Here's a TV pilot I did with a couple of friends at Warner Brothers. A lot of gags in there.
This lesson isn't about making comedies, just making your story funnier. Even the most dramatic story can use a good laugh.
I've come up with 7 guidelines for comedy in your stories:
#1 Are you laughing?
If it doesn't make you laugh it's probably not funny. You know what's funny. Make yourself laugh. Don't try too hard though. Then it just becomes forced.
The 2015 Minions movie started out funny but then got boring quick. As long as they were short comedy vignettes it was funny, but making a whole movie with them as the main character was forced. It didn't work. But then again, it is the second highest grossing animated film!
When you have two contrasting ideas or characters you can milk a lot of humor out of them.
Did you see Napoleon Dynamite? It was funny. Well some people didn't think so, but I did. It was full of interesting characters that contrasted each other. Napoleon vs Kip. Napoleon vs uncle Rico. Napoleon vs everybody! He was such a funny character I didn't care what the story was I just wanted to watch him.
Did you see Gentlemen Broncos? Not as funny. Why? It was full of interesting characters -- but they were all the same weird character. In my opinion there was no contrast between the characters. They were all weird.
“Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.” - Steve Martin
If you have a character who abhors filth then you can amp up the funny by getting them dirty and making them interact with filth.
You've seen cooking shows,here's a new twist:
When you turned the cooking show convention on it's side.
In EPIC we needed something to break up the boringness of the Queen. Here's my solution:
Contrast dignity with the gutter. Look for contrast in every scene.
# 3 Surprise people
Surprise and delight your audience and they will laugh. You don't always need a knee slapping hilarious joke. Something clever that makes people chuckle is sufficient.
This bit contrasts quiet with loud for an unexpected response.
Another way to surprise people when you are given some unfunny dialog to board is to juxtapose it with a contrasting or unexpected visual you will get a laugh. I call it surprise but it could also be put this way: The audience makes an assumption, then gag proves it wrong.
# 4 Character
Comedy needs to come from Character.
When I was working on Ice Age I, the idea for the dodo sequence was 'a bunch of survivalist dodo's'. That was a pretty funny idea I thought, but the original sequence just didn't work. The idea was the main characters accidentally set off some booby traps the dodo's made and our heroes had to escape.
It was supposed to be funny because the dodo's were stupid and the traps didn't work. Well, It wasn't funny. I spent some time thinking about it and came up with this: Dodo's are stupid. They wouldn't make booby traps. Also the scene had no drive or purpose to it. I suggested that the heroes find some food for the baby and the dodo's steal it. Now our hero's had something to do.
The dodo's had three melons to survive on. This began to be funny. To the audience it was obvious that it wouldn't work. I made a football game out of it and from there it took off. In the end Sid wins but in his victory dance he breaks the melon on the ground ruining his hard earned victory and showing the audience he isn't any smarter than the dodos.
Let your characters act according to who they are. The comedy is derived directly from character in Idiot and Jerk.
My friend Xeth Fienberg and I drew a whole series of Idiot and Jerk cartoons based on the name.
# 5 Timing & build up
You have to give your gag time to breathe. If you've ever listened to the Jack Benny radio show you would know he was a tightwad. Most of his comedy came from his character not wanting to spend money. On one episode he was held up at gun point. Take a listen:
Start small then build to a hilarity crescendo. Don't throw the funniest thing out there first. A running gag often gets more laughs that a 'one off'.
Top yourself. Each joke needs to be funnier than the last one. Your final joke is the topper. Watch how this heckler does this very thing.
This sweet little film has timing and build up too.
The build up in this Daffy Duck cartoon is AWESOME. First he hits a tree, then he does it again and again and again and keeps on doing it. We cut away to Porky Pig and the gag continues with just audio. That would have been a good end but we cut back to Daffy to see him hit the last tree on the ground. He begins to chop it down -- only to reveal he's chopping all of the trees in his way down. We have to watch his next exploit now! He swings, he makes it -- he hits a rock. Excellent pay off to a "building gag".
# 6 Is it appropriate for the scene?
You might come up with the most hilarious gag in the world while you are sitting in church. Should you get up and tell it? No.
Let me illustrate:
When I was working on Iron Giant I was given the task to come up with ideas on how Kent discovers the Giant. I thought I'd be clever and turn the scene on it's ear (remember # 3? surprise people!) I drew up this whole scene where he comes out of the Tipsy Lobster for the evening and drives off a little drunk. The Giant sees his car driving down the road and picks it up to eat it. Kent sees the Giant, the Giant sees Kent. Startled Giant drops the car with Kent in it and runs off. Next scene – Kent is in jail talking to the General on the phone. He tells him he saw the giant. The General tells him he was drunk and hit a tree.
Clever huh? Kent really sees the Giant but no one believes him. Well everyone in the room laughed but my idea got shot down. Why? Because you can't have a main character in a kids movie getting drunk. That was not the story Brad Bird was telling. So, check your gags for appropriateness. Does it fit the scene? Does it help propel the story? If not, kill it. Come up with something else.
#7 Funny Drawings!
If it's a funny sequence, do funny drawings. Here's a few examples from Bill Peet:
Chuck Jones from "Bully for Bugs"
Ren and Stimpy had some of the best facial expressions thanks to Bob Camp. I'm not sure who the artist is in this example from Ripping Friends but definitely influenced by Bob.
Ken Anderson's Sir Hiss from "Robinhood"
Certianly Sir Hiss was inspiration for this octopus scene in 'Finding Dory' by Trevor Jiminez.
All of these drawings are masterpieces of clarity, contrast and appeal.
You also need to stage it for comedy. Comedy typically works best in flat staging because flat staging doesn't compete with the jokes. Every Frame a Painting describes it beautifully in this video.
A wimpy person is a night time security officer for a bank. Two robbers are breaking in on a full moon night. The security officer is a werewolf. What kind of werewolf does the securuty officer become. What kind of characters are the robbers? Do they have a dog? Does the security officer stay werewolf all the time? Can you put a unique twist on the werewolf convention?