Moving Write Along: Advice from the Experts – When The Only One Laughing Is You
By D.B. Gilles, author of You’re Funny! Turn Your Sense of Humor into a Lucrative New Career
If you’re new to comedy-writing, one of the biggest hurdles you’ll have to face is criticism.
You probably know what it’s like to tell a joke or toss off an ad-lib and get a blank stare. Everyone does. But most people aren’t comedy writers, so if they fail at saying something funny they can shrug it off and forget about it.
If you’re writing a screenplay that’s a comedy you’re not in a position to shrug off the fact that the three people you gave your script to for feedback all said that it wasn’t funny (or funny enough), you need to pay attention.
Your first reaction will usually be anger. You’ll think they’re wrong or not hip enough or that they were having a bad day. You’ve convinced yourself that what you wrote is hilarious. You’ve done four drafts. Every time you read it you laughed. You just know it’s side-splitting.
Frankly, you’re too close to it. You need two things: distance and some honest feedback.
If the feedback you get isn’t what you want to hear, you can react in two ways: listen to it or be defensive. It’s that defensiveness that will take you down. It’s also the mark of an amateur. The professional welcomes feedback and opinions. Don’t get me wrong. A professional wants everybody he shows his script to to love it and think it’s comedy gold. He or she will experience that same anger, but will be open to feedback. The amateur is convinced she’s right. The professional has come to understand the value of putting ego aside and listening to what others say. Maybe he won’t agree with everything he hears, but there will be certain comments he will realize are dead on.
It’s those comments that the professional will take in and process to make his script better.
If you have a difficult time receiving negative feedback, it’s crucial that you get over it.
This is your livelihood. At least you want it to become your livelihood. So when something you’ve written, be it a line, monologue, scene or entire script isn’t getting the response you hoped for, it means that what you’ve written needs to be examined. It means that it’s just not funny enough.
For comedy writers the harshest form of criticism is when nobody’s laughing (or not enough people are laughing). In a typical comedy writing class there might be anywhere from 10-15 people working on screenplays or sitcom spec scripts. Let’s say you’re in that class. If you bring in the first few scenes of your new romantic comedy and everybody’s laughing it means what you’ve written is funny.
If only one or two people are laughing it means it’s not funny. And perhaps that one person laughing is your friend so it doesn’t count. Or maybe the one person laughing only laughed out of pity. Learn this now: there’s nothing worse than a pity laugh.
Learn this too: stay clear of people who are too kind in their criticism. You want truth-tellers reading your screenplays. People who say “I like it a lot” or “It’s really funny” or whatever polite line of bull they blurt out, aren’t helping you. The person who tells you that they didn’t laugh much or that a character’s lines are cliché, offensive, sexist, idiotic, or gross is your friend.
Let’s return to the aforementioned comedy-writing class. Problems arise when half the class is laughing and the other half isn’t. Why are seven or eight people laughing hysterically at the same scene that causes the rest of the class to sit there bored, rolling their eyes and clearly not getting it?
If there’s a rational answer, it’s differing sensibilities. To some, nothing is sacred. To others, certain subjects are very sacred and untouchable. Some have a perpetual frat boy susceptibility to bodily function humor, gross behavior and dick jokes. Then there are those who’ve “grown up” and prefer a more adult, witty, clever type of situation and dialogue. But underneath it all is the fact that if three of your friends tell you your script isn’t funny (or funny enough), they’re right.
Just like when 13 or 14 people in a comedy writing class say it isn’t funny, they’re right.
There’s a great book called The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, written by James Surowiecki. The thesis of the book is that under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart.
That certainly applies to whether or not a script is funny.
When you sit at your computer writing funny dialogue, it may genuinely be sound funny. You may be laughing as the words pour onto the page. Or when you sit back and read what you’ve written, again, you may break yourself up.
You might also be setting yourself up.
Clever, witty, funny dialogue is deceptive. I always encourage comedy writers to be smart and current with what’s going on in the world. But sometimes being too smart/clever/esoteric won’t work to your advantage.
When I read a comedy I want to laugh. Give me at least one laugh per page. Three, four or five is even better. As the saying goes, “Keep ‘em coming.”
Listen to the people who are reading your script. Try to get as much specific feedback as possible as to what isn’t working for them humor-wise.
Don’t take the criticism personally. Don’t get upset. Don’t let your ego into it. Just receive. Truthful feedback is painful, but it’s what will help you salvage your script.
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D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting and comedy writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of You’re Funny, The Screenwriter Within, and The Portable Film School. He also wrote the play, “Sparkling Object.” D.B. is a script consultant and writing coach. Many of his students have gotten deals, sold scripts, had their work published and their TV scripts, sketches, and screenplays produced. He writes the popular blog, Screenwriters Rehab: For Screenwriters Who Can’t Get Their Acts Together. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tags: Comedy Criticism Comedy Writing D.B. Gilles Michael Wiese Productions Screenwriter Within Screenwriters Rehab: For Screenwriters Who Can’t Get Their Acts Together The Portable Film School Write On! Online You're Funny: Turn Your Sense of Humor Into a Lucrative New Career