Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BOBBY'S TIP JAR for August 6, 2008

THE RULE OF 3 and other Factors

Since this is Hiroshima Day, I figured it's a good day to discuss how to prevent COMEDY BOMBS. As with 1945 dropping of Big Boy (although it's debatable, but not amongst Hiroshima residents at the time) the term "bomb" in comedy is not a good thing.

As with everything in life, comedy has certain rules. People talk about breaking "rules of comedy", whether it be Norman Lear or James L. Brooks, or Gary Marshall, but some rules even they never broke. Norman worked completely out of the box, adding flat out tear jerking drama to his sit coms, such as All in the Family. But then he'd add a treacle cutter. That of course is a joke or look or some other laugh provoking gambit to relieve us of the drama.

Speaking of the term treacle cutter, in professional comedy writing there's key terminology that is pretty well circulated amongst writers which describe these "rules" for better comedy writing and story advancement. Here are a few more:

The Ax Sometimes a sequence of dialogue is necessary to the story, but it's way to dry or flat to just have two people talking, so sometimes we will say, "this scene needs an ax". That means, something else, often a bit amusing, going on that doesn't distract from the dialogue, but at least makes the scene interesting. i.e., you put the people in a steambath instead of a living room, so at least the folks are sitting in towels, mopping their brows and so forth. On Silver Spoons, we put the dad, Edward (Joel Higgins), in a suit of armor while having an otherwise innocuous story-advancing bit of dialogue with either Ricky (Ricky Schroder) or Kate (Erin Grey). I'm not sure where the term "ax" came from, but probably using an ax was the first "ax".

The Bend On the same principle as the "ax", the "bend" is utilized to prevent stultifying dialogue from boring audiences. If the dialogue is too flat (i.e., boring), then we will say "this line needs a bend". Sometimes it's adjusting the line or bit of dialgoue to say it funnier. It might be as simple as changing grandma's line from "he was driving a blue Olds" to "he was driving a bomb-ass blue Olds". You get the same info out, but with a character "bend" - and a laugh. This is not to say every single line has to be a joke, or require an ax, or both (like putting everybody in a clwon suit) - then that would be tinseling, i.e., going overboard as one might add to much decoration to a Christmas tree.

The Rule of Three
This is one of the fundamentals of joke structure. The Honeymooners original 39 episodes is a comedy clinic for almost all comedy rules, valid some 53 years later.

(pointing to his wallet) I got it all right here!

(touching her butt) You got it here, (touching her sides) you got it here
(holding her arms out in front of her as if she has a big belly) and you got it here!"

Big laugh. If she had gone on to a fourth bit, it wouldn't have been funny. She would have gone past the joke. That's another comedy writing phrase, a "don't rule". Here is another classic example, from Some Like it Hot (on the must-see list!)


Joe E. Brown is driving. Jack Lemmon, in drag, sits next to him. Brown has proposed to Lemmon, thinking he's a woman, and Lemmon is trying to get out of it.

I smoke!

I don't mind.

I can never have children.

We can adopt some.

(taking off his wig) Ah, Osgood. I'm a man!

Well, nobody's perfect.

Lemmon reacts.

Why does the "rule of 3" always work? Why not the "rule of 5", or the "rule of 2"? Who knows comedy is all about TIMING. Here is a good illustration of the rule of 3 and comedy timing... Note: the term beat in the example below means a PAUSE.

Guy #1
This girl, is she cute?

She has a great job!

Guy #1
Yeah, but is she cute?

Guy #2
She drives a brand new BMW.

Guy #1
Is she cute?

There is a beat.
Guy #2
Did I mention the BMW?
See what I did? I have more than three e-mail addresses, but listing any more wouldn't be funny.

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