Simplicity & Surprise

An Excerpt from The Cheek Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy‘ [Currency Press]

Comedy demands simplicity. If it takes ten seconds to work out the meaning of a punchline, you won’t get a laugh; the audience has already moved on. Clarity is key.

But don’t be fooled—simplicity ain’t easy. Many a comedy writer has come unstuck by layering their comedy with clever ambiguities. Any monkey can make a fruitcake, but it can take years of practice to get a soufflé right every time—even though it must be the simplest dessert on the planet.

‘The Thick Of It’

Every comic scene must have a clear purpose, though its machinations may be complex. Farce, in particular, can involve a lot of doors opening and closing as characters bustle about to achieve their goals. This farcical chaos, however, must be driven by a simple idea. The core qualities and objectives of each character must be crystal clear.

Why? Because the best ideas are simple. We see them and slap our foreheads—‘Why didn’t I think of bulldog clips?’ Einstein’s formula, E=mc2,  turned the world of physics on its head. A DNA strand is an elegant double helix, a far simpler form than scientists Watson and Crick had imagined. Genius in any field can be found in those who distil a complicated set of variables into a simple principle. Or, to put it another way, simple ideas can generate complex meanings.

In terms of gag-writing, brevity and simplicity keep a joke a step ahead of the audience while keeping them in touch with what the joke is about. As for writing sitcom, cutting unnecessary story—or character—complications and maintaining a brisk pace are vital to making an episode work. This is not to say that a joke, story or characters can’t be dense with detail. Arrested Development is a sitcom with complex characters and multiple inter-connected storylines. But each of these elements are presented with clarity. The show moves at a breakneck pace, averaging sixty scenes per twenty-one-minute show compared to, for instance, The Golden Girls which averages eight scenes per show. (Twenty-one minutes, by the way, is referred to as a ‘commercial half- hour’. It excludes credits and ad breaks.)

Commedia dell’Arte

To cope with this pace, the audience needs the clearest possible story. Bewilderment has its place (for instance, when the audience momentarily shares a character’s confusion at events that have escaped their control), but too much bewilderment leads the audience to conclude the writers are also confused. There is no room for embellishment or diatribe. The elegant clarity of Arrested Development is testament to the writers’ discipline; they surrender to the fundamental law of narrative: the story is king.

Clarity begins with the questions, ‘What is the heart of this story? What is the heart of this character?’ This does not discount subtlety as a comic tool, but the subtlety is in the delivery, not the substance. A character can expose their qualities and intentions through choices that are delicate or even implied, but they must nevertheless be clear or the audience will miss the point. A slight nod can mean the end of the world or the beginning of a great love—or both—but we must understand, in that moment, what it means.

In comedy, simplicity serves. All else is vanity.

VEEP