Thursday, August 27, 2009

comedy: the well of sadness

Well the comedy workshop has kicked off another year. This week we went over the origins of single cam and multi cam shows, the 2 act structure, A & B story lines as well as character development. Quite a lot of territory to cover in one day. So naturally we'll delve into each of those topics in greater detail in the weeks to come. They're all general bits of information that by this point most writers have some grasp of - now it's all about strengthening that information.
To me, however, comedy comes from character. That is to say, you can understand the mechanics of a show, you can have air-tight plot, you can have jokes all over the place, but if you don't have deep meaningful characters, you have nothing.
The exercise for this past week was to read a 30 Rock script and go through scene by scene and look at the subtext for the Liz Lemon character. That is to say, what did we learn about her in every scene that was not ever explicitly said. Inferring from her actions and dialogue we could make all kinds of assumptions about her personality and even her history. In the script Liz has to negotiate Josh's annual contract. She doesn't want it to be a big confrontation and she even tips Josh off in a way that if he plays ball they can get through the negotiation with no fuss. Of course Josh being who he is betrays her. Betrayed she has to re-approach the negotiation and come after him in a way that was harder than if she had just entered into the meeting without pre-warning him. Angry she takes the negotiation to a personal place. When she has him over a barrel she makes him perform the "worm" as a part of the agreement. She humiliates him in a way that is kind of immature and unique to her character. One gets the feeling that she, at some point in her past, suffered such a humiliation at the hands of a high-school tormentor. This is the well of sadness. Those traumas and wounds in a character's story that make them who they are today. You have to give them this kind of depth so that they are real. And, knowing who they are we can make projections as to how they will behave in the future. Part of the fun of a sitcom is "what will they do next?" In fact, it's probably the main reason people watch these shows. Not for clever lines but rather that opportunity to see their "clever TV friend" react to a new and interesting situation that challenges their specific "damage." We talked about the endless well of sadness that is Michael Scott. God only knows what horrible things he suffered that made him this way. He is a wildly insecure and deeply lonely man. What makes it funny is he sees himself as a confident and popular boss, friend of everyone and hero to Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott, so lacking in any kind of self esteem, allowed himself to remain in an abusive relationship for a year with Jan. He literally slept at the foot of the bed because she needed the space for herself. Wow. He's so sad we can't help but feel sorry for him. So this is the challenge for the term ahead; give your characters an equally rich back story in your script. Develop them, make them true, and above all love them.

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