I’m a comedy improviser and I perform in an improv troupe. So I like to think about what makes a comedy scene work, and why some fall flat.
A few people recommended a book by Steven Kaplan called The Hidden Tools of Comedy. It’s the most insightful comedy book I’ve read so far.
Here’s 10 things I learned from reading it, and a comedy model that I developed from its lessons.
1. Comedy is about problems. When in a scene with someone who has a problem, don’t fix it for them. Let them struggle. Or make their struggle worse.
2. If your character has the problem, make sure they don’t have the skills to solve it. Whether the problem is huge or tiny, ensure your character doesn’t have the skills or resources to solve it. Think Mr Bean trying, and failing, to get dressed in the morning.
3. Never give up hope. If your character stops trying to solve the problem and gives up, that’s drama. The character trying to win against the odds keeps it as comedy.
4. Never try to be funny. Forget clever quips and one liners. Just play the character trying their best to make life better for themselves. If you need the scene funnier, lower the character’s ability to solve the problem.
5. Example. A scene in a bar where a confident woman flirts with a guy is not funny when the guy knows how to deal with the situation. But if the guy is socially awkward and shy then it’s funny. Same scene, lower skill set.
6. Mean characters like Basil Fawlty can’t be mean for no reason. We need to see their meanness as their flawed strategy for trying to make their life better. And they need to lack the skills to do that.
7. The sympathy of the audience is with the character who is suffering the problem. That character is the audience’s representative on stage. Fixing the problem disenfranchises the audience.
8. Funny is not watching someone be silly. It is watching someone watch someone be silly. The reaction of someone looking on is key. This dynamic allows the audience to put themselves in that situation and find humour from it.
9. Ensure only one person at a time has the problem. It keeps the audience focus in one place. More importantly, it’s funnier. Why? Because if nobody else sees that it’s a problem, it makes the problem worse. An ally is a resource that makes the character more equipped, not less. And less is funnier.
10. Commedia dell’arte archetypes are tried and tested for hundreds of years. Use them. Here’s a list of archetypes. To see how the TV comedies Futurama and The Simpsons has used them, go to the same link and click the Western Animation folder.
A 3 Step Comedy Model
Finally, here’s the model I came up with while reading. It’s not the only model of comedy by any means. But I hope it will help me construct better comedy scenes in future.
Problem is at the heart of comedy. So a useful 3 step scaffold for creating a good comedy scene is to Set It Up, Fuck It Up, Crank It Up.
Set It Up
Use the beginning of a scene to establish what one of the characters loves or values. (Or on the flipside what they can’t abide.)
Do this by demonstrating or stating that character’s viewpoint. Or by endowing your partner’s character with a viewpoint.
“Do you like my new floor? It cost me £10,000 just to import the materials. But it’s worth it.”
This is the link to the next step.
Fuck It Up
The role of the stated viewpoint is that it tells us what would cause the other character a problem. So give them that problem.
A: Do you like my new floor? It cost me £10,000 just to import the materials. But it’s worth it.
B: Sure (dropping cigarette onto the floor, and grinding it out with his foot).
Crank It Up
This is the easy bit. We now know the “game of the scene.” So escalate.
What else can we do to their new luxury floor? Someone comes in with tins of paint and trips over. Another character brings in their horse out of the rain. Go for it.
The character with the problem now only needs to act honestly in response. But without having the skills to fix it.