What Is Funny?
The Rules Of (Punching Up) Comedy According To The Movies
Image by L.E. Wilson from RedBubble
The funniest things are the forbidden.
What things are forbidden? Obviously risqué or taboo subjects are forbidden, and it’s true that these serve as vast wellsprings for standup comedians and all kinds of adult humor. But breaking any rule is also forbidden, and among the funniest jokes, gags, and puns are those that disregard the laws of physics, the norms of expected behavior, and reason itself.
The tools available to filmmakers to make a scene or an entire movie funny are vast. Even the best dramatic films have some humor, which serves both as a reprieve to the intensity and to highlight contrasting moods for even greater effect. In fact, one of the most stimulating and exciting film experiences, akin to going on a rollercoaster ride, is when a horror movie is also a comedy, as in Edgar Wright’s 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, starring Simon Pegg. You’re screaming, you’re laughing, you don’t know what to do with yourself—it’s wild!
Above all comedy is fun, and filmmakers like Edgar Wright implement many specific techniques to get audiences laughing. The video essay by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou from the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting details many of those techniques, which are summed up here:
Find humor where other people don't look.
Cut dialogue in creative, funny ways, not in a linear or straightforward way.
Don't have characters just stand around talking.
Show, don't tell, the joke.
Zooms and pans can be funny, especially when something ridiculous or completely unexpected is revealed in the process.
8 things Edgar Wright does with picture and sound to make things funny:
Things entering or popping up into the frame in funny ways, e.g. an arm holding a cup and saucer appears from the side of the frame in front of a character who is talking. Reactions to the object can be even funnier.
People leaving the frame in funny ways, e.g. running away.
There and back again, i.e. a glimpse at something, a break, then a repeat of the same thing seen a moment before.
Matching scene transitions showing the exact scene but on another day/time.
The perfectly-timed sound effect.
Action synchronized to the music.
Super-dramatic lighting cues, e.g. a knife edge twinkling / bright spotlights.
Fence gags, e.g. falling, tripping, slipping—when interacting with them.
Imaginary gunfights, i.e. "The frame is a playground, so play!"
Miscounting or misremembering things.
For your additional consideration, here is a breakdown of one scene from the movie High Anxiety (1977)—which is a spoof of a number of thrillers by the master in anxiety-inducing suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock—that was directed by comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks: THE Funniest Movie Scene!
Why is it so funny? Because being surprised is funny.
This is the best way to get a laugh:
You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.
Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou additionally breakdown the mechanics behind the incredible gag comedy that famed actor, comedian, and director Buster Keaton used in his silent movies.
Tell your story through action, not title cards (dialogue).
Focus on gesture and pantomime. Each gesture should be unique. Never do the same thing twice.
Find creative ways to do the same action, i.e. 100 ways to fall down.
Don't split viewers' attention. Show one action at a time.
Use the camera placement to create visual gags that make sense from the angle shown, but then are revealed to be ridiculous. e.g. a lady walking away turns out to be a horse with a dress draped on the back.
Geometry can be funny. Characters making or using shapes like circles, triangles, parallel lines, rectangles is funny.
Magic, or impossible/cartoon gags, are funny, e.g. painting a hook on a wall then hanging a hat on it.
Natural gags are more believable and help maintain a story. They emerge organically from the character and the situation, e.g. mistaking how a door swings.
Call-backs are funny.
Never fake a gag.
Historian Sal St. George explains how Buster Keaton took a young Lucille Ball under his wing to teach her his comedy rules: 1) clearly show the character observing the situation, 2) show the character thoughtfully considering the situation, and 3) show the character reacting to the situation. All the steps are deliberate and each take their time. Eventually “Lucy” would become a giant movie and TV star herself, renowned the world over and influencing many other comedic performers.
Of course cartoons by virtue of the medium can exponentially raise the level and execution of a gag. The Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Vol 4 includes a documentary on the making of the famed series. Here are some key takeaways:
Be extremely visual and creative.
What's funny: unexpected behavior, funny walks, unfortunate results, mistakes, changing shapes. The reactions to these events can be even funnier.
Parodying / lampooning very well-known characters, events, or things is funny.
Wordplay is funny.
Body parts are funny, especially if they fall off or do something unusual.
Extremely nervous, frustrated, or angry characters are funny.
Breaking the 4th wall is funny.
Flashbacks can be funny.
Objects behaving in unusual ways is funny, e.g. a doorknob that can be pulled and released like a slingshot.
Have fun creating gags. It's play time!
Define the personalities of the characters well. It's not a plot, it's a situation with conflict.
Use the objects in an environment in a funny way, e.g. a drink straw to pull in another character.
Irony is funny, e.g. a character saying "this time I will use my head" then accidentally hitting his head on a beam.
Hold an action like falling down for a good amount of time, and sometimes an absurd amount of time, e.g. Wile E. Coyote falls down a cliff for 14 frames.
Make yourself laugh.
Chases are funny.
Examples of funny animated movies:
Ultimately, the cartoon gag boils down to visual comedy, which Andrew Saladino from the The Royal Ocean Film Society YouTube channel analyzes by deconstructing where French film director Jacques Tati found visual comedy:
Props: inappropriate, slightly creepy, ludicrous. Make an ordinary thing the prop, and let it also be a problem for the character to solve that interrupts their ability to get from Point A to Point B, e.g. a gate that falls apart. Put a prop in between the character and their objectives, e.g. a pole in between the person's back and the towel he is trying to use to dry off.
Sounds: exaggerate them, e.g., a loud sneeze. Make them unusual but believable, e.g. a bump on the head that sounds mechanical.
Exaggerated movement: use large, mime-like gestures.
Reverse expectations: Set up an idea and then do the opposite for the punchline, e.g. a man keeps missing a nail with a hammer, then it's revealed that he can't see well. Set up an idea, cut away from it for a moment, then bring it back, e.g. man pulls up his shirt sleeve to pull something out of an aquarium, gets distracted by someone walking in the room, then starts pulling out the item with his other arm, thus getting his sleeve and watch wet.
As Jean Ann Wright from Animation World Network observes, “Animation comedy is above all, visual with plenty of sight gags. It uses motion and misuses the laws of physics. The comedy is exaggerated and often illogical. Dialogue may be smart with comebacks, put-downs, puns, rhymes or alliteration. Titles are funny.” She continues:
Some of the funniest comedy develops out of a character’s personality. What makes that character naturally funny? Use a character’s attitude, mannerisms and dialogue to increase the comedy. Reactions can often be funnier than the gag that has gone before. Use characters as different from each other as possible so that these conflicting personalities can bounce off of each other in a funny way.
Pretense and Exposure (hypocrisy, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”)
Pull Back and Reveal (the basic gag element is at first hidden from the audience)
Hidden Element (the basic gag element is hidden from one of the characters)
Turnabout (things are the opposite of what we expect)
False Logic (“How do you get milk from a kernel of corn? You use a low stool!”)
Malapropism (the wrong word, e.g. Dr. Seuss holiday dinner of “roast beast”)
Comedian Rowan Atkinson masterfully illustrates in a comedic lecture a number of rules, methods, and techniques found in visual humor that make things funny:
Unusual bodies, unusual movements of the body and body parts, ill fitting clothes, either too small or too large, create the canvas for a visual comedian.
Unusual behavior of objects, e.g. a banana that bends down before you can eat it, wobbly legs on a sturdy object etc., provide the comedian with funny props.
An object being in an unusual place or being a very wrong size, e.g. extremely large or small. Extremes can be best done in animation.
The visual comedian behaving like the objects above, especially in combination.
Slapstick (falling, chasing) and violence (destroying things) with unexpected or shocking results, e.g. preparing to slip on a banana peel and accidentally slipping on it in the opposite direction. The more real or believable it is, the funnier it is. Sound effects can be very helpful in creating realism.
Overstating or understating reactions to the above can increase the humor, e.g. a long dramatic fall, or a very delayed fall, after being hit with a frying pan.
The physical comedian is at the mercy of magic and surrealism, e.g. people or objects suddenly appearing or disappearing. If someone falls over, it’s funnier if the person disappears at the same time. Running in and out of doors allows for a quick succession of appearances and disappearances. The faster a character shoots in and out of the frame, the more effective the comedy, e.g. being yanked suddenly by something offscreen.
Transformations that are absurd and astonishing become comic, e.g. a car alarm that changes the car to something unappealing.
Speeding up the action, e.g. walking tour, bus ride, etc. is funny.
Comedy is entering a bizarre dream world where anything is possible.
Imitating another character is funny. Parody is exaggerated imitation, often including ridicule. If parodying a person in power or authority, then it is satire, which can be used as a (political) weapon.
Parody of well-known films and tv programs is an endless source of comedy, and you don’t have to think up too many original ideas. Parody allows for three different kinds of comedy happening at once: a) imitation, b) jokes about the mechanics of the parody itself, i.e. parodying the parody, e.g. revealing how a cape is blowing in the wind by panning to an assistant shaking it, c) exaggerating the visual style of the original to make it absurd.
In comedy, nothing is greater than character. The physical comedian communicates through mime, illusion, comic acting, and body language. It is no longer the comedy of gags, but the comedy of personality. It’s not about doing funny things, it’s about doing something quite normal in a funny way. The skill relies on the accuracy of human or life observation, and the precision of the execution.
Comic attitude allows comedians to essentially repeat the same joke in a new way. This is where character shines:
The dim comedian with a lack of awareness who knows less than the audience about what is going on, e.g. the comedian is stepping on the water hose without realizing it, which is why water is not coming out.
The aggressive, unhelpful comedian with a lack of consideration for others, and little regard for morality or legality who doesn’t conform to social expectations.
The crude, rude, uncivilized, lazy, or vulgar comedian who thrives on the comedy of social embarrassment and doesn’t understand social conventions or is incapable of following them.
The comic attitude that audiences identify with, or get involved with most will be the funniest. Only if you identify with a comic attitude can you laugh.
Visual comedians are aliens who aren’t quite normal, nor do they understand normal. Whereas the verbal comedian is often smarter, sharper, and faster than others around, the physical comedian usually has a quality of impossible innocence, of having been born yesterday, emotionally and intellectually, and is basically a bewildered child masquerading as an adult.
The physical comedian is childish (or drunk), and has difficulty with everyday objects, e.g putting on clothes, handling a bar of soap, etc. in a way that seems to give the objects a will of their own. In a battle with the objects, the comedian is found to be clumsy or inept, or be constantly making mistakes, or be very susceptible to accidents. However, the physical comedian is very tenacious and keeps on doing things well after the point a normal person would have stopped.
The physical comedian is maladjusted and a threat to decent and respectable people, causing offense and spreading confusion either by too much aggression or too much affection, and makes a mockery of all authority, politeness, and pretension.
The comedy of embarrassment leads the comedian to try to impress someone and then fail miserably, e.g. leaning on a chair and falling over when the person sitting on it stands up.
The physical comedian is an outlaw who breaks all the rules of decorum and convention and does all the things we can’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t do in real life. But breaking the rules makes the comedian get into lots of trouble. However, the physical comedian is indestructible, e.g. bombs, explosions, etc. don’t cause any damage. There is always a happy ending.
Some additional notes and observations on things that are funny:
Throwing something then losing your balance.
Pratfalls, tripping, falling, tipping over, falling down stairs, getting hit by a projectile, toppling over, breaking a chair or table.
Unintentionally hitting (or missing) the wrong person or thing.
Getting clothing stuck on things can be funny, especially if someone is left naked.
Misunderstandings / misplaced focus, especially when two characters are not talking about the same subject.
Trying to be quiet / keep a low profile / be respectful, but being unable to do so.
Slow-motion is funny, especially with a drawn out "Nooooo" when something complex is happening.
Using the wrong name, or misremembering someone's name.
Tension / conflict, e.g. a character pretending to like something / someone, or a character having an unusual perspective on the world.
Slapstick: walking into a wall, door, window, pole.
Impossibly deep pockets containing a lot of unexpected things.
Crazy things happening outside a window, but nobody inside notices. Or strange things happening in the background, e.g. someone jumping out of a window while trying to avoid the person who can clearly see them.
Mistaking two characters, e.g. someone talks confidentially to one only to find out later that it was the wrong one.
Answering the question, "what's the worst thing that could happen?" with something absurd. Also, saying a character is probably fine, then cutting to the character who deadpans, "I'm not fine.” And, saying "not again" when something unusual happens again to the same character.
Unusual voice, laughter, or other bodily sounds e.g. a mismatched / unexpected voice that contradicts the character’s physical appearance.
Unusual physical strength or weakness that contradicts the character’s physical appearance.
Accidentally / inadvertently / absentmindedly avoiding a danger, e.g. a brick falling, or being oblivious to a dangerous environment, e.g. a character slipping on blood, but not realizing it.
Inappropriate sound effects, e.g. footsteps in a corridor change to footsteps on squishy mud.
Literal interpretation of words, e.g. "walk this way.”
Having one character mistake what they hear for something else, or mishearing what another character says, or saying the wrong thing, e.g. “turn right — the other right,” or reading the wrong thing, e.g. “I’ve got a gum?” instead of “gun.”
Saying “I will / would never,” then cutting to the character doing what they said they wouldn’t do.
A character screaming then revealing that what they screamed at was innocuous / harmless / silly.
The villain’s evil laugh turns into a coughing fit.
Repetition, e.g. “I am speechless. I am without speech.”
Having a TV show / movie / song / advertisement amplify the danger or problem a character is facing.
Allowing physics to take effect only when the character notices.
Things falling apart, e.g. a car separating into pieces.
Offscreen cat screech when someone or something is thrown out a window.
A character not knowing the definition of a word in a serious conversation, e.g. “What do you mean? … No, what does ‘exacerbate’ mean?”
Fake name that is made up of objects the character sees nearby.
Intentional continuity errors.
Asking, “what’s that smell? or “Listen… you smell something?”
A character walking in at the wrong / inopportune / time and reacting badly to what is happening.
Trying to drink out of an empty glass.
Re-arranging well known idioms or phrases, e.g. “boredom is something up with which I will not put.”
Comparing objects to themselves or to unusual animals, e.g. “an asteroid half the size of a giraffe; a large boulder the size of a small boulder.”
So go make something funny already! Why? Well, what’s better than giving others the gift of laughter? Is there really a higher calling than bringing joy and smiles to others? The great writer and humorist Mark Twain explained it thusly: “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” And, wouldn’t the world be better if we all did a little bit of cheering each other up? Moreover, there is also the very real possibility that this is in fact the meaning of life!
But even if it isn’t, at least you’ll have fun trying, and hopefully the list above can help you get started. The world awaits your genius contribution!
Comedy is acting out optimism.