A Serious Look at Funny Video

Whether you are the polished professional, or a beginning videographer, comedy can be a useful tool for reaching your audience. Mastering the formula for writing and shooting comedy, however, requires more than just a good sense of humor. An understanding of what makes video funny will help you create videos that make your viewers, be they your kids or your clients, take notice and perhaps even laugh.

There are really two types of comedy in video. The first type is the spontaneous "caught-on-tape" variety that you see on shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos and The World’s Funniest. A baby, having sampled pur´ed carrots for the first time, promptly bathes its mother with a gush of liquid orange. A no-nonsense newswoman reports from the field, unaware that the llama behind her has taken a sudden interest in her ponytail. A man walking across a stream on a fallen tree trunk suddenly feels himself slip. His body wobbles, straightens and pitches forward. His legs split open as he drops like a stone to the hard, wet surface of the log. Spontaneous events like these are funny, but catching them on tape can be nearly impossible. Why? Because by their very nature they can’t be scripted. The videographer must rely on time, chance and lots of videotape.

The other type of humor captured on video is the scripted variety. Scripted comedy can take the form of television sitcoms or set up gags, as seen on shows like Candid Camera and Show Me Your Funny. Either way, scripted comedy has become a mainstay of American television.

Where caught-on-tape footage requires luck, fate and chance, scripted comedy requires careful planning. Even simple routines, such as funny one-liners or the proverbial banana peel routine, must be done with timing and finesse. As a writer and producer of video, you need to become familiar with the various types of comedy that work well on tape. You also need to understand elements like the setup, anticipation, and payoff of comedy on video.

Comedy can seem easy and natural to the viewer, but in reality, it is very hard to plan. Screenwriters, sitcom writers, directors, actors and stand-up comedians meticulously plan comedy to come off as though by accident, with timing, wit, and unique insights into the human condition. Why do most video producers gravitate toward writing serious pieces? Because comedy is hard! Still, it can be done. A touch of humor makes for watchable, likable videos. Whether you make instructional videos, how-to tapes, travelogues or home video, a touch of humor will make your productions more appealing than the rest. And who knows? You may discover that you have a knack for comedy.

If you want to try to incorporate humor into your productions, perhaps the best way to prepare is to watch funny TV programs, and then ask yourself, "Why did I laugh?" You’ll discover that there are really only a handful of comedic approaches.

  • Little Does He Know…

    Comedy often mixes two realities: the smaller reality of the person on whom we play the joke, and the larger reality of the audience’s perspective. For example, we have a shot of Joey parking his new sports car on an incline. Joey and his friend get out and walk down the hill. Joey brags about how this car will impress everyone with what a cool guy he is. Little does he know that the car has just quietly rolled through the frame behind them. By the time Joey sees it, he cannot stop the car from plunging into the river.

    In the smaller reality–Joey’s perspective–he has attained a status symbol, which validates his high opinion of himself. In the second, larger perspective, we see that Joey’s validation is rolling towards disaster, probably because Mr. Cool Guy forgot to set the parking brake.

    What is the moral of the story? Braggarts are easy targets. The larger the head gets puffed up, the louder the bang when you apply the needle. When you use "little does he know," the audience sees the needle coming.

    The show-off tap dancer who doesn’t see the tines of a rake, the big talker about to be trapped in an elevator–with an even bigger talker; in other words, obnoxious people receiving perfect justice are fair game for moments of great comedy. The audience laughs because it is in on the joke. They know that comic justice is just around the corner, often with a large cream pie.

    The writers of Frasier, arguably one of the best-written sitcoms on television, are masters of this technique. Frasier Crane, a Harvard-educated radio psychiatrist, must provide bed and board for his invalid father, an earthy ex-cop, and his eccentric health care worker. Much of the show’s comedy comes from the pricking of Frasier’s ego by his savvy roommates, or the comeuppance Frasier receives by unwittingly perpetuating a humiliating situation. We anticipate disaster, and we are rarely disappointed.

  • Surprise

    You can also play with your audience. By building up their expectations with a red herring, you can fool your audience into expecting one gag, then surprise them with another, and better one.

    One pretentious bad guy in the movie Undercover Blues, the would-be infamous criminal, Muerte, has literally shot himself in the foot. After a swig of whiskey, he hops up a flight of wooden stairs, headed for a step that is clearly broken. The audience expects Muerte to stupidly jump on it and fall through the staircase, a mildly humorous incident on the same level as Home Alone. The audience prepares itself for mild laughter. Instead, Muerte leaps over the broken step and lands on the sturdy-looking step above, only to have it break under his weight. Down he goes as the audience roars. They have been surprised and, therefore, delighted.

    The key word here is "surprise." Show your viewers enough to keep them interested, lead them in one direction, then surprise them with an unexpected twist. If you want to build up suspense, and let the audience in on the gag from the very beginning, make sure the payoff is bigger and splashier than their expectations. This works on several levels of comedy. Whether you use physical humor or turn the odd phrase, the comedic value of the unexpected surprise cannot be overemphasized.

    In the same vein, nothing kills humor faster than ominous hints that give the surprise away ("Gee, I hope there are no monsters in the refrigerator") and faked surprise by the supposed victim. The World’s Funniest sometimes shows "accidents" staged by home videographers hoping for quick cash with 10-second gags. The would-be jokesters frequently look directly into the camcorder’s lens, and exaggerate their surprise and dismay when the mishap takes place. They do not fool anyone, least of all video editors and producers who watch miles of tape full of real accidents. Your audience is the same way.

    This is not to say you cannot stage comedy. However, if your intention is humor, the first thing to do is fool your audience into thinking you are serious. Once they realize your intention is humor, delight them with the unexpected.

  • That’s so True

    That’s so true, but I never thought of it like that before." How many episodes of Seinfeld have you walked away from thinking this? All of the little things in life we take for granted, all of the unwritten rules, by which we live, or try to get around. This was the grist for the Seinfeld comedy mill.

    What’s funny about "that’s so true" is that it helps us see our lives from a different point of view, making the familiar a little ridiculous. Humor, it turns out, has been under our noses all the time. We never knew it until someone showed us the difference.

    What strikes you as ridiculous? I hesitated for years on buying a globe, because I knew as soon as I did, some country "over there" would divide or reunify and make my purchase obsolete. I even had a clerk try to sell an obsolete globe as "a collector’s item".

    To spot the ridiculous, all you need is a good eye and a good ear. Two of each is even better.

  • "What If?"

    What if a person pressed "SIN" on his calculator expecting a sine, and instead it displayed "PRIDE" or "LUST." Stanislavski tooted the magic "what if" as the fundamental basis for acting. Every fiction writer or screenwriter who has ever written, every scientist who ever made a first discovery, every chef with a unique recipe has begun with "what if". The combination of unlikely elements somehow working together is the basis of creativity itself, and comedy is a creative act.

    What if we forced a compulsively clean news writer to live with a compulsively messy sportswriter? This is the "what if" that led Neil Simon to write The Odd Couple. What if a man could only find work as a woman? Tootsie. What if a Mafia loan shark came to Hollywood to make movies? This is the idea behind Get Shorty. Try to develop a knack for asking "what if" questions. Eventually, something will strike you as funny. When comedy strikes you, write it down and build on it later.

  • Mountains out of Molecules

    Comedy often comes from conflict over trifles. Innocent misunderstandings carried to the extreme, insignificant issues that take on life-and-death importance to the combatants.

    Oscar Wilde ended the second act of The Importance of Being Ernest with an argument. Jack and Algernon have both lost their fiancees, thanks to their lies and manipulation of each other. Their argument, however, degenerates into a fight over muffins as Algernon selfishly consumes every one. This mild contention seethes with rage. "He’s ruined all my chances for happiness," Jack probably thinks. "How DARE he eat my muffins as well!" The audience is in hysterics. A simple disagreement over manners has been pushed to extreme importance, because of their mutual interference in each other’s lives.

    The audience members have the perspective to see through the blustering and find it funny, because they would never act like this (knowing, on a deeper level, that they often do). The variations of these kind of situations are endless: Two people who absolutely must have the last word or two responsible adults fighting with venom over who gets to sit in the front seat. When examined, the trials of everyday life provide many humorous examples.

  • Physical Humor

    Finally, the staple of comedy from Charlie Chaplain to Jim Carrey, from The Keystone Cops to Police Academy has been physical humor. Just why we laugh when we see someone slip on a banana peel, poked in the nose, or have an animal relieve itself on a person may be one of life’s great mysteries.

    It may have something to do with the refreshing loss of dignity. We have all made Freudian slips, lost our balance and had our old jeans rip in embarrassing places. These events have the propensity to become our favorite stories because they remind us that we are only human. This is the larger perspective our sense of humor helps us see; though we often acquire that perspective through humiliation.

    Perhaps seeing an actor with perfect teeth blow a scene thanks to a bad case of the giggles, or the human body fighting an awkward, losing battle with gravity helps us remember that others are only human too. Their skis don’t stay on, their children remove their clothing at garden parties, and their animals are flatulent. That’s life. It happens to everyone; we may as well laugh it off.

    Usually, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other great physical comedians (Jim Carrey being the most recent) bounce back up after getting punched/kicked/thrown out of a window. Their limbs and faces seem like they’re constructed of foam rubber. If you can find an actor who can pull this off, you may have the makings of a first-class comedy. If you can’t, a pie in the face, a spring-puppet in a can, a brief scare popping out of the breadbox won’t hurt anyone.

    Helitzer’s Pap Test

    Now, for those of you who are itching to start writing your jokes, story-boarding your visual gags, or tying umbrella hats to the family dog, I’d like to add a rule from Melvin Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets. Helitzer breaks the anatomy of a joke down into three parts: Preparation, Anticipation and Payoff (PAP). Preparation is the setup for the joke. Anticipation is the body, in which the listeners get ready for some kind of twist or pun, and the payoff is the punch line.

    Let’s apply PAP to our example of Joey’s sports car.

    • Preparation: Joey pulling up in his shiny new car, getting out and bragging about it while walking downhill.

    • Anticipation: we see the car rolling down the hill behind him.

    • Payoff: the expression on Joey’s face as he realizes the truth, his frantic sprinting after his car, and his final defeat as it plunges over the bank into the water.

    These are only a few basic principles of comedy in film. There are many others, and several excellent books on the market go into much detail.

    The best way to learn to make comedic video is to try it, listen to your audience laugh (or not) and learn what’s funny and what’s not. You’ll discover the versatility of puns, one-liners, slippery floors, pretentious snobs, freaks of nature, freaks of society and freaks of nature societies, (not to mention children and pets) as great sources of inspiration and humor. Have fun.

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