Yes, I know that title doesn’t really work. But bear with me…
For the last couple of days, David Mamet’s advice to writers on The Unit has been bounced approvingly around writers’ blogs (I refuse to use the absurd appellation ‘Scribosphere’ – it makes writers sound like 22nd-century content production droids, memeing out ultragigs of infotasms and authotainment from the factory pods floating in their translucent scribosphere).
In it he gives fairly standard advice in a typical pithy fashion. He also gets in a few good swipes at the ‘blue-suited penguins’ who are in charge of developing new television shows.
(This is actually true. John Birt introduced a flock of emperor penguins into middle management at the BBC as part of a round of ‘efficiency savings’ in 1996. They quickly began to roost in the East Tower, leading to an unfortunate incident in which Ronnie Corbett was placed on a penguin’s feet, and sheltered from the cold weather for eight months until he had matured enough to survive on his own. This is why they are trying to sell TV Centre now. It is infested with penguins. Infested.)
Anyway, Mamet’s advice is good and well-expressed, and well worth a look if you’re interested in writing good drama. It contains things like this:
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TOOVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC,ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
The best thing is that it’s all in CAPS LOCK, so it’s like he’s brought you into his office to TEAR YOU A NEW ASSHOLE, while at the same time distributing writing tips.
However, I’ve begun to suspect that that advice is very helpful if you’re writing drama, but not so helpful if you’re writing something else. Like comedy.
Earlier in the month I was working on a screenplay, and came to a scene that I loved. It was really, really funny. However, it didn’t really move the story on, didn’t tell us much about the characters that we didn’t know already, and was more of a comment about the drama that had already happened than being dramatic in its own right. So I pulled it out.
And the sequence was less funny as a result.
So now I’ve begun to think if maybe, as comedy writers, we don’t have a duty that trumps the need to write good, solid dramatic scenes. The duty to write funny things. Maybe people come to a comedy to be made to laugh, rather than to be compelled to watch every thrilling scene.
Try applying Mamet’s advice above to The Goon Show, or Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Although they do nominally have dramatic through-lines, the dramatic structure is an excuse to go and play with whatever they find funny.
This Is Spinal Tap has a weak move into its final act (Nigel Tufnell just turns up, there’s nothing that dramatically impels him to rejoin the band). In Four Weddings And A Funeral it isn’t clear if Andi MacDowell has any needs, dramatic or otherwise, as her character is just to wander mysteriously in and out of the script as needed. What does Borat need?
Comedies are allowed to break the rules because they have one, higher rule: Be funny. As long as they fulfil that one we’ll forgive a lot.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to be gleaned from Mamet’s advice. A lot of comedy comes direct from the frustration of a character’s wants, needs, and desires, and the lengths to which we, as writers, will go to frustrate them. But we should also accept that there are other ways of getting laughs: silliness, visual jokes, musical numbers, and that the highest purpose of a comedy is to make people laugh.
(You’ll have to excuse all of the pompous talk of the ‘duty’ or ‘purpose’ of a writer. It consists, in my case, of sitting in a shed thinking up knob gags, so it’s nice to think of it as a little more noble than it might appear at first.)
I may be becoming unconscionably relaxed. I can see it in the In The Gloamings. In the first, Dead Skinny, we went through it at the script stage, and then in the edit, and took out everything that didn’t move the narrative along, no matter how funny I thought it was. The outtakes from that one are lovely.
By the time we reached this month’s A Grave Mistake, however, I was writing much simpler stories with more time to play, and leaving things in that were only there because they were funny. They may well be an unnecessary 10 seconds dramatically, but they make me laugh. And that’s what it’s meant to do. There is one two-second outtake from that one.
In the past I was the king of prick who demanded that each scene justify itself dramatically. In the past, I was that Mamet-y glans.
See. Told you to bear with me…