Painfully funny: How to make your audience laugh


Your mission, at first glance, is simple: to create a corporate film, TV commercial or radio spot that makes people laugh. But the road from comedy concept to laugh riot is fraught with potholes. Too often, attempts at humor come across as annoying, crude, derivative or just plain lame.

Many a director, producer, writer and actor has suffered through screenings or performances in which the sound of silence emanating from the audience was painfully deafening. At times like these, you might find solace in a positive inner monologue (“At least they’re not sleeping”) or you might take a deeper look at what went wrong. In either case the question becomes: What makes something funny?

Who the hell knows? Humor is, after all, largely a matter of taste.

However, you’ll hit the mark more often if you observe these suggested comedic guideposts.

#1: Somebody’s gotta get hurt.

Pain is the underpinning of all successful comedy. Amp up the level of pain and you can reap big rewards. Ready examples abound, from the psychic pain of Bill Murray trapped in “Groundhog Day” to the physical agony of Ben Stiller trapped in his zipper in “Something About Mary” and the intestinal distress at the dress shop in “Bridesmaids.”

#2: Character equals comedy.

Typically, for the “principle of pain” to be effective, you need to establish characters or forces who are in opposition to each other. The more diametrically opposed these forces are, the more opportunities you’ll find for conflict. As the opposing entities duke it out, the result will (hopefully) be comedic.

Creating compelling, sympathetic characters is a challenge, but one that reaps enormous rewards. Generally, if you’re having trouble creating strong characters, it’s an indication that your script lacks a strong theme.

The solution: Go back a step. Bolster your theme. Write it out in a simple declarative sentence that expresses a conflict. For example, if you’re creating a film about the value of an arts education, your theme might be “The creative spirit will triumph over technology.” Next, devise characters represent both sides of the conflict; in our example, you might choose a ten-year-old chess prodigy versus a cold-hearted cyborg. Set them in a situation that will put them in direct opposition (a winner-takes-all world championship game) and you’re in business.

#3: Get specific.

Inside every character resides a series of unique personality traits. Is your character obsessively neat? Sloppy? Narcissistic? Pessimistic? Sex-crazed? Prudish? Use these traits to develop the quirks, habits and speech patterns of your characters. Being specific will unleash your creativity, allowing you and your audience to have more fun.

#4: Get serious.

And the Lord said, “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” Actually it was a British writer named Angela Wise, but it sounds like something out of the Old Testament, doesn’t it?

The most serious events, the most compelling themes contain the necessary ingredients to make people laugh.

Map out your scenario. Put your characters in hot water but make sure things end happily. To best serve your client, let the product/corporation/technology save the day or (at the very least) play a pivotal role. Working backwards, let the positive outcome inform every beat, every scene, every line of dialogue.

#5: Remember your audience.

Generally, comedy won’t work for an multi-national audience. Likewise, some corporations have an internal culture as humorless as the Federal Republic of Germany. In these cases, it will take a lot of investigation to uncover workable comedic characters and themes.

For those clients more open to comedy, do your homework. Test the waters. What’s the viewing situation? Comedy works best when viewed in groups.

How liberal is the corporate or audience culture? The bow-tie brigade will probably frown at the very mention of the word “sex.” For hipper corporate crowds, you may be pleasantly surprised what you can get away with.

Also explore the issues and concerns which are specific to your audience. Although many organizations put on a happy face to the outside world, there may be internal corporate or personality quirks that will induce hilarity in your target audience.

#6: No laughing!

Laugh tracks are the bane of mankind. Although no one in his or her right mind would include a laugh track in a corporate film or TV ad, it’s not uncommon to have characters express their amusement at the hilarious hijinks of their fellow characters.

Don’t do this. Don’t deprive the audience. Trust them: Let them discover what’s funny on their own.

Also avoid canned laughter’s partner-in-crime, wacky music. If your script and direction aren’t funny, a zany soundtrack won’t be much help.

#7: When all else fails, use a chimp.

Or a pratfall. Or a dribble glass.

Don’t be ashamed of being shameless. Physical gags or broad comedic riffs, when used judiciously, are money in the bank.


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