You Need To Know What To Do When You Have Poor Characters
The Day Fire Trapped Four Governors on the Roof And Other Situations That Aren’t Funny...
Inside the lobby of a swanky downtown high-rise, several firefighters raced toward me in full battle gear. The lieutenant shouted, “Are you the building manager? We gotta override these elevators.”
I responded, “No.” As he scanned the lobby for someone who might be in charge, I added, "I’m directing a commercial on the roof with the governor... and three former governors.” The lieutenant immediately started barking orders into a walkie-talkie. Our day just got a lot more complicated.
A few minutes earlier, my producer texted me that the governors were arriving early. I had been across the street with the crew finishing lunch. As we returned, firefighters were running a hose in front of the building. I couldn’t smell smoke yet. But I could hear the alarms wailing inside.
The lieutenant lowered his walkie-talkie and pointed at me: “Stay right there!” The firefighters scattered as my phone lit up like a bonfire. It was the governor’s aides and my producer – everyone on the roof wanted to know what was going on. A couple of the governors weren't as mobile as they used to be, so evacuating them down several flights of stairs wasn’t a realistic option. Unfortunately, my director prep hadn’t included fire contingencies and evacuation plans. I was making this stuff up as I went along.
Through no fault of your own, sometimes you’re forced to make changes. So if you’re ever saddled with a situation or characters in your script that aren’t quite as funny as they need to be, the following are a few suggestions that might make the difference between burnt toast and a raging dumpster fire.
You Have Permission to Look Stupid
Your character is allowed to do anything to achieve their goal – especially if it makes them look stupid. The character shouldn’t think they’re stupid. It’s all very logical to them. They firmly believe every step they take will move them closer to achieving their goal. They are oblivious to the flaws in the plan. So if your character isn’t very funny, try the following:
Make it clear to the audience that the character’s action isn’t arbitrary
Underline the fact that the character truly believes it’s going to work
Have the character explain the virtues of their foolhardy plan
As the character fails, we laugh because we’ve all been there: the perfect plan that actually makes things worse. Making the intention clear creates a natural gap between expectations and reality. And it draws the character closer to the audience as they sympathize with the character’s setback.
Everyone Reacts Different to Failure
After the misguided plan is revealed, the audience is in a superior position. They know the plan isn’t going to work. But the plan can’t go wrong in the way the audience expects. Make sure your character fails for a different reason. If that doesn’t do the trick, try one of these options:
The character succeeds and it turns out to be a nightmare
The character succeeds, but they were only practicing
Have the character play off the failure like it was something they wanted to happen
A character’s reaction to failure comes back to who the character really is. A moment like this is a delightful glimpse into the character’s soul. Never waste it. It’s when they’re most vulnerable, and the best opportunity for humor.
An Everyday Schmo
When superheroes face everyday situations, it’s funny. Here’s an example: Superman complaining how his new dry cleaner is doing his cape wrong. Conversely, an Average Joe facing a daunting situation is funny too.
Jackie Gleason referred to Ralph Kramden (a role he famously played in the classic television show The Honeymooners) as a mook. Roughly translated, a mook is an ordinary guy who lacks the tools necessary to succeed but never gives up hope, even in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
If your character is a mook, but the situation still isn’t funny, try these ideas:
Make the character acknowledge they are completely overmatched
Force the character to take action even though there’s no chance of winning
Give them endless optimism despite repeated setbacks
Reveal that this character has repeatedly engaged in similar behavior
If you have a character that is almost a mook, layer in (or take away) other aspects that don’t meet the definition. It’s a proven recipe. Audiences love these characters and root for them to succeed.
It’s All How You Look at It
For centuries, philosophers have asked the question, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it actually make a sound. You could ask a similar question about humor.
Absurdity isn’t funny. It’s absurd. What makes it funny is another person observing the absurdity while struggling to correct it. If you have a situation that is absurd or silly, add a person to stand in for the audience. The new character’s job is to point out the ridiculousness of the situation.
The art of comedy is hiding important facts while at the same time making a character’s intention crystal-clear to the audience. Great comedic situations open gaps between expectations and reality. They hold up the gaps and allow the audience to experience the situation with the characters. Sometimes a small change in the situation or characters makes all the difference, and a little light sparks to life over your head.
Other times a little light sparking to life can set off a fire alarm on the eighth floor of a downtown high-rise. No, it wasn’t a light from my film crew. It was simply an office lamp resting next to a sensor. Sorry, no fire. No barbecued governors.
But as your homework assignment, how would you change the situation with the governors to make it funny?
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
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