Jonathan Wakeham dodges banana skins and custard pies to look at what we can learn from the masters of comedy screenwriting.
Many of comedy's biggest names, including Judd Apatow, Simon Pegg and Ben Stiller, have complained recently about the lack of recognition for comedy in the major film awards ceremonies. The statistics prove their point; in 84 years of the Oscars, only five comedies have ever won Best Picture, and many of our greatest comedy icons, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Katherine Hepburn, Peter Sellers, Bill Murray, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen have never won the gold statue for a comedy performance.
But this year's BAFTA nominations for Original Screenplay must have warmed the heart of anyone who loves comedy. Of the five nominated screenplays (The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Guard, The Iron Lady andMidnight In Paris) four are for comedies; comedies, moreover that show the extraordinary breadth of the genre, from the brutal dark humour of The Guard, to the wit and elegance of Midnight In Paris to The Artist's sparkling resurrection of an art form long thought dead.
The Artist's screenplay nomination should be a particular encouragement to all writers because it highlights something that's often forgotten: writers write the pictures too. Most writing about film treats directors as visual masters, with writers just seen as suppliers of words. Read the screenplay for The Artist (published online by The Weinstein Company) and you can see how much of its brilliance is right there on the page.
So what are the secrets to great comedy writing? As co-founder of LoCo, a not-for-profit foundation that champions the craft of comedy filmmaking, I've been lucky enough to meet many of my comedy heroes, from the Zucker brothers (writer/directors of Airplane!) to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. All of them have their own personal rules, depending on their approach to comedy.
For the Zuckers, it's all about individual gags; one of their rules is that you must not divide the audience's attention by having two funny things happening at once; you can have jokes in the background, but not when the foreground action is funny. For Galton and Simpson, it's all about character: humour doesn't come from wisecracks, but from the character's response to the world. Yes Minister author Jonathan Lynn starts with the seven deadly sins, because all great comedy comes from weakness.
But every conversation with any comedy writer eventually comes around to Billy Wilder, whose extraordinary range of work, from his early scripts for Ernst Lubitsch to the breezy Some Like It Hot (1959) to the soulful, troubling (and my favourite) The Apartment (1960), marks him as the master of screen comedy. And luckily for us, he wrote down his own rules, as recorded in Cameron Crowe's brilliant book Conversations With Wilder:
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then —
11. That’s it. Don’t hang around.
So I won't.
Jonathan Wakeham is the co-founder of LoCo and programmer of the London Comedy Film Festival, which is at BFI Southbank from 26-29 January. LoCo's education programme LoCollege runs year-round events for comedy filmmakers; sign up at www.locofilmfestival.com.