Wednesday, September 9, 2009

make 'em laugh

I sometimes wonder why I'm not a screenwriter, since so many of my influences for novel-writing come from films and TV. I suppose it'll be just a matter of time (since I can already envision the novel I'm co-writing as a TV series), but for now, novel-writing is my love, and I'll take my muses wherever they come.

Here are four of my favorite film comedies (in no particular order), and what makes them so great for a novel-writer like me.

Animal Crackers
Many of the Marx Brothers movies started out as plays, not surprising since the Marx Bros. were vaudeville stars. It's hard to say which Marx Bros movie is the best (although I'm sure you'll have no trouble choosing the worst), but I love Animal Crackers because it's pure silliness (but it's smart silliness, if that makes any sense) mixed with brilliant timing and delivery. What's more, it's a linguistic tennis match of puns and metaphor and one-liners and exchanges that make you fall over laughing, perfectly complimented by Harpo, who nonverbally manages to speak the loudest and get the biggest laughs.

Besides, who doesn't love to see Groucho confound Margaret Dumont on a regular basis?

The story is secondary to the shtick, and the ending really isn't much of an ending, but that's fine by us. Because the shtick is so good, so delicious, you'll appreciate the seeming effortlessness of the banter that is so finely honed.

Of course, it's possible that I'm just nostalgic for Animal Crackers because it reminds me of spending quality time with my older brother, but that's just bonus.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
I know. A given.
If you want to learn how to write great dialogue, start by putting two people in a room together (preferably a small room) and have them disagree on something. Aaron Sorkin has this down to a science. Nora Ephron did it fabulously in WHMS from the opening ten minutes of the film when Harry and Sally have to drive from Chicago to New York together. Dare I say fabulous yet again. Those ten minutes set the tone for the entire film -- and the relationship -- and keep us rooting for these two all the way.

I have said in many interviews that I am drawn to relationships with chemistry. The Marx Bros had chemistry. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan had chemistry. Chemistry plus dialogue equals fire (the good kind, life-affirming and sustaining rather than destructive and ravaging). Add characters with depth, characters who are put someplace where they don't want to be, and you've got gold. (hmmm... am I mixing alchemical metaphors here? Fire? Gold? What can I say, I failed these courses in high school.)

The Odd Couple
See my explanation for When Harry Met Sally. Two people who have nothing in common put into a room together. Add to that Neil Simon's unique ability to make pain funny. The Odd Couple also encompasses a lot of physical comedy that is way more subtle than the Marx Bros' antics yet just as funny. The TV series had a life of its own, and the Tony Randall/Jack Klugman duo really shined. But see the classic Jack Lemmon on Walter Matthau, if for no other reason than Matthau's deadpan look at no one in particular as he says "Murray, I'll give you two hundred dollars for your gun" and you just know he's at his wit's end.

Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks loves what he calls "juxtaposition of texture". A hideous creature, donning a top hat and tails and breaking into "Puttin' on the Ritz" is an example of juxtaposition of texture. I try to replicate that juxtaposition of texture wherever I can. Whether it's Andi reading a poorly written eulogy in a cocktail dress, or a typically cool-cat character having a meltdown over something as insignificant as a traffic light taking too long to turn.

This film is one of my favorites for so many reasons. The stellar cast of characters, the reverance the original Frankenstein films (yes, in order to produce a parody that good, there need to be reverance), and the sight gags, one-liners, and vaudevillian-like sketches throughout.

Good parody is a tribute to the original work of art. What makes this one truly great is that its own infamy will keep the originals alive.

Why I like writing comedy.

Comedy is regenerative. It lives on. Homer Simpson can get his ass kicked and then live another day for another beer at Moe's. Comedy is also the fountain of youth. Groucho Marx will forever be that guy with bushy hair, thick black mustache, and round glasses in coattails. Sally Alright will forever be that woman in Katz's deli, pounding the table in feigned ecstacy. Besides all that, it just feels so damn good to laugh until you cry. Especially when you're with others.

Each of these films have contributed to my craft, be it timing, style, delivery, invention, improvisation, or just a good ol' sight gag. The well of great prose will never run dry. But inpsiration is everywhere. Find it wherever you can.

What are your favorite comedies, either in film, television, or literature?


Elspeth Antonelli said...

Favourite comedies? "Harry Met Sally", of course. Witty quick dialogue said by easily relatable characters talking about interesting dilemmas. I love Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, but honestly I watch that movie for Carrie Fisher. She's brilliant.

TV? I loved "Friends". Funny dialogue and the chemistry between those 6 actors was phenomenal. No weak link at all. Also adored "Sex in the City" for its boldness and allowing the characters to be brutally real. The occasional bit of schtick was beautifully played, also the brilliant use of secondary characters.

I love writing comedy but I can surprise myself with how much comedy is in my writing - considering I don't write about comedic situations - however the 2 scripts I have written contain a good many laughs. Lots of experience acting in comedies has certainly helped me with the timing of funny lines . Comedy can be at its best when its unexpected. That's what I try to do.


Elisa said...

Oh yes -- I love the unexpected. And yes, Carrie Fisher doesn't get enough credit for her supporting role, nor does Bruno Kirby!