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Make 'Em Laugh:
Comedy editing techniques

Written for Aotg.com by Parker Mott
Parker's Site: www.thefinaltake.com
Twitter: @parkermott

There are so many types of comedies – slapstick, screwball, romantic, satirical, dark – but only one way to do it right: make ‘em laugh, the audience that is (though if you are laughing in the editing suite, that is probably a good sign). Literally any situation bears the roots of comedy, it is merely a matter for you the editor of finding it. Comedic dialogue is helpful, but if a scene is not cut properly, that doozy of a punchline that originally jumped off the script could and probably will be lost into the ether.

It is our job to prevent that creative tragedy from ever happening. That ability for prevention, like a lot in making art, comes from creative instinct. But there are structures you can follow and should follow to help you as well.

First, let’s look at David Lean’s "Rule of Three". Lean, as you may know, was a successful British director (and editor!) popularly known for his big-screen epics Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and several Charles Dickens adaptations; but he also made comedies, 1945's Blithe Spirit in particular. In an old article entitled "The Film Director", Lean cites three rules for getting a laugh from your audience: "Tell them what you’re going to do. Do it. Tell them you’ve done it."

This statement is, in essence, the basic framework for most jokes, it's just we witness it through so many modes of experience: live theatre, stand-up, radio, your own dinner party, back to cinema itself. The storyteller gives audiences a clue of what will happen, which creates anticipation. Then, "it happens", and finally they are rewarded with the spectacle. The key to film – or any visual medium, for that matter – is it has the luxury of "[telling] them you’ve done it" through visual means. You can (and should) literally show it.

Before we arrive at the first example, here is Tony Zhou's superb video essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy. You've probably seen this, but in case you haven’t, watch it below. It cuts to the core of visual comedy in a brisk 8 minutes.


Now, let's look at a clip from a classic "Three Stooges" gag:


You will first notice the butler entering in MS shot carrying a large cake with two hands. In the background, we hear Moe pretending to be dignified. The next shot shows Moe talking to two woman; we cut back to the butler who moves the cake to one hand and begins to move towards the three characters. This is the director telling us what is going to happen. Someone is going to be hit with that cake that is too large for one hand. Next the butler trips and smashes the cake into Moe's face in a WS. This is number two, they did it. Finally we cut to a MS of Moe with his face covered in the cake. This is the editor telling us he did it.

But this technique is not sacrosanct. There many scenarios where it would serve the joke best to tell the audience what you're going to do and then not do it. This is "subversion"; you are pulling the audience's expectations out from under them – often, the key ingredient is irony. Let's look at this scene from 2010’s The Other Guys, which uses this device to a tee.


There is serious subversion here, mainly in the film killing off two of Hollywood's biggest action stars in its first twenty minutes, shattering our expectations of the invulnerable action hero. The stunt is also staged in one, unbroken tilt-and-zoom shot so the audience can watch this subversion unfold without interruption. There is irony added with The Foo Fighters' "My Hero" playing on the soundtrack. Thus, by preparing the audience for one climax and then drastically changing gears, it is left with very little recourse but to laugh (and be a little bit horrified) at the result. Starsky & Hutch (2004) uses the same device in its climactic car chase. Remember... it’s not a boat it’s a yacht!


Superbad (2007) does a variation of this technique when Christopher Mintz-Plasse hands his fake ID to two doofus cops, played by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader. They examine the first name, and which happens to also be the last name, on the card and, well, you know the scene... The similar technique is done here; as the cops carelessly examine "McLovin's" ID card, the Hans Zimmer-like score inflects and the camera pushes in on Mintz-Plasse's shaky expression. When Hader returns the card, the score suddenly cuts out at "you're an organ donor". The levity of this line comically kills all the tension built up from before – and that sudden drop, ideally, is the source of humour.

Finding comedy in an action though is one thing. What about movies that hinge heavily on dialogue, especially the improvised kind, where the punchline is not one action but instead bundled up in a spool of one-liners, facial ticks, and so forth. The old screwball comedies like The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Some Like It Hot (1959) feature dialogue so fast its speed is a source of humour itself. Consider this quagmire of a scene from Howard Hawks’s splendid His Girl Friday (1940):


You will notice that this hilarious scene is achieved through 3 shots, the first running for almost a minute. Hawks and his editor Gene Havlick simply let the actors go, staging everyone in their rightful place to chuck witticisms around like a game of hot potato. Each cut gets us a little closer to this gaggle of characters, plus Hawks keeps the shot steady – only a bit of movement –giving us clear access to the visual expressions of the characters as they fight to get a word in edgewise.

Now consider this scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005), another heavily-improvised comedy, that in this scene relies on a quick rhythm of cuts to generate humour. (warning: this clip uses vulgar language, a lot, and that’s the point).

In this case, if the scene was paced out like that one from His Girl Friday, Gerry Bednob’s rant on "butt-hole pleasures", etc. would be lost on the audience. . Director Judd Apatow and his editor Brent White include quick reaction shots of Steve Carell’s prudish character, who is disgusted by his colleague’s advice but cannot find an exit out of the conversation. There is a cut every time Bednob mentions another ridiculously sexual set of words, breaking away from Carell to show that the more he tries to get Bednob to stop the fast his talking persists. These cuts are necessary to convey that comic rhythm of the dialogue.

And that is the key: comedy comes down to rhythm (Walter Murch’s third rule would, thus, be number one). An editor must look at a scene, find the source of humour, and then assess what is the best visual technique to communicate it. If done correctly, you are that much closer to earning a round of laughter from your audience. And keep reworking it. It is like what Judd Apatow said about comedy: "until I know that the audience really gets what I’m trying to communicate I’m not done."



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