In preparation for my Raindance talk a couple of weeks ago, I asked a few development execs what they were looking for in comedy scripts (feature films). This led to an interesting discussion about the current market, and what makes a comedy feature tick. A couple of the execs gave up their time to chat over a coffee - and one even invited me to a company meeting on the subject! - so I was certainly glad I asked.
So, what did they say?
Well first, the good news. Film companies are desperate for comedy scripts. They can’t get enough of them. There are a couple of reasons for this. Comedy films are good for box office (always popular with audiences), and they are relatively inexpensive to make. Comedy does have healthy subgenres like romantic comedy, comedy crime, comedy action etc but when one of these films work, they’re mainly remembered for their comedic element.
Leading the way in the current market is the Judd Apatow school of comedy (Knocked Up, Superbad etc) where there’s usually a strong concept combined with a level of reality and identifiable characters. These are typically male-driven comedies and combine broad comedy with other subgenres like slapstick, etc. They show a sensitive side whilst also pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, which creates a natural comic milieu.
A good comedy will work with a clear concept (inviting hook) and real scenarios that develop from this situation. The goofball and silly comedies of Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron-Cohen also work really well but these are reliant on the performance of the star/actor. Indie comedies can also prove popular and worthwhile. These are usually black comedies, or films that take an alternative/offbeat approach but will usually have a ‘good heart’ or an inviting hook to make them appealing and engaging.
In the UK, a criticism about some comedy scripts is that the characters aren’t real. The stories aren’t about anything. They don’t have a strong concept - no theme - and they have nothing to say. Also, there are too many scripts trying to riff off the success of Richard Curtis. As a result, there is a surfeit of wedding comedies (enough already with the best man/bridesmaid stuff!). The scripts are too familiar and derivative, and offer no surprises.
If you’re thinking of packaging a UK comedy for a budget over £10m, then there’s only a handful of actors that can fit the bill: Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen, Steve Coogan and possibly even Lucas/Walliams. On the lower budget scale, you could look to make a comedy film for £2million (like the recent ‘The Magicans’ with Mithcell & Webb).
So, how does a spec writer get a break?
If you’re serious about getting your comedy script made, you need to get it in the right hands. So, targeting film companies that actually make and distribute films in this country is a good idea. Film companies like Working Title, Ealing Studios, Tiger Aspect, Big Talk etc. Having an agent obviously helps to get your script accepted and read but often this isn’t enough to make the impression that the companies are looking for. The industry reacts to stars and box office, and tries to anticipate what will work and what will sell. If you’re just John from Croydon with a reasonably amusing comedy script in the spec pile, it’s not going to do much. However, if you’ve already established a good track record in radio or TV, as a stand-up or with writing elsewhere, and perhaps have won a creditable award, this will give the project more bite and appeal.
The best advice is to get involved with the comedy fraternity in whatever way possible. Don’t be a spec writer sitting at home and working in the bank. Work in TV, or write sketches, or do radio; build your profile, network, get known and write a good script. Use your contacts. Talk to the people you know. Show some initiative. Go to the Edinburgh Festival. Talk to comedians after their shows, tell them about your project or that you’re interested in writing a film for them - attach their name, get their endorsement, get ahead.
Alternatively, make your film yourself. Comedy can be achieved on a low-budget. Don’t have the funds? Then make a trailer, or a sketch. A funny short film. Put it on You Tube, enter film festivals, see what happens. Generate some ‘heat’ and interest.
OK, so what key qualities does a comedy film need if it's going to work?
Well, breaking it down, it starts with -
Strength of Concept/Originality
Not necessarily high concept but a premise that clearly indicates that it has strong comic value. Something that when you’re told the idea, you go ‘that’s funny’. Some concepts may be okay but once you know who’s involved, you can go ‘ok, right, I get it’.
The right characters are possibly the most essential element of a winning comedy film. Make them multi-dimensional. Interesting. Real. Or a reality within the context of the story. That’s where the majority of the humour comes from; once we understand who the characters are and what’s happening, we’ll find what they’re doing to be amusing, whilst in an everday situation or a different context, it mightn’t mean anything.
Comedy has a very demanding structure. In general, it’s about the funny storytelling experience, not just individual gags or banter. And it’s not just three-act structure, or five-act, or 22 steps, or whatever kind of structure you subscribe to. Think about your set pieces - your laugh out loud moments. The bits in the story that increase the hero’s jeopardy (one exec used Mrs Doubtfire as an example - where Robin Williams has to appear as himself AND the Scottish nanny while the social worker comes to visit) or the moments that give you the big laughs (like the waxing scene in 40 Year Old Virgin, or the drunk drive home, amongst others). A lot of spec scripts don’t focus on these kind of moments. They just go by on a fairly linear level, employing some witty banter if they can, and that’s about it.
A good comedy will have a variety of humour, and not just be dialogue-based (otherwise it feels like a sitcom). So think of the visual, verbal and sophisticated (not to mention puerile) humour that could be generated from the concept, characters and story.
Taste & Decency/Talking Points
Think of your trailer moments, and stuff that might get talked about. Comedy needs to grab your attention, and this will invariably come from the strength of the concept. However, in relation to set pieces (structure) and premise, you can push the boundaries of taste and decency whilst ensuring that’s it’s relative to the story. This can get the script talked about or want to be read (a teenager shagging an American pie anybody?)
Another strong consideration, as execs like a tone that’s consistent from start to finish. Knowing what kind of comedy you’re writing, who you’re characters are and what you have in store from them. Having a variety of comedy (visual, verbal, physical) doesn’t mean that the comedy style should be erratic or unfocused, or doesn’t stick to what the heart of the film is about.
Lead or Ensemble?
Try to think of a good lead role for an actor to play. A role that's ripe for a popular comic actor; that people will want to see. Look at the recent success of 'Run Fat Boy Boy'. On paper, the script is amusing and endearing, while the appeal of Simon Pegg, and possibly David Schwimmer directing, made the teen audience come back for more (making a staggering £10m at the UK box office). The target audience for comedy films is 15-25. If your comedy is an ensemble piece, it makes it even harder to cast and to market, and these types of comedies can struggle at the box office.
Phew, got all that? A lot to consider then, just like writing any script, but of course, the most important element of a comedy is the most obvious: it’s got to be funny. Simple, eh?