy it? (Granted tone and style of your piece should weigh heavily in this decision.) But, do you believe that this event could happen, and is just horrible enough that it could possibly be funny? The tragedy of things might become great inspiration for the comedy they could become.

Mel Brooks once said: Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.

The two masks of theater are made up of one portraying tragedy and one portraying comedy. What if the two are more closely linked than you may think? Maybe those Greeks were onto something.

More wisdom from Mel Brooks

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I. M. Anonymous said...

At the WGA theater last night I was fortunate enough to see a screening of, Lars and the Real Girl. It's movie which is funny and poignant without resulting to bathroom humor or settling on the lowest denominator of "humor," which apparently appeals to the masses...

It's wonderful movie and it should be seen by a mass audience but probably won't be. Which will be too bad.

I. M. Anonymous said...

PS: I find it terribly ironic that a "writer" (like you) is so pro censorship that they have to "approve" commentary before "allowing" it to this's an interesting way to encourage discourse.

Laura Reyna said...

"Lately, it seems that comedy in general is having a tough life....
Feature comedies are tough sells these days too. ...But, sadly, no one wants to buy comedy because they just don’t know if they can guarantee it will be funny. I guess development execs feel the fear of their corporate bosses more than they can laugh at a good joke."

Am I understandin' this post correctly?: Comedies are tough sell nowadays?

I keep hearing comedies (specifically high concept) are the easiest sell for a new writer(assuming it has a great idea & is competently written, of course.) And that comedies are what a lot of prodcos are looking for cuz they're cheap to make.

Is that not the case according to you guys?

Thanks for the post. :-)

Julie Gray said...

Hi Laura! I will leave it for M.O. to answer later on but I hear so many things about what is good to write and what is "dead" that I won't even warrant a guess anymore. I have heard, most recently, that a low-budget horror is the thing to write, lol. I hate to sound like a broken record because we've all heard this a million times but I would focus on writing a great script because regardless of genre, good stories sell.

Laura Reyna said...


I'm not one of these people who are obsessed with what's "hot" or what's "dead" in the marketplace. I generally write the kinds of movies I want to see.

But I do think marketing is important. You obviously can't write in a vacuum if you want to sell to HW studios.

I really enjoy romantic dramas & period pieces. But I don't write those kinds of movies (right now) b/c they're a v. v. tough sell for a new writer. Even if i wrote a really GREAT period romance, I still think it would be an extremely tough sell.

No need to make it any tougher on myself than it already is. :-)

But I always hear modern HC comedies are one of the easier sells for new writers so was a little perplexed with Margaux's post. Thought maybe I was missing her point.

Great blog. Thanks!