The Tragic Process of Producing Comedy
Guest Post by Peter Barnes
Producing comedy is a lot like making a burrito: a plethora of tangy challenges wrapped in a tortilla of high hopes. It requires a light touch and, at the same time, plenty of brutal honesty. Sound delicious? Well, there’s a little more to it.
And that’s because sound engineers are often caught between two or more clients who have very different opinions about what is actually funny. Having the “Is this funny?” conversation can be very stressful. Go ahead, try it: Tell me what’s funny... and you have five minutes before this baby has to be uploaded.
Comedy is subjective. For example, I love inappropriate, Family-Guy-type humor. Often that won’t fly with a target audience. Agency writers and producers are simultaneously expected to be funny and keep it just this side of offensive. This is hard. This is stressful. This is not funny.
And then the Creative Director enters the burrito stand.
This is exactly what the sound engineer needs in the session: one more opinion about what’s funny. And look out if there’s a struggle brewing between the writer, who may be inexperienced (or fabulous) at writing comedy, and the Creative Director, who may be a crusty old shit full of ego and baggage (or not). Add to this grease fire the agency client, who likes to put their mark on everything and “always knows what’s best for their client.” And now you have all the ingredients for a cockfight in a shitstorm, just waiting to happen.
After the script is finalized (assuming that actually happens), the talent then has to interpret the written words and… make them funny. So what do you think happens if there’s palpable tension in that room? Not funny. And a long day for the sound engineer just got a little longer.
Unless, of course, the opposite happens. I’ve seen that, too. One of those magical times when the talent is just so damn charming that they loosen up the room with a few well-placed tension-busters. Other times it comes down to the engineer. I have always said that an engineer has to be an excellent diplomat and a great deflector of tension. If you’re good at it, you’ll never allow that tension to grow in the first place, through the gentle manipulation of the people in the room. Be charming, but not too charming; engaging, but not too engaging.
However, sometimes the engineer is pressed to give an opinion, weigh in, choose sides. This is when a pair of gigantic avocado seeds comes in handy. You must be honest – no matter the politics of who you’re agreeing with. And sometimes the correct answer is, “It doesn't matter; both your ideas are good. Let’s just pick one and stay on schedule.”
Now to be clear, most of our sessions – whether comedy or not – have nothing to do with burritos until lunchtime. They’re smooth, and run by people who are true professionals from top to bottom. We’re often having a ball and laughing our asses off at the sheer brilliance of ourselves... and that, my friends, is very funny.
Peter Barnes is co-founder of Clatter&Din, Inc., located in Seattle’s SODO district. Clatter&Din was born into the world of audio more than 20 years ago, and has since matured into a full-service production company offering video production, post, color grading, sound design and mixing. They’re also a pretty spicy burrito.