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