A couple of weeks ago, I went for a run that got me thinking about comedy in stories. Here’s what happened:
I set off as usual in my t-shirt and shorts with my little app going and my music on. And then I felt something wrong… a sort of sliding feeling on my butt cheeks. Under my running shorts, my boxers were slipping down and down. The elastic must have gone on my boxer shorts.
I hiked them up and kept going. They slipped again. I hiked them up. They slipped again. At this point I couldn’t help but think about what it must look like with me adjusting my pants every minute or so as I jogged past people. This couldn’t go on. So about a kilometre into my run, I stopped and tried to tackle this properly. What I did was take my boxer shorts and get the seam right under the waistline of my running shorts, pulling my running shorts tight. The idea was that the running shorts would hold the boxer shorts in place. And they did…
…for almost another half km, at which point they slipped again.
I stopped to adjust and got another half km out of that. But I could not keep running with my underpants sliding down my butt cheeks over and over again.
So I did the only thing I could to hold them in place. I took hold of them and I pulled hard, giving myself a wedgie. The only thing that could hold these in place was the power of my own butt cheeks. So with wedgie firmly in place, I ran. I ran like the wind. No, it wasn’t comfortable but I was running and my boxers stayed in place. I smiled as I ran, not one person knowing how my boxer shorts were pulled right up my butt crack except for the people who saw me adjust them again two kilometres later, giving myself the wedgie to end all wedgies to get me all the way home.
And I thought about how ridiculous this was and about comedy. Great comedy so often comes from the little human failings. The disasters. The challenges we aren’t prepared for. I wrote one project once for a really great director who just had one thing missing – comedy wasn’t his thing. The reason was that he was seemingly great at everything (and he really was). He couldn’t understand when characters got things wrong or weren’t prepared for the challenges they faced. That didn’t make sense to him. It makes sense to me. I fail. I get everyday life wrong. And I can write good comedy.
But here’s a really important thing about the challenges we give characters in comedy – they are funny when they don’t completely beat the characters. On my run, had I just gone home and changed my underwear, that wouldn’t have been funny. Had I stopped and broken down in tears, that wouldn’t have been all that funny either. What created a funny situation was that I didn’t give up. I persevered and was a willing participant in the situation becoming more and more ridiculous. That’s funny.
So if you’re going to write funny, you need to understand what it’s like to be the guy who will go for a 7km run with a wedgie.
Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
In all likelihood, if well-developed, your concept has more than a single strength. There might be many reasons why your concept should make it to screen. But when you’re pitching, you need brevity and clarity and you need to know what your strongest reason is. What is the one thing you can say that will make your show an easy buy?
If you know what that is, the rest is simply support. Don’t bombard people in case that one good reason is lost in the crowd.
However, there is something very important to keep in mind: not everybody is looking for the same thing. Every broadcaster has their own vision, their own remit and they buy different types of shows. You need to know who you’re pitching to. Now you can’t please everyone and I would advise that you don’t try – that’s how you water a show down to nothing. You have to have a sense of who your show might be a fit for.
But you don’t have to pitch the show the same way for those people.
If you give the exact same pitch to two people looking for different things, there is a good chance that it won’t work for one of them. And yet what that second person wants might well be in your show. It’s just a different strength. If you accept that different people are looking for different things, highlight the right things when you pitch. Don’t lie! Don’t try to make out like something is in your show that isn’t there – a broadcaster will see through you in an instant and it won’t go down well. But if your show truly has something that would work well for that particular broadcaster, put it out in front.
What this comes down to is the exact same thing you need to think about when making your show: know your audience. Know who you’re pitching to. Look at what is on their channel, at what they’ve said in articles or magazines and try to get a sense of what works for them. Look at your concept’s strengths and make sure the appropriate one comes across in your pitch. It won’t be the same every time.