Last week, I was given a comedy script to read but instead of writing a normal report, I was asked to suggest potential areas where the story could be improved in terms of gags and humour because the script was a comedy spoof. The producer didn’t feel satisfied that the script had enough gags. It was an interesting and enjoyable reading assignment (I had to think hard whether or not it was a very cheap writing gig) and it led to some thoughts on how the best comedy/spoof films are made.
The best parodies present us with characters and a story that we actually care for despite the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone. The fact that a spoof has all the leeway in the world to take the piss and be as silly as it wants isn’t enough. Take the piss narrative and throwaway gags are amusing gimmicks but the effect will soon wear off if the comedy and story isn’t properly being served.
Everything from Airplane! to Naked Gun, to Hot Shots and Team America have all got a great sense of what they are, and what they want to achieve. The humour may well be crass and low-brow at times but what’s important to realize is that the comedy is largely driven from the comic characterization and motivation of the characters.
Throwaway visual and dialogue gags are all very fine and well but they are usually generated from a familiar aspect of culture, or knowledge that the audience can understand. This technique can range from highlighting the absurd situation a character finds himself in, to referencing other films, or playfully caricaturizing a well-known personality.
Team America does this extremely well. What it effectively does is present us with a Hero’s Journey style-structure where an ordinary joe is presented with a challenge that he first rejects but then embraces as he is forced to become a hero. In essence, it’s a story that could work even without the parody intention or tongue-in-cheek style.
Interestingly, Trey Parker and Matt Stone initially wanted to do a Thunderbird version of Bruce Willis’s blockbuster Armageddon as they felt the script was hilarious as it was. And this is what any comedy spoof ideally wants to achieve. It should have a basic sense of story and structure in order for the gags and comedy to fully get their service.
Think of a story first, then put in the gags. It’s cinema. A basic sense of character and narrative is required. Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots. Robert Hays in Airplane! Frank Drebin in Naked Gun. The puppet Gary in Team America (“with your acting skills and world languages, you’re the perfect weapon”). The silly gags work a treat while the characters try to go through the ‘reality’ of their situation. There may be an arched eyebrow in the audience’s direction at times but the most successful and enjoyable spoofs send up their subject matter with love and care, not derision and sloppy storytelling at the expense of a few well-intentioned gags.