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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.} ?> These days, there is no shortage of funny movies on the silver screen or in your Netflix queue. But it’s occurred to me that while so many movies have funny moments, so few of them use the medium to its full potential.
Let me explain.
First, I am not a film expert by any means, but I am a comedy nerd. It seems to me that a huge percentage of popular comedies these days rely entirely on the dialogue and delivery to get laughs. That doesn’t make them bad movies, but it means they could be podcasts or plays and might be just as funny.
Let’s break this down with some examples from some of my favourite geeky directors.
Comedy and Dialogue
You could scour the ‘verse and not find another director who has done more for mainstream geek culture than Joss Whedon. The creator, writer and sometimes director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse and Firefly is a creative force behind the camera. He is every bit a “writer’s director” in that his universes are given life by dialogue and character more than anything else. Let’s take a look at the way Whedon uses his style to set up and deliver jokes.
This joke is funny because we know Mal, and we already don’t like Atherton Wing (the guy he stabs). Though it doesn’t rely on the frame or any visual aspect to make it funny, it’s writer’s joke.
Another example from Firefly is when Mal tells Simon that Kaylee is dead in the pilot episode.
Now this one is a bit different because it uses a lot of filmic elements to support what is still, I think, a writer’s joke. The slow motion, the fading focus and the music set up a heavy emotional tone, and then when Simon rounds the corner and turns back in disbelief, the scene cuts to the cockpit where the crew is laughing uproariously. Using the elements of film here, Whedon was blowing up a balloon, creating tension, and then instead of popping the balloon with an explosive release, he lets it go and it flies around the room making a fart noise.
Comedy and Action
Another great movie that mixes science fiction and comedy is Edge of Tomorrow directed by Doug Liman. This movie really surprised me, because I went in thinking it was going to be a straight up action flick, and it ended up having some of my favourite laugh-out-loud moments.
The main character, William Cage (Tom Cruise), is thrown onto the front lines of a D-Day-like invasion. This offensive is the human military’s last hope against the aliens that hold Earth under siege. Cage discovers that when he is unceremoniously killed on the battlefield, he returns to life the day before as if nothing has happened, though he remembers everything. This is him entering the battle having been there and died at least a dozen times.
The scene really reminds me of shooter video games; he gets killed and respawns but now he knows where the creature that killed him last time is, and how to avoid it.
But observe how the scene is shot and how funny it is. He runs out onto the beach, gets crushed by a falling ship and BOOM, hard cut to him waking up. He gets a bit further and runs epicly through the beachhead until a truck from out of frame smacks into him. BOOM, hard cut again and now he seems to know where every potential threat is and how to stop it. The plot moves forward, the audience gets to laugh, and it’s all accomplished with action and comedy.
Comedy and Visual Storytelling
Another director who raises the bar for comedy filmmakers everywhere is Edgar Wright.
Writer and director of The Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) as well as the geek/cult hit Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright uses elements of film as visual joketelling the way few others do.
This scene from Shaun of the Dead could easily have just been them standing around discussing what to do next, but instead it’s a rapid stream of fast cuts, camera moves and sound effects that make it visually interesting, memorable and—most importantly—funny.
This scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World shows of his visual storytelling ability again. The only plot movement in this scene is that Knives Chow shows up to see if Scott is home, and Wallace lies to cover for him.
What we get is a symphony of movement in and out of frame (the phone, Scott popping into frame, then jumping through the window), visual direction (watch the way the camera follows the door as Wallace closes it) and great dialogue played totally straight. This scene could not be as funny if it were in any other medium than film, and that is why Edgar Wright is a great director.
The art of comedy is important to me because I believe laughter is important for everyone. There’s both an art and a science to making people laugh, and when creators who understand and respect that come along, I believe they’re worth celebrating. No one has ever said the world needs less laughter.