(SPOILERS: Bridesmaids, There’s Something About Mary, Elf)
One common problem I see in weaker comedy scripts is a misuse of slapstick or goofy comedic elements. The writer will have a scene with some kind of physical humor going on that doesn’t really relate to the action of the scene. My guess is always that the writer added this after the first draft because they felt the scene wasn’t funny enough.
It isn’t a horrible idea – in fact, this is a variation on the “wallpapering” technique where you set a scene somewhere visually interesting to help hide its dramatic shortcomings. The thing is, irrelevant physical humor usually doesn’t work because it feels forced and random. What actually makes that kind of comedy funny is how it relates to the character and situation. A guy getting hit in the face with a pie is only humorous if the guy has some reason to be dignified. So if you just throw that into the background of a scene, you get the physical but not the humor.
And the thing is, it usually isn’t hard to relate the slapstick to the scene itself. The key is to make the physical challenges into obstacles to a character’s goal. That simple approach suddenly makes the slapstick humor relevant and thus much funnier. And it has the added bonus of enriching the scene.
A great example is from this summer’s hit comedy Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo). One of the scenes that gets the biggest laughs is the food poisoning in the bridal shop. But it’s not simply the vomit and diarrhea that make us laugh. It’s the fact that Annie doesn’t want to admit to her rival Helen that the bridesmaids got sick at the lunch she arranged. So though Annie is clearly in physical distress, she’s determined not to break. The food poisoning is an obstacle to Annie’s character goal.
There are, of course, gags in that scene not related to Annie, but they mostly come out of the classy setting. So the women are trying to be dignified but their bodies betray them. If instead of the bridal shop we saw the women go their separate ways and then get sick in their own homes, it would be unpleasant instead of funny.
Or think of the classic scene in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly). It’s not funny because Mary accidentally puts a bodily fluid in her hair (that is actually just kind of gross). It’s funny because Ted then has to go through the date pretending like nothing’s amiss. The mistake poses an obstacle to his wooing of Mary.
Both those examples are from R-rated, gross-out comedies. But this is not just a technique for use in scenes with disgusting humor. Children's cartoons, in fact, have perfected this physical-humor-as-story-obstacle approach. Every pain Wile E. Coyote suffers is a direct result of his attempts to eat the Roadrunner. You never see a boulder fall on him for no reason. That wouldn’t be funny.
In the movie Elf (written by David Berenbaum), Buddy does a lot of things that are just plain silly. When a child acts like this in real life, we usually find the behavior annoying. What makes it hilarious in the movie is how it impacts the other characters’ goals.
So the doctor visit is funny because Buddy’s fidgeting and curiosity makes it difficult for his father to learn if Buddy is really his child. And in the breakfast scene, Buddy’s strange ideas about cuisine make it difficult for Emily to welcome him into the family – her goal. Most of us wouldn’t eat spaghetti with syrup on it. She does because she doesn’t want to hurt Buddy’s feelings.
So let’s say you’re writing a scene about a guy going for a job interview. You read it over and it comes across as fairly serious. Unfortunately, you’re writing a comedy. So you decide to make the interviewer clumsy. He knocks over his cup of pens, knocks his computer off the desk, spills his coffee. Meanwhile the interview goes on as though none of this were happening.
What would be funnier is if the coffee spilled on our hero. And it’s scalding hot. Then you escalate from there – our hero yanks his pants down to avoid getting burned. And he’s wearing his tattered “good luck” underwear. Now we have a scene with some potential because the slapstick is interfering with the character’s goal of getting the job.
The other thing you may notice is how character traits are important to making the physical humor work in the examples I gave. Annie’s desire to hide her personal struggles from her friends in Bridesmaids and Ted and Mary’s sweet natures in There’s Something About Mary are key to the success of the slapstick in those films. In Elf, the physical humor grows out of Buddy’s unfamiliarity with the normal world of New York.
So let’s look again at our job interview. Instead of a random event like the interviewer spilling coffee on our hero, what if our guy couldn’t sleep the night before because he was so nervous about the interview. So he gets a cup of coffee to help him be alert. But there’s nowhere to throw it away or leave it in the outer office, so he has to bring it in with him. Then he spills the coffee on himself because his nervousness makes him clumsy. Now the slapstick is growing out of his character – nervous – and the situation – job interview. See how much better that is than some stuff falling over in the background of the scene?
The big lesson here is that, like everything in your script, physical humor ought to grow organically out of the characters and their situation.