Isn't it funny how the court jester has become the superstar of the entertainment world. Yes, the comedian, the funny man, has surpassed the movie star or rock musician in the popularity league. Think of the likes of John Cleese, Steve Martin or Woody Allen and you are seeing writer/actors that people aspire to be. A far cry from the local fool or village idiot.
So what drives people to comedy? Many comedians have told of how, as youngsters, they used comedy to defuse potentially violent encounters. But surely not all comedy geniuses sprang from the ranks of the bullied. To my mind the comedy impulse operates on a much simpler basis, the need to be liked. We court popularity by giving people the safe, non-addictive, drug of laughter.
But that's not what this article is about, it's about writing comedy screenplays, which is a much harder proposition than writing gags. You'll note that the three stalwarts named above gained their greatest honors with movies. They may have started out as gag writers, but ultimately the glittering prizes only come via the silver screen. Having said that I would encourage any novice screenwriter contemplating a screenplay to master the short form first. The relationship between a gag or joke and a full length screenplay is a strange one. I personally like the Monty Python methodology of stringing sketches along a comedic plot line, but a character telling a joke does not make your movie a comedy. The comedy must from the start be in your basic plot.
Around your daft situation your characters can become involved in humorous situations and say funny things, as long as they are moving the plot forward. A useful rule of thumb which I learned when writing sit-coms was that there were only three reasons for a line of dialogue to be in a comedy script. One, to move the plot forward; two, the set up line for a joke; and three, the punchline to a joke. Everything else is waffle and should be stripped out. It is possible to take a favorite joke and mold it into your character's plot line, but you must ensure that the joints don't show. Does the situation fit in with the rest of the narrative? Would your character utter that punchline? Comedy is not a one-size fits all scenario.
Take for instance this joke - A guy gets on a plane and finds himself sitting next to a beautiful woman. He strikes up a conversation and the woman tells him that she is a sex researcher. He is fascinated and asks her what she is researching. "I'm looking into sexual myths," she says, "For instance it's believed that black men have the largest appendages of any race, whereas it's the native Americans who can claim that honor." "Really," he says. "Yes, and Italian men have a reputation as the world's greatest lovers, whereas it is actually Jewish men who are the most amorous. My name's Julie Crawford by the way, and you are ..." He takes her proferred hand and replies without a blink, "Tonto Cohen."
Sorry if you've heard that one before, but the point I'm trying to make is that John Cleese couldn't use that line because it doesn't fit his screen persona, but it seems almost specifically written for Woody Allen's sexual neurotic. To write a comedy script, take a ridiculous situation and keep writing till you hit a punchline. Then go back and prune out the extraneous material. This method wouldn't work for an entire screenplay but would work if you regard the entirety of a 90 minute movie as consisting of 30 scenes or sketches. Your problem would be in keeping your sketches within the limits of your plot. And remember, not only must your screenplay have a beginning, a middle and an end, but each sketch must have the same. For me there's a greater satisfaction in writing comedy material than any other and I've tried most. Try it yourself, but remember that the competition is brutal.