When asked to do development notes on a comedy script (feature, sitcom or TV pilot), one of the things Bang2writers inevitably want me to comment on is this question: “Is the dialogue funny?” Most are surprised then when I answer, “Is it important at this stage?”
Now of course the **obvious** answer is “Duh, it’s a comedy, OF COURSE it’s important!” But let’s look at the evidence:
Show It, Don’t Tell It. Every writer knows scriptwriting is not JUST about dialogue… Except, it seems, when they’re writing COMEDY. I’ve lost count of the number of comedy scripts I’ve read - both specs and commissioned, especially features – that seem to rely wholly on dialogue for laughs, so we end up with very little physical comedy at all. This seems a wasted opportunity, since even the most cerebral of comedy also demands a small level of physical interraction or visual gags/back up in the very least, else the comedy feels “one-sided”.
Comedy relies on structure. The best comedy is almost “inevitable” in its approach: we’re led TO the punchline or comedic moment in the pay off. In order to do this then the best we can, we need a proper SET UP. Yet writers are so frequently hung up on *how funny* the dialogue is, they forget about set up and pay off, the very basics. If we then add structure *as a whole* – The Three Acts in features, the story of the week vs the serial element in TV pilots or the A & B Strands of Sitcom (returning to the status quo per episode) – then the problem with structure at grass roots in comedy is exacerbated. This then means a huge proportion of comedy scripts are doing the rounds which are essentially *just* a string of gags, rather than a holistic story; some even lack an identity altogether, leading script readers to write “what *is* this?” in coverage, in terms of where it “fits”. Sounds strange, but then knowing your audience and what they expect in terms of conventions is very much part of comedy (as it is all genre). So isn’t it better to work on the STORY and how it WORKS OUT before you work on the “funny dialogue”? (more…)