February 21, 2014

10 Commandments for Directing (& Writing) Comedy from Director David Dobkin

David DobkinWhat is the funniest movie you've ever seen? Do you lean towards the slapstickiness of a Farrelly Bros. flick, or do you prefer Wes Anderson's boarding school style of humor? There are all types and styles of comedy, but one thing they have in common, other than being laugh-inducing, is that those laughs were hard-won. Writing and directing comedy is not easy, despite how effortlessly people respond to it, and if you're in need of a little guidance, check out this article Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin wrote for the Directors Guild of America: his 10 Commandments of Directing Comedy.

As a screenwriter and director, I can admit that I haven't found my home. I've written and directed comedic, dramatic, and horror films, varying in tone and substance, but they all tend to contain a great deal of my comedic sensibilities. The funny thing is (no pun intended), I've found it so much more difficult to make people laugh than make people cry or scream in terror -- people guard their humor fervently, and have extremely particular tastes when it comes to which jokes they find funny. This is why Dobkin's list is so helpful, because it breaks down common issues found in crafting comedic films, as well as sheds light on its nature.

Seeing as a comedic film starts at the scriptwriting stage, these tips work well for both directors and writers, so if you're in the process of developing your screenplay, these tips will be invaluable to you, too. I've chosen a few of Dobkin's commandments below, but you can take a look at the entire list here.

1. "Kinda funny" means it's not working

One of the things you have to hope for when you make a comedy is that your audience has a generous sense of humor. (This is why people like being my friend, because I laugh at all of their jokes.) Sometimes you'll get those viewers who find something to appreciate in a "kinda funny" joke, but that's not something you want to bank on. As Dobkin says, a "kinda funny" joke is simply not enough, because that's not what people pay for.

Laughter is binary: It either happens or it doesn’t. As each joke arrives in the course of a film, the cavernous space of the theater is either filled with joy and laughter, or with the quiet of cringing embarrassment. Every time you step to the plate to make a joke you’re going to experience one or the other. “Kinda funny,” or in other words, chuckles and smiles, are basically comedy blue balls: a failure to launch. People pay to laugh, and laugh big.

5. Great comedy has great drama at its core

One of the most helpful things I learned while studying comedy and tragedy in college was that "a tragedy is an unfinished comedy." Contrary to what some may think, comedy and tragedy are intrinsically entwined, and adding dramatic elements to your comedies will help bolster the laughs. In other words, laughing at someone you don't care about is pretty cheap. According to several comedic theories, if you put characters through the wringer, incorporating good dramatic scenes that make you truly care about them, then the comedic payoff is so much more substantial, because the viewer will be looking for a way to cope with the tragedy the character is going through.

The more invested the audience is in your characters and the drama of what they are going through, the more they will laugh at the comedy. This is obvious in films like As Good as It Gets and Tootsie, where we cry as well as laugh. But even in more contemporary work, this commandment applies. In Knocked Up, we all really want to know how the hell this schlubby guy and hot girl, who don’t even know each other, are going to have a baby together. And because we’re invested, when the guy’s father gives him advice that is so shockingly honest and hurtful that it only makes things worse, it is crazy funny. Because life is like that for us, too.

10. You never know what you have until you are done editing

Your script may have left people in stitches. Your cast and crew may have been laughing after every take. But, you don't know how funny those jokes really are until your film as been edited. This could be a good thing, especially if you've found that the jokes that worked on paper didn't seem to work on-set -- there is still a chance for you to work with your editor to ensure that they work on-screen.

When you get to the edit and watch your assembly, you will want to cry. Almost nothing works. That’s because it’s not a movie yet. It’s an assembly. And the process you go through between that moment and a finished film is where you find out what you really have: the magic you’ve captured, and the magic you’ve missed.

Do you have any advice on writing or directing comedy? What have you learned from your own experience? Let us know in the comments below.

Link: The Church of Comedy: Ten Commandments for Directing Comedy -- DGA

Your Comment

7 Comments

I kind of disagree with number 5. It can work to incorporate drama into comedy, obviously, but especially in television, non sequiturs, truncated dramatic arcs, and unrealized goals are part of what make comedy work.

From examples as wide-ranging as Workaholics, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Broad City, Louie, It's Always Sunny, and even Seinfeld- these had characters and storylines but arguably avoided "real" drama and stakes at any cost.

Whereas something like Parks And Recreation shoehorns romantic (i.e., dramatic) story lines into the show that feel forced and awkward.

February 21, 2014 at 5:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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ryan

There are lots of funny movies that aren't HA HA funny. I mean, Dobkins clearly doesn't follow his own rules of comedy because look at the garbage he's made...a couple of decent movies and a lot of dreck.

February 21, 2014 at 7:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Muh

If the comedy isn't clicking on set, in spite of the promising script, then don't just hope to fix it in the edit. Try it a few more ways, work with the actors to get to the heart of it. With talented actors this isn't too tough, that's why casting real confident pros with a good nose for comedy is essential.

February 21, 2014 at 9:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Chris W

There is a major debate in the sitcom world about the single camera shows like the "Office", "Malcolm in the Middle" or "Modern Family" vs. the live audience filmed/taped programs like most of what was popular in the 90's -"Friends", "Seinfeld", "Married w/Children", "Frasier", etc. Some think that a single cam actor will always perform to the camera, i.e, his eventual audience while the live actor will play it up to the folks in the seats but that may not play the same way once the footage is aired. The opposite side of the argument is that, if something falls flat in front of the immediate audience, it will fall flat on the screen as well. The Marx Brothers - to pick one comedy group that had experience in both - usually wrote their own bits regardless of what was in the screenplay that was written for them by an outsider, then tried them first in front of the live room and then rewrote the parts that didn't get a response. That's how their best skits were created and vetted.
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As to Dobkin, he got his top reviews for the "Wedding Crashers" opening (I think it went on for about 10 minutes), which was all spliced together in editing.

February 22, 2014 at 12:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

I'll add - there have been a number of sitcoms - "Married w/Children" and "Seinfeld" most notable among them - that have lost a lot of their comedic power over the course of their run due to the departure of their top writers (who got some fat multimillion dollar development or EX-P's deals from other studios/production companies). With the quality of writing visibly suffering compared to their earlier seasons, the long time stars of the show "tried to do more" to cover up for this fact by switching from subtle/understated comedy to wildly over-the-top performing. That may have gotten extra laughs from the live audience but often fell flat for those watching on TV.
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And, as a side note, if anyone ever gets to see the "live" sitcom footage prior to the SFX folks getting to it, he will frequently find dead silence where laughs are supposed to be. Naturally, once the laugh track is added, the same exchanges are presented as unending hilarity. Way, way back, the "Simpsons" once had a quick Saturday Night Live type bit (many Simpsons writers - as well as actors like Jon Lovitz, Harry Shearer and the late Phil Hartman - had stints on that show) where Homer was watching SNL and, after a punchline was told, the camera was panned over the audience that was dead silent, followed by the sound of a reverberating echo of a single person coughing.

February 22, 2014 at 12:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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DLD

I agree that writing and producing comedy can be very difficult, especially when it's for a multicultural and multi lingual audience. One thing that had helped me is drawing inspiration from people's daily experiences in that environment. Facial expressions and "unlucky" characters also win with people as they don't feel "threatened" by plot. However, a badly edited comedy piece can become a tragedy in post production.
So far, this has worked for me in creating directing a web skit "the interview: frank donga"

Here's the result: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWuhlzVsmezr4iJ4UzLOxX3tfMIkdKPWV

February 22, 2014 at 1:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Love this site, there is so much to learn, makes me feel I can be a better producer and writer. Thanks a lot

February 28, 2014 at 4:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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