Friday, June 5, 2009

How To Make A Gag Work Better

In the comedy script I just finished, I had a button for a scene which wasn't really working.

The situation is the following: wifey has a new boss, who gave her a major promotion despite the fact she hasn't got any kind of degree. She's in awe of the new boss (an attractive, charming slimeball) and throughout the scene she's singing his praises extravagantly.

Hubby is feeding the toddler, and getting more and more fed up by the minute by her platonic crush on her boss - and the way she's running off at the mouth about it.

So finally he says to the toddler - and here's where this becomes harder to follow for our non-Flemish and Dutch readers, as a cultural reference is coming up - 'Oh no, Paulien (her name)! Mommy's changed into Kabouter Kwebbel (a female character from a wildly popular local kids' show Kabouter Plop, she's a female Gnome who talks and talks and talks... Gnome Motormouth or Blabbermouth would be an approximate translation).

I'll provide a picture of her here for reference:

Never thought I'd be putting up pictures like that on any blog of mine...

Anyway, this shuts wifey up. But while the reference is in character, widely understood and sufficiently insulting, the way the line is written doesn't make it work as a button (end-beat) for the scene. It's too soft, doesn't provide enough of a strong resolution to the conflict present in the scene. Basically, it's lacking in energy.

So how did I fix this?

I had hubby interrupt wifey in a far more active mode, not telling his daughter what mommy had changed into, but first exclaiming in mock shock and horror: 'Oh no, Paulien!' Which is unexpected, provides tension and a sense of suspense - what's going on, why the alarm, both in the wifey character and in the audience. And then he continues in the same fake-panicky tone 'Mommy's turned into Gnome Blabbermouth!' The exaggeration imbues the whole exchange with energy, and gives the actor something to do.

So if a gag doesn't work quite well enough, play around with it - setting, delivery, context... And try to find a more energetic, extroverted way of putting it across. Often you will discover that there's another approach to the same material that gives it the necessary zing. And if not - there's always room for one more gag in the Kill-Your-Darlings graveyard.

Which, ironically, is where this scene is headed - in the script-editing stage, it was decided to cut it, and move part of the info to an earlier scene. Not because it was bad, but because the script was too long (as always) and because cutting this scene allowed a rearranging of other scenes which resulted in the story-time taking two less days (which means two less costume changes for the cast, less delay on the set and less money needed for costuming - so everyone's happy).

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