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06/04/2006: Maybe Everyone Else Already Knows This. Is this Common Knowledge?
Okay, I just checked out "My Super Sweet 16," the show about real teens and their ornate parent-funded coronations. My God! The waste of money! The waste of energies! Imagine if those kids put that kind of effort into their college applications, into their creative pursuits, into reading and learning! And the whole enterprise is counterproductive. They think they're making their peers like them, but instead they're clearly fostering resentment.
It's one of those counterintuitive things. What you think makes you likable makes you unlikable. What you think makes you funny makes you unfunny. Which brings us looping around to an important principle relating to the nature of comedy. I was prompted to notice this principle, which I will unveil in a moment, by a question that came in the mail from Jerome in Chicago. He's looking for techniques like the one I discussed on April 29, (about writing past the punchline,) techniques that work well for using humor in otherwise dramatic spec episodes. I hope you read the previous post, Jerome, about settling for the soft joke, it's another good trick to creating humor without creating "jokiness."
Well, Jerome's note got me thinking. What is the ESSENTIAL difference between comedy-comedy and dramatic-comedy? And what I came up with startled me! It's crazy, but here it is:
DRAMATIC CHARACTERS ARE INTENTIONALLY FUNNY. COMEDIC CHARACTERS ARE UNINTENTIONALLY FUNNY.
Isn't that interesting? And counterintuitive? I never noticed it before, but it's really true. Did everyone else already notice this? The more comedic the character, the less they (successfully) crack (funny) jokes.
Michael on The Office, is a comedic character. He is not usually trying to be funny. And when he does try, he isn't. Which is an unintended result, and thus… funny. House, on the other hand, is a dramatic character. When he is funny, it's because he is making a dry observation about something, and he intends it to be funny. The more a character cracks intentional jokes, the less "jokey" a show feels. Wild!
Now, this isn't a strict half-hour vs. hour distinction. M*A*S*H is one of the most dramatic comedies ever made. Full of intentional humor -- Hawkeye cracks jokes constantly, and comes across as war-bruised as a result. While an hour like Boston Legal can be packed with sincere nutjobs -- packed with them! As a result, BL ends up feeling, at times, more broadly comedic than the comedy.
Even within the same show, you can see the difference clearly. Some half-hour shows, like Taxi, Bob Newhart or Seinfeld, have a character at the center who is more serious, sane and grounded than the characters around them. They don't tend to get themselves stuck in bathtubs as often as the whack-a-doodles surrounding them. So how are these characters made funny? By giving them joking comments about the hijinks around them. Jerry comments to George about how crazy Kramer is – that's intentional humor, making Jerry a more serious character. For me, Phoebe on Friends was at her best when she would suddenly manifest an unexpected awareness of the world that would allow her to make a joke about someone else's behavior before she would slip back into her own bubble. Joey, the other oblivious, broadly comedic character on that show, rarely made the same jump... UNTIL HE HAD HIS OWN SHOW. Then, suddenly, when required to have depth, to be more serious, he was making jokes like the great one from the pilot where he poked fun at his sister, pointing out that you don't often hear "the argument *for* teen pregnancy." With that line he became a different, more serious guy. (Show didn't work, but in that moment, I had hope.)
Conversely, sometimes hour dramas have one comedic character, or a series of comedic subplots. Again, these are things that happen, funny circumstances unintended by the characters, or ludicrous sincere behavior by those characters, while the supposedly more serious parts of the show are the parts with characters making witty observations. Baltar is unintentionally funny. Adama, making a wry comment about Baltar, is intentionally funny. A combo that works together to bring the house down. (Have I mentioned I love this show?)
Have I over-explained it enough? Sorry. I'm actually just working this through in my head. So how can you use this surprising fact? Use it to modulate the tone of your spec.
Want a character to seem smart… even serious? Make his first line intentionally funny. When Parker was introduced in a Buffy episode, we had to make it instantly clear that she could consider this guy worthy of her. So the first thing he did was ask Buffy if she had any hobbies….
…You know, like solving crosswords or spitting off the world's tallest buildings.
He's making a joke. So we accept him as intelligent, grounded, not ridiculous and jokey. A serious candidate for Buffy's affection.
But a character like Principal Snyder says:
Call me Snyder. Just a last name. Like Barbarino.
It is a similarly ludicrous thing to say. But he is sincere, not joking. And therefore the line is jokier. Perfect for a thoroughly comedic character.
Want a really complex character? Mix the two. Jason Bateman's character on Arrested Development had both kinds of jokes. He was simultaneously appalled by his own family, and just as appalling himself. He could function as a serious character, making aware asides in one scene, and then be the oblivious boob in another. Frasier was a similarly complex character who used both types of funny. Complex and wonderful. High degree of difficulty, that one.
So, to sum it up for Jerome. Give jokes to your dramatic characters, and sincerity to your comedic ones, and you won't go far wrong tonally. That's it!
Lunch: Green Corn Tamales at El Cholo on Wilshire with my parents. Sweet and terrific!