Lessons Learned – Comedy Script Writing

There’s an apocryphal saying in show business, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

While I can’t vouch for the dying bit, I can shed a little light on the comedy part.

I recently completed a project for a client who hired me and my business partner at Badiyan to write and produce a series of fourteen short comedy video segments. Each segment was intended to show a different part of the client’s product, explain its value to the customer, and contrast it favorably with the competition. It had to be memorable, funny, and engaging. This was both fun and challenging! The client was working with many different subject matter experts on a tight timeline and with legal review foremost in their minds.

I’m pleased to say that we completed the project on the deadline provided, and that the end result was great! My partner and I came up with an overall creative treatment, pitched it to the client sponsor, and won approval in concept. We used the idea of twin brothers–one who used the client’s product and one who didn’t–and shot the video with one actor and split-screen editing. This let me write the scripts for the two characters, Wes and Les, to play off each other using a different comedy theme in each of the fourteen videos. The comedy themes for the twins ranged from a Star Trek parody, to not having enough time for a golf game, to “I really want to be a lumberjack!”

My approach to this creative design and writing challenge worked well enough, but there were some things that I learned for the next time something like this comes along. (Contact me if you know someone with a similar need!) Here are some lessons learned:

  • Comedy is Subjective. This is probably obvious. What might not be obvious is that the writer needs to get a good sense of the cultural context of the primary audience, and also other cultural contexts, so as to catch the humor and avoid offense. It also means that the writer needs to leave enough time in the schedule and the budget for complete re-writes after the first draft script goes to the reviewers. They are likely to give you good feedback about what they think is funny and what isn’t; and not all of your ideas will be first-time winners. (I did plan this in, and I’m very glad I did! I had to go back to the drawing board for three of the fourteen scripts, and bump up humor on several more.)
  • Keep your Opening Snappy. In this project, we used a standard introduction to each video, varying it only slightly for different topics. This used up 35 seconds of screen time–a huge amount–in each video. We and the client had no way or predicting which video the audience would see first, so we had to include the intro on each video. If you can steer your audience to a “first” video, then do so and streamline the rest of the series by keeping the intro short. Maybe 5-10 seconds is okay, but 35 seconds is too much time and repetition. (I’ll figure out a way around this next time.)
  • Humor only Goes So Far. There is no way around dry subject matter. The differentiating factors for our client’s product are important and clear, but how they play out in day-to-day use is very technical. This took a fair chunk of screen time to write and explain the feature and its benefits and how it differs from the competition. If I had more time, I would have made this shorter and less “talky” than it was. It worked out okay for the technical content the client needed, but it would have been crisper and funnier if the pacing could have been faster. (Wasn’t that originally Mark Twain’s thought about writing, as well?)
  • Include Props and Action. My partner on this project, Fred, is great at lining up visuals so that the shots are interesting and that the actor’s motions, personality, and expressions are captured well. As the writer, plan for this and write it into the script. Trust that the talent and the director will be able to take your intent and make it even better. Give video framing and shot suggestions. Include stage directions to show your characters engaged in something meaningful to the story you are telling. Give the talent some useful hooks and emotional cues to make it easier to “amp up” their characters. (This worked very well, and I’m happy to continue the technique.)
  • Action Continues after the Last Line. After the last word of the script has been delivered by your characters, there is still time before the video fades out or cuts to the next scene. Make sure that you write the action to follow the lines so that something interesting is still happening visually as the scene ends. After the punchline of the joke in a comedy segment, for example, the natural reactions of the jokester and the straight man can boost the humor effect or let it fall flat. Write the follow-up stage direction, or at least give the talent some hints about how to end the scene with the emotional impact you want. (I didn’t consciously write this in. I saw the good job that that the actor did ad-libbing with advice from the director and this made me realize that I could have helped them more. I will do this in future projects!)
  • Project Management Counts, Too. Prevent wasted effort with a good project plan that includes an early review of a prototype script for content, humor, and level of detail. As the writer, you want to have that prototype in front of the reviewer (and ideally audience representatives) before writing the bulk of the scripts. That makes your scripts that much more on-target and allows you to wrestle with the many different ways you can present a potentially dry, technical topic in a funny way.

In the end, yes, comedy is hard. It relies on good content, knowing the audience and delivering something that connects with their senses of humor, and having the acting talent to deliver it all with the right timing. But hard is worth doing, and comedy that makes its point is worth doing well. What have you found that resonated better when delivered with comedy than with straight narrative or drama?

All the best!