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Why Comedy Makes Everything Better

By D.B. Gilles

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Chefs say that bacon makes everything they cook better. Comedy is like that too. Even the darkest, saddest drama needs a laugh or a light moment periodically, otherwise known as comic relief.

The classic Greek tragedies had one-liners. Elizabethan drama had the fool, the court jester.

Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman isn’t a laugh a minute, but it’s very funny besides being one of the greatest American tragedies. David Mamet’s tough-talking dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed The Plow are extremely funny.

Think of the darkest, most depressing movies you’ve ever seen and with rare exception there will be the occasional moment of humor. A character will say or do something that generates a laugh, smile or at least an appreciative nod.

Most of the comedy screenplays I read aren’t funny enough or aren’t funny at all. Paper-thin characters say supposedly funny lines that are stupid, stale, obvious and easy. (There’s nothing easier than writing a dick joke). Those same characters are in situations that, much of the time, are unbelievable. How many times have you watched a movie and thought to yourself, “I don’t believe that?”

Some might argue that it’s a comedy and there doesn’t have to be a lot of logic or situations based on reality. That might work on the lesser television sitcoms, but the best film comedies, certainly romantic comedies, are grounded in some semblance of how life really is.

Many comedies of the last decade are based around a premise and jokes are written to compliment it rather than having a character in a comedic situation who must strive to get what he or she wants. The jokes and funny lines come organically as the character moves towards his goal.

The question screenwriters of comedies need to ask themselves is: where do you find fodder for humor? Where do you find the ideas for the lines you want a character to say and have an audience laugh at -- and before that, someone important reading the script.

There are two ways:

  • You can look into your personal life and find material inspired by your friends, family, co-workers, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, children et al
  • You can look beyond your own life and delve into the world of pop culture, personalities, politics and celebrity

Imagine yourself as a fly on the walls of the people covered by the many Internet sites, gossip shows and magazines. A while back Ashton Kutcher posted a photo of Demi Moore in her underwear. Russell Brand posted a photo of Katy Perry without makeup. Did either woman get upset? Did they have a huge fight? If so, what was that fight about? Both of those situations could inspire incredibly funny sketches.

These are just two instances that come to mind. Pick a personality or celebrity of your choice and imagine what goes on in their homes behind closed doors.

What is it like to have been married to Rush Limbaugh? Wife #1 was when he was young and struggling. Wife #2 came along as his career took off. Wife #3 hit the jackpot. What would it be like if those three women got together and dished about life with Rush? He is currently on wife #4. What goes through her mind? Does she secretly wonder if she'll be his last wife? Does she ever want to talk to the other wives?

I can envision a funny bit: The Rush Limbaugh Ex-Wives Club. Or a parody of Limbaugh’s ex-wives as Mormon sister wives.

Speaking of Mormons, Glenn Beck is a former Catholic who became a Mormon. When he was thinking of converting, did he call Donny Osmond, Rick Schroeder or Jewel to find out the pros and cons?

Speaking of right wing conservatives, imagine what Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would talk about if they ran into each other at a strip club. Awkward! But potentially funny.

Is Kate Gosselin petrified that she’ll never find a man because she has 8 kids? Who is her confidant? The woman who does her manicures? What would that conversation go like? Has she considered on-line dating?  What qualities does she look for in a man? Must have had a vasectomy? Must have a low sperm count?

What did Sarah Palin and her husband talk about when Bristol gained 15 pounds during her stint on Dancing With The Stars? Was Sarah jealous that her daughter was getting attention? Was she happy the kid was putting on the flab? Was she concerned that Bristol would have sex with her dance partner and get pregnant again? There is humor in there somewhere.

What is it like to be the personal assistant of Amy Winehouse and what is a typical To Do List? Do Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr ever kid each other about which will be the last surviving Beatle? What would Simon Cowell and Steven Tyler text each other about?

Think of this as a mind exercise to help you use personalities to get you digging into comedy writing territory you may never have considered.

Pick a handful of celebrities and imagine what goes on in their private lives. Try writing a 4-page sketch or comic screenplay for YouTube or Funny Or Die.

You can do the same with people who are in your life. Imagine what the creepy guy at work does when he gets home or the woman who plays the organ for the church choir or the guy with the lazy eye who arranges the meat at your supermarket.

Writing funny dialogue isn’t easy. It’s a challenge to write dozens of lines in a 110-page screenplay that keep the reader and audience laughing.

Doing these exercise might open up some new doors to help you become inspired to write funnier, higher quality dialogue.

D.B. Gilles' New Book

About D.B. Gilles

D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting, television writing and comedy writing at New York University’s, Tisch School of the Arts. He also taught in The Dramatic Writing Department at NYU, the Graduate Film Department at Columbia and The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. His fiction includes the comic novel, I Hate My Book Club and the mystery, Colder Than Death. He is the author of The Portable Film School, The Screenwriter Within: New Strategies To Finish Your Screenplay & Get A Deal! and You’re Funny! Turn Your Sense of Humor Into A Lucrative New Career. He is also one of the most in demand Script Consultants and Writing Coaches in the United States. You can reach him directly at: [email protected].

Screenwriting Article by D.B. Gilles

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