FEATURE: Comedy Writing

Screenwriter Robert McKee is to become a character in Spike Jonze's new film

Robert McKee has become something of a guru as far as screenwriting is concerned. His 'Story Seminar', which he performs world-wide, has attracted an audience of more than 35,000 writers, directors and producers. Meanwhile, his book 'Story' is a bible for film students and budding writers/directors.

This September, McKee will be immortalised in Spike Jonze's forthcoming feature, Adaptation, the story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage). Unable to complete his screenplay, Kaufman seeks the advice of McKee. It will be interesting to see how the tough-talking teacher is portrayed.

In 1999, McKee began his Comedy Day, during which he analyses comic structure, devices and genres and fundamentals, such as the timing of jokes. The annual course is extremely popular, even with kings of comedy such as John Cleese, who has attended three times. It is also attracting the advertising industry, with comedy an effective tool to promote products and services.

Al Young, creative director of St Luke's, who attended the course says: "'Story' is an absolute inspiration. It helps you understand why things do and don't work. In my job, it also helps me explain that to clients - it gives you that vocabulary and allows you to be more objective."

He adds: "Writing comedy is still an intuitive act, but this course helps take away the mystery. McKee documents the science of comedy - such as how laughter works. It's very useful to know."

According to McKee, comedy is simple. "If they laugh it works, if they don't laugh, it doesn't work."

He claims the comic mind is idealistic. The comic wants the world around him to be perfect, but when he sees it is not, it upsets him. "Comedy is the angry art, it is an attack on social behaviour and institutions such as religion, politics and class. If you harangue the world about how bad it is, you will be ignored, but if you can expose the lunacy and get people to laugh at it, maybe things will change."

Comedy also depends on the exploitation of the topical as well as taboos. For McKee, no subject matter is too hot and sex, in particular, is to be exploited. The question is once you've had semen in the hair, (There's Something About Mary) where do you go from there?

"People ask: 'Will comedy still be funny once all the taboos have been broken?' But there will always be subject matter to tap into. Nothing is sacred."

True comedy is a funny story and the most important thing to consider is the set-up. McKee says many writers make the mistake of concentrating too much on the gag or punchline, when the real humour is in the set-up. When you have a great set-up, the punches are almost inevitable.

"You know you've written a true comedy when you sit an innocent victim down and pitch your story. Just tell him what happens, without quoting witty dialogue of sight gags, and he laughs."

The set-up can create emotion in the audience, fear, hatred or anger, but it is an essentially logical story. Then, out of the blue comes the punchline, which cancels the logic of the set-up.

"There has to be an incongruity between the set-up and the punch. Laughter explodes when two ideas that we never associated with each other are clashed together in the mind."

The comic mind, therefore, discovers a hidden connection no-one has seen before, it finds those off-the-wall ideas, fuses them together and creates an original, unexpected and amusing situation.

McKee discusses various techniques about writing comedy. These sorts of methods have been used in some of the most successful humorous advertising campaigns, such as in spots for Marmite, Lynx, John West Salmon and QTV.

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