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Writing - Writing Comedy

( Originally Published 1922 )



The Four Types of Humorous Plays.—In the photoplay world, there are few fine distinctions between the different types of manuscripts. Plays are loosely classified as "dramas" or "comedies," depending on whether they are inclined to be serious or merely funny.

There are four distinct types of comedy subjects: (1) Extravaganza, (2) burlesque, (3) farce, (4) comedy.

1. Extravaganza usually treats of unnatural and impossible situations. The superhuman activities of a character, or set of characters, usually supply the plot. There is not much need to detail this type, for the writing of it should not be attempted by the beginner.

2. Burlesque generally treats of a serious, and, perhaps, well-known subject, in an absurd, incongruous manner.

3. Farce goes to extremes, dealing with the ridiculous, but not with physical impossibilities. Though farce need not necessarily be probable, still it should be put on a plausible basis and worked out as though probable.

4. Comedy is generally a more refined type of humor than farce. Strictly speaking, it deals with humorous situations of every-day life—situations which may happen to the average individual. There is nothing extravagant, unnatural, or super-human about comedy. It must be absolutely probable. Herein lies its value; its humor is real. Of course, humor may be carried to the extreme in comedies; but it should not be made incredulous.

Why Writing Comedy Is a Difficult Art.—Producers often announce that they are overstocked with certain types of dramatic subjects, such as western stories, or war stories, but it is a rare thing indeed to hear one say that he is overstocked-With comedies. This is because comedy is a difficult art. The easiest thing for a writer to do is to appeal to the emotions. The next most difficult subjects are those appealing to the intellect. But by far the most difficult thing to do is to make an audience laugh.

Comedy writing is becoming more difficult each year. Producers no longer will even consider a manuscript consisting of a string of disconnected incidents. Comedy now a-days must contain a well laid out plot as a basis for the humor, and must be constructed exactly the same as a dramatic play. The incidents going to make up the plot cannot be assembled from mid-air; there must be a reason for them. It is often laughable to give a character a ducking in a fountain, but there must be a reason for doing it.

Furthermore, the old, old trick of having characters "throw things"—generally soft pies or other mushy articles—at each other is rather obsolete, to say the least. This outrage is still perpetrated in some comedies, but is rapidly passing into the discard. It is becoming constantly more difficult for the new writer to sell work in which such action is incorporated. All this goes to show that comedy writing is truly a difficult art and is becoming more exact as time passes.

How to Write Comedy.—Comedy must be treated in a "full manner." There must be about twice as many scenes in a comedy as in a dramatic photoplay. This is due to the fact that the scenes are short, as a rule, and the action progresses more rapidly. This is one reason why comedy is difficult to write; not because it takes more time; not because the labor utilized in the mechanical preparation is extensive; but because a writer must put considerable brain-work to the task of writing a plot containing twice the ordinary amount of action.

In comedies, every scene must create a laugh. It is not possible to use a set of scenes having no particular comic value.

This might be done in a dramatic subject but would not be tolerated in comedy. Unfortunately, however, humor does not enter into many of the scenes in present-day comedies. Many producers have been guilty of stretching a few good ideas over several reels, but this only goes to show how really scarce good comedy is and how editors are pressed for good subjects.

In the early days of photoplay writing, comedy subjects consisted of split-reels; that is, it took two or more short comedy plays to make one reel of film. These brief, would-be comedies have gone into the discard; it is practically impossible these days to find a comedy less than one reel in length—requiring about twelve or fifteen minutes for exhibition on the screen—consuming about a thousand feet of film. So it is useless for the new writer to attempt comedy of less than one reel. Two is the usual length; but very few comedy subjects take up more than this number.

The first thing for the writer to decide, then, is whether his play should be one or two reels. If there is any doubt in his mind he should make it one reel. Don't attempt to "pad" a comedy. If you do, it will surely drag. Better eliminate a few situations, and confine your plot to one reel, than to try to pad it into two.

Because comedies are short it does not follow that they sell for comparatively smaller sums. Comedies are so scarce that, even though short, they bring just as much as five- and six-reel dramatic plays. It is quality more than quantity that counts.

Requirements of Comedy.—Comedies of society life and comedies of every-day life are always in demand. Unusual stress is placed upon domestic scenes. The comedy writer should always remember that comedies of action are far more valuable than comedies of ideas. It is not sufficient to lead the characters up to a funny climax; all of the action leading to the climax must be laughable. Of course, there should be a humorous idea back of your comedy; the main theme must be facetious in itself; but all the time you are leading up to the climax, you must introduce humorous situations.

It is a difficult matter to write a comedy of ideas. This may easily be done on the theatrical stage; here the characters are permitted the constant use of smile-provoking dialogue. But in the photoplay, the laughs must arise from funny action alone, with the use of a very few words. Take the Chaplin comedies, for instance; there are few or no sub-titles in them; their success depends almost entirely on the ludicrous ad-ventures of Mr. Chaplin and his associates.

Each scene in a comedy should have its own individual comedy action; and that action should relate specifically to the plot—and should help in advancing the plot to its logical climax. So if any scenes in your comedy are not funny, inject humor into them; but do not try to force the comedy, and, in so doing, introduce situations having no bearing on your plot.

General Advice.—Practically every successful comedy has a worth while plot at the bottom.. This plot may be some-what hidden by the comedy incidents going to make up the main situation; but it is there just the same, and all of the funny incidents introduced into the script have some direct bearing on that plot. If they didn't they would cease, in a large measure, to be funny.

If you want to write a farce do not switch off to comedy-drama in part of your manuscript. Many amateur manuscripts contain a little of all the different types of comedies Emotional dramas generally contain, comedy elements as re-lief for the serious, but it is poor comedy indeed that contains tragedy.

Many comedy writers tend to introduce questionable elements in their plays. They forget that, if a joke offends good taste, it ceases to be funny. Also, if comedy is to be appreciated, it must be jovial. The new writer is likely to introduce national types in comedy; extravagant Frenchmen or red-whiskered Irishmen; but he quickly finds this type of play has long gone out of fashion. The successful type of comedy to-day does not treat of any particular class of people. The main comedians are generally ordinary people of no particular type. In other words, racial and sectional characteristics are not wanted.

Clean comedy is the thing in demand. In some comedies are introduced elements which would not be tolerated by the Censors in regular drama. But incidents of this kind are be-coming rarer all the time, and the clean comedy of situation is rapidly coming into its own.

A few years ago, almost any sort of coarse, suggestive, even vulgar, situations could get a laugh. The character of play-goers is changing, however. This type of picture, therefore, is rapidly passing. It has been the policy of some producers to build quite elaborate comedies around married life. Many of these have been questionable. Infidelity should be left out of all comedies. It may be a fit subject for the legitimate stage, but not for the movies, which are patronized by young and old. Always remember not to introduce anything into your comedies likely to prove objectionable to, or be improper for, any member of the audience to view.

In writing the synopsis of your comedy, do not attempt to be funny in telling it. A comedy synopsis should be related in a crisp, clear, business-like manner without resorting to jokes or puns in the telling. The editor wants to know whether the action of your plot is funny.

Comedy action should progress smoothly like a well-oiled machine. Each scene should glide easily to the next, without a hitch or a halt, constantly approaching the major climax, exactly as in drama.

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