A serious talk about how to make your short, comic film as funny as it can be.
By Peter Gerstenzang
A funny video is in many ways the same as a good joke. Timing, inflection — resisting the urge to add anything extraneous — can make the difference between your audience laughing or slapping their foreheads. Or worse, yours. As a humorist and a humorous director, I believe I can pass on some points to all you budding auteurs that will really help you tighten up your funny film.
Don’t forget to rehearse. No matter what sort of humorous video you are doing, as with all filming, the more prepared you are, the more time and aggravation you will save yourself. After your script or treatment is ready, have at least one rehearsal with your actors. Two is better. That way you can work out blocking, body movements, dialogue, you name it. If things make you, as the director, laugh, keep them. If not, change them. Rehearsal are a great time to trim down the script and make sure your pacing is on point.
On the other side of the coin, a strong grasp of your characters built in rehearsal will then allow your actors to improvise during production. Even if your script is a wow, if you have talented actors, you’ll find they do improvs during the shoot that bring the house down. Let them do their thing. If what they say or do is funnier than what you wrote, be a smart artist and keep it.
Don’t let your ego get in the way. After all, if Woody Allen lets actors change his lines, you can do the same.
Before your jokes can land, they’ll need a proper set up. Think of the famous scene in comedy godfather Buster Keaton’s “The General,” where he’s constantly trying to clear the tracks of increasingly frustrating obstacles. It’s established that he needs to keep the train moving to rescue his damsel in distress, so each new challenge builds on both the tension and the comedy of the last.
In the W.C. Fields film “The Bank Dick,” the annoying Fields tries to help a chauffeur fix a faulty car engine, there’s a tight shot of Fields turning a screwdriver on the engine — this shot sets up expectations of competence. We think he’s actually making progress until we hear a squeaky sound and the camera pulls back to a medium shot where we can see the whole car — and watch the engine fall out.
Make sure the viewer understands the context and setting of the scene in as little time as possible.
It’s okay to be fancy or simple when you’re setting up the gag. But there’s one thing you must do: Make sure the viewer understands the context and setting of the scene in as little time as possible. Don’t allow the exposition to take over your video — hit them with a joke as soon as you can to keep your video moving and your audience watching.
Rhythm and Tempo
Chances are, if you’re trying to shoot something comedic, you already have a good understanding of what sounds or looks funny. Trust your instincts. And keep watching the masters so their ideas can rub off. Watch with the sound off to see how they execute jokes. Listen to the dialogue from another room to get the feel of the rhythms. This will help you understand how timing and delivery affect how a joke lands. Watch, look, listen, shoot. Lather, rinse, repeat!
Classic screwball comedies, such as “His Girl Friday,” are hilarious, in no small part, due to the bullet-fast delivery of the actors. If you feel confident that you can guide your actors through some speedy delivery — go for it. You’ll have to go with your gut as to whether this sort of speed is right for the scene and whether you and your actors can pull it off. On YouTube, where videos are short and attention spans shorter, you’ll likely want to pack as many jokes into as short a period as you can.
On the other hand, different comedy styles demand different rhythms — many depend on long, awkward pauses as part of the comedic effect. A pause can make or break a scene. Or, at least, the laugh you’re going for.
In either case, keep the pace and writing clear and appropriate to the subject matter, and be ready to cut, cut, cut in the edit room. Again, you’ll want to get rid of anything that doesn’t need to be there or that veers from the central premise of the video — this even applies to really good jokes if they don’t fit. If it helps, bring a friend who appreciates your humor in to watch the edited scene. Does it make them laugh? If so, that outside perspective can make all the difference in the world.
Dying is easy; comedy is hard.
Aside from having your native born comic gifts, there are things you can do to make it easier to get right. Keep it simple. Add nothing extraneous and be ready to cut when you get to the edit suite. Comedy is subjective, but if you keep your edits tight and your jokes focused around a strong premise, you’re more likely to get the laughs you want — and avoid sighs of boredom.