Gags, Comic Situations And Other Principles Of Television Comedy

Andrew Moraitis interviews comic and writer Tim Ferguson, who talks about how the principles of comedy including misdirection, irony and comic situations can relate to Australian comedy.

“Don’t preach to me about romance, Annie! I had a three-way in a hot-air balloon,” arrogant former lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) tells his college study group in the NBC series, Community. In the American The Office, antisocial salesman Dwight (Rainn Wilson) asks, “Does it bother me that I wasn’t invited to Michael’s dinner party?” before he covers his eyes and cries. In Yes, Minister, a government official tells civil servant Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) that he can’t talk about the Freedom of Information Act right now. Though each show is tonally very different, each of these gags is essentially the same. In these instances, a comic premise is established – Jeff’s idealism, Dwight’s nonchalance, the Government’s responsibility – is immediately reversed by their words, actions or situation, such as Jeff’s sleaziness, Dwight’s emotional insecurity and the British Government’s bureaucracy. Television writer, actor and comedy teacher Tim Ferguson says that gags like negation represent the essential principles of narrative comedy: “It’s an ancient principle and it goes to the heart of how this stuff works, and if writers try to avoid these kind of jokes they end up not being funny.”

The comic reversal is one of many gags that relate to narrative comedy, including cover-ups, limited worldviews, taking things literally, distortions, running gags and catchphrases. Frustrated with many screenwriters’ lack of appreciation or understanding of these comedy principles, Mr. Ferguson released the book The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy last year, a tribute to the power of comedy, and an exploration of the values of comedy. Mr. Ferguson – a stand-up comedian best known for his work on the Doug Anthony All Stars, Funky Squad, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Channel 31’s WTF With Tim Ferguson – believes in the dictum of Greek philosopher Aristotle that drama requires both tragedy and comedy: “I just wanted to elevate the position of comedy in screenwriters’ minds so they understood that it is not something that stupid people do. You need to be pretty smart to write comedy. Whereas – really – you just need to have deep feelings to write drama. Comedy is an act of intellect and drama is an act of the heart. Or, more accurately, tragedy is an act of the heart. True drama – which is tragedy and comedy operating together, which is what Aristotle said (I am not putting words into anybody’s mouth) – needs the mind and the heart to be operating.”

This is an interesting point, especially as it relates directly to the debate regarding the state of the Australian film industry and the types of stories that local filmmakers tell. With films such as Blessed, Samson and Delilah and Somersault, the local film industry is criticised for favouring naturalistic or grim stories that leave audiences dejected and emotionally withdrawn. Mr. Ferguson, however, cites the recent (and very successful) Australian film Red Dog as an example of a film that fulfils the emotional and intellectual expectations of the audience. The filmmakers – director Kriv Stenders and screenwriter Daniel Taplitz – intended the film to reach a wide audience, and Mr. Ferguson praises their efforts in painting the small-town community of the film with warmth and humour: “If we want to make a tragedy engaging on an emotional level, we have to make people laugh, because – once people have laughed – they care about what’s happening. If you just go from misery to horror to ghastliness and back to misery well, then, emotionally the audience has gone nowhere but slowly down. And they leave feeling emotionally deflated. A mature writer adds laughter to their tragedies, no matter how dark – that’s human. Aristotle said that a tragedy that doesn’t bear raillery is suspicious. It’s preaching.”

Mr. Ferguson speaks from experience in sitcoms and television comedy. Recently, he hosted and executive produced the Channel 31 news satire WTF – With Tim Ferguson; he also co-wrote the sitcoms Daas Kapital and Shock Jock as well as appearing in the Working Dog series, Funky Squad. In fact, Mr. Ferguson says that students and screenwriters can learn a lot from Funky Squad, a parody of ‘70s cop show conventions. Although the series had decent ratings, Mr. Ferguson suggests that the series was not conceived as a sitcom, but a cop show, and the story and character elements did not slide easily towards traditional gags and comic situations. “I think that Funky Squad was a loving reproduction of those shows. But there weren’t any gags, per se. Of course, it was fun to watch and you could watch it with a smile. And, occasionally, there were outfits and funny lines thrown in, but – overall – the show was not designed as a sitcom. Stories like ‘when the kids get kidnapped’ were written as if this were a cop show. So it was a ‘loving reproduction.'”

Mr. Ferguson suggests that many shows, which are praised for their comic invention, simply follow one of the traditional formats of the sitcom: domestic comedy, farce or satire. US network programs like The Office, 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation or savvy British sitcoms like Spaced, The Office or Extras have all been lauded as groundbreaking. However, Mr. Ferguson says that many successful shows simply follow the principles of humour and gags, applying them in a way that shows stylistic, tonal and emotional difference from previous comedies: e.g. Spaced and Community’s meta-ness, The Office and Extras’ naturalistic humanity etc. Mr. Ferguson says, “There is no widely popular comic show which breaks with the ancient principles of comedy because the principles are not rules. If they were rules, then our lives would be easy: the comedy would write itself. You would just go to the rulebook. The principles act like scaffolding does in the making of a building. Scaffolding can be used to build a cathedral or a dunny and it’s the same stuff. It’s how we apply the scaffolding and how we use it that makes it useful and it’s the same with comic principles.”

Mr. Ferguson cites the Australian programme, Kath and Kim, as inventive because it combines two comedy sub-genres, and uses the principles of comedy to unite the darker aspects of satire with the warmer elements of the domestic comedy. When Ferguson first saw the series in 2002, he knew that Reilly and colleague Jane Turner were onto a winning formula: “Kath and Kim is distinctive in the sense that they have managed to straddle two of the least compatible sub-genres of comedy – domestic comedy and satire. This is very difficult. Normally, a domestic comedy is like The Golden Girls or Everybody Loves Raymond or My Family: it’s designed to make us love the characters. Kath and Kim managed to engage some of the tricks of satire, which very rarely asks us to emotionally engage with the characters, and so we loved Kath, but – of course – Kimmy is a monster for whom we have little pity. Whenever we were asked to emotionally engage with the story, very quickly we found out some satirical point was being made to make us question the validity of Kath and Kim’s whole world. It is brilliantly crafted: there are very few shows in the world which are able to straddle those two sub-genres.”

Several drama/TV shows sometimes struggle to meld multiple genres. The works of American television producer Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story) are an interesting case point (which Mr. Ferguson does not cite). It is difficult to deny the Emmy-backed popularity and financial success of the Glee phenomenon, and the creative success of merging more difficult/personal stories with musical interludes and high school satire. However, the series sometimes struggles to meld the different tones of each series: for instance, it creates stories centred on Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) in an attempt to win empathy for her. However, such emotional involvement is often difficult given the character’s selfishness and egotism, elements which are often satirised by the creators. Although the series is currently very successful, it is difficult to know how long the creators can continue to straddle both ideas together.

These contradictions were also apparent in Nip/Tuck, which – for two seasons – creatively melded black humour with more dramatically satisfying elements. Yet the series soon struggled to find storylines which successfully mixed these two elements, resulting in dramatically unsatisfying arcs and repulsive central characters. In American Horror Story, a horror/black comedy/drama hybrid, Murphy and his co-creator have not even bothered trying to make any of these characters remotely likeable or sympathetic. Sure, they have emotional breakdowns and seem to care for one another, but most of the key characters seem to suffer most heavily from compulsive-unlikeability disorder (a.k.a. Rachel Berry syndrome): the father is a cheater and liar, the mother is pregnant and whiny, the neighbour is a shameless flirt (as is the housemaid), and the local ghoul killed his entire family. With the exception of the daughter, each of these characters is disagreeable and unlikeable.

Mr. Ferguson says that merging multiple genres and elements requires a great deal of thought, otherwise the audience can be left confused and frustrated by the events on-screen: “Sometimes, if it goes badly, the audience doesn’t know whether they’re Arthur or Martha: is this show fish or fowl, they wonder? So being able to pluck the heartstrings whilst reminding the audience that this world, in itself, is profoundly out of balance took a lot of thinking on the part of Gina and Jane.”

Mr. Ferguson says that many of the scripts he receives are usually autobiographical, tapping into the creators’ own experiences. Many great films have been semi-autobiographical (including The 400 Blows, Mean Streets and – according to Pauline Kael, at least – Citizen Kane), however, Mr. Ferguson explains that it is difficult to translate autobiographical works into a workable and commercially orientated idea, especially a comic one. Mr. Ferguson suggests – if the author is to examine themselves through their writing – they need to understand how to distil friends and acquaintances into “an elegant and usable tool,” rather than attempt to capture the entirety of their associates’ personalities. Mr. Ferguson says, “I don’t believe in the idea that you only have to write only what you know. Writing is an act of discovery. It’s not an act of just repetition. And certainly, something that is funny in real life needs to comply with certain principles before it’s funny to an audience. Someone getting chased around a house by a snake might be funny if it happened to one of your mates, but – to an audience – it just looks scary. Better to look at people that you may have met or encountered or who you know very well and distil them to an elegant and usable tool. An entire human being – with all their layers and all their warring personality traits – is not going to be instantly identifiable to a sitcom audience. But a person with archetypal traits will be. Basil Fawlty is based – partly – on John Cleese’s father, I believe, but also some ‘bed and breakfast’ guy who was rude to him.”

Yet, Mr. Ferguson suggests that the primary problem with many scripts he reads is that they do not follow traditional gag principles. “There is also a snobbishness about gags. Some fool, somewhere, has decided that gags – such as characters’ reversals, cover-ups, distortions, distractions, inadvertent negations, flawed logic, uncomfortable human truths – all of these are somehow cheap and stupid because they can be understood by everybody on the planet. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you want to write comedy, these are the scaffolding you have to use. There is no other option. You can’t re-invent the primal laughter response to anxiety and surprise. If you want to make people involuntarily laugh at loud, you have to apply gags. Otherwise people just smile wryly – you’ll only be popular in Darlinghurst cafes.”

Mr. Ferguson says that it has been a long time since the success of Kath and Kim and – with the exception of satires like the work of Chris Lilley (Angry Boys, which Mr. Ferguson likes) – there is a lot of opportunity for writers to create a successful comedy, if they have the right script: “A good script kicks down everybody’s door, and it does not matter who you are or where you are from. Show business is always about the new guy and the new girl. If you have a good script, and it is funny, and it has a good point to make, and it is original, there is not a producer in the western world that won’t talk to you. Barring that, sleep with someone important.”

Again, that one is called a reversal.

Tim Ferguson On … the Success of Kath and Kim

“I spotted it straight away. I thought, ‘This thing is going to be a monster!’ For a starter, it is just so funny, and the characters are so well played. It’s so well-written, sharply, with lots of gags and great stories. It couldn’t fail, even with the ABC audience who would normally sniff at an Australian sitcom. I knew it couldn’t fail.”

… the Controversy of Angry Boys

“Oh, Angry Boys, as well, I think was a very daring effort by Chris Lilley. Of course, the characters were far more caustic than they had been in his other series with harsh language which – for prudish people – is a turn off. God knows why! I mean, if people want to be upset about the F-word, I think they should stop F-ing in their private lives. It was a very brave effort by Chris. He was trying to further develop his style, and the fact that a lot of people found it offensive to me is… Well, you have seen my career.”

… his political program, WTF – With Tim Ferguson

“You know, writing political chat show, in a way, is much easier because once you have developed a look and a feel and the intent of the show, then you are dealing with a variety of topics so it is much quicker to write, so you can have a team of writers who throw their gags into a bowl. And then we pull them out, take them home and have sex with them and then we come back and we make the show.”

… the Difficulty of Writing Narrative Comedy

“The difficulty of writing sitcoms and comic films is that you need to be telling a three-act story and you need 3, 4, up to eight characters, all with their own arcs, all with their own sensibilities, all of whom have to be immediately recognised by a new audience, all have to be funny at least four times a page. The compression of story which in comedy demands that you need just as much story if you were writing a 90 minute film, but it just has to be distilled to 21 minutes for commercial television or 29 minutes for the BBC or the ABC.”

… whether a Comedy should be culturally specific

“Yeah, otherwise, what are you writing about? We could make a sitcom about the Chinese Government, but what’s the point? It’s harder to be angry about something that is not a part of your own culture, and anger is the fertiliser for any comedy. There is no reason that Australians can’t write a send-up of the Brontë sisters. You call it ‘The Brontës’ and each week the sisters are at war with each other. There is no reason why you couldn’t write that. But you probably couldn’t get it made here. You would need to get it made at the BBC. That said, those Brontë sisters drive me mad.”

An article by Andrew Moraitis – FilmInk December 06, 2011