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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Readers Don't "Get" Comedy: Truth or Myth?

I received a disappointed email from a writer a few weeks back; he was upset that once again, his comedy script received low marks from a reader. Readers just don't get comedy, he postulated. I'm not sure one can make a sweeping statement like that, but at the same time, comedy IS pretty subjective. What if a reader reviews your script and as it turns out, he or she has a totally different sense of humor and gives you low marks because of that subjectivity? What is a writer to do? I asked my friend Peter Russell, a long time reader at some of the most illustrious production companies in town and a teacher of story analysis at UCLA, to chime in:


The writer who complains bitterly that readers don't 'get' comedy, especially low comedy, is half right.

Readers who don't have a sense of humour will not get comedy. Readers who love drama are legion, and they probably do have a harder time with lowbrow comedy than they do straight drama, in the same way comedies get fewer Oscars and less respect -- comedy is considered, by such readers, as a 'lower' form, and that probably does leach into their ratings.

But a good reader with a sense of humour will get comedy thoroughly and perspicaciously, and can judge a comic script, low or high, with accuracy.

That's the rub. How many good readers have a good sense of humour? An anecdotal guess would be less than half, if you define sense of humour as the ability (and I mean this sincerely) to judge the merits of a fart joke. And there are merits to a fart joke. Many.

Anecdotally, more men than women are puerile, and being puerile is a huge advantage when it comes to judging low comedy (whether it's Seneca, Plautus, or Apatow.) Of course there are exceptions. One of the foulest, most hilariously scatological writers/readers I know is a female.

So, yes, low comedy gets short shrift from script readers without senses of (puerile) humour. But a lot of readers do have a sense of humour, and an astute story editor at a studio can often guide the script to the right reader.

Half the time the writer will get a fair shake.

In Hollywood, those are good odds for a writer. If it's a good script, and it goes out enough, it probably will be noticed.

That's all any writer ever gets in this town.

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The Bitter Script Reader said...

It's not readers that don't get comedy, it's that novice writers who don't get comedy.

Just to name one trend I see all the time, American Pie gave rise to the idea that all one needs is a misplaced bodily function gag and the audience will howl with laughter. The problem is, the impact of those visuals is lost on the page, and unless the gag is really well constructed, it ends up feeling just like a gratuitous gross-out moment that's there just to get a reaction from the audience rather than being an earned payoff.

Also rarely funny on the page? Porn jokes - especially those that rely exclusively on "hilarous" names for porno films.

Those two examples form the most common crutches I see in comedy scripts. They're also the sort of humor mostly likely to provoke a defensive writer who says the reader "just didn't get it."

Julie Gray said...

Hi Bitter Script Reader - yeah, honestly I agree with your point of view more than Peter's, overall. I personally would have to place the blame on the writer not the reader. Any reader worth his or her salt can recognize good comedy, even if it's not of their personal stripe. That the reader "just didn't get it" is a whiny excuse that I have heard writers of every genre use when they simply don't like their notes. It's a pretty feeble crutch and I think that the percentage of writers who lean on it is much, much higher than the readers who don't vibe on comedy and therefore can't do their job properly and provide a professional coverage. But maybe that's me.

Anonymous said...

I wrote my first finished script this year, and it was supposed to be funny, but hey, it was my first script. I sent it to a few comps, not really expecting anything but some feedback.

I have been worried since sending it out that one of my jokes was too rude, and I thought that people would read that far and put it down after they were offended by it. I struggled for ages with whether I should keep it in or not, and in the end I decided that the character would say that sort of thing, so why shouldn't I put it in. I guess I kinda hoped that as long as the comedy comes from the character, and not for the sake of a cheap laugh, then it is worth putting out there.

One day, I'll hone my craft and hopefully get something good written, and as long as I keep my comedy focused on the character, I think that readers will eventually see the humor in it. Cheap laughs can be great when watching films, but I struggle when the film relies on cheap laughs.

There is a place for fart jokes, I just re-watched SHAUN OF THE DEAD yesterday, and I think the fart joke might even be the climax of the film. Brilliant! The British really know how to do comedy.

Gnasche said...

I think it's definitely a writer's problem, but a difficult one.

If you write something that is funny on the page, it tends to read as if your characters are sitting around the Algonquin table.

For something to read well and sound natural, the tone is very much determined by the delivery of the actor. If the reader is imagining an entirely different delivery, they don't "get" it. But, it's not the reader's fault. The writer must make more effort to show the tone on the page.

I had a TV pilot reviewed by Julie's script analysis company. The reader's notes said that the dialogue had a heavy Aaron Sorkin feel. However, I had it surrounded by farcical action, which totally clashed. In my head, it was Arrested Development dialogue. My characters aren't being intentionally clever - they're idiots. The problem wasn't the reader's, it was mine. I didn't realize the other tone could be inferred. I still have trouble showing the right tone, but now I know that I have to make the extra effort.

martinb said...

I read the script of THE HANGOVER before it was released, and predicted it would be a massive success, because the script was so good.

But I've not been so successful in predicting audience reaction to other comedies. I think because I'm from the older generation and don't take drugs, and they were aimed at younger people and stoners who have different in-jokes.

So maybe scripts should be read by people close to the target audience in age and lifestyle.