John Vorhaus : « How to be funny even if you are not »
Transcript from the online conversation with John Vorhaus on September 28, 2000.
On pitchpoint.org (website closed in 2002), we have organized a series of virtual events on the theme of scriptwriting. Thanks to a series of 'chats', all interested people had the opportunity to benefit from advice, tips, suggestions for training and practice with film professionals.
Subject: comedy writing.
John Vorhaus writes scripts for TV films, sitcoms and the cinema. He has also achieved international recognition through the seminars he runs on comedy and has trained many scriptwriters in the United States, Australia and in Europe. He is a consultant for audiovisual projects across four continents... and also a keen poker player!
Jacques Do Kokou: I would like to know how to write sitcoms and how to have those methods. I'm a scriptwriter and I would like to make people laugh a lot!
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Wow, that's a big question. There are books on sitcom writing that will give you a place to start. Also, on the internet you can find sample scripts and websites that will help you. Beyond that... just give it a try! Your first scripts are just learning exercises anyhow, so go ahead and write them, learn what you can from them, and start honing your craft. You don't have to wait for permission or gain a college degree. Like Nike says, "Just do it!"
J. (Switzerland): It's known that comedy is a thankless business, if you don't make the audience laugh, you've lost the game. But on the other hand, they also say that the requirement for comedy is love for the characters and humanity. So how is it possible to assemble these two seemingly different objectives?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Good question. I don't think "love" for characters and humanity is as important as "understanding" of them. Your job as a comic writer is to reveal to the audience who your characters are and what makes them funny. You don't have to love them, nor does your audience have to love them. Think of the stand-up comedy of Andrew Dice Clay or Stan Kinison, or the sitcom work of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers . It's fair game to have characters that the audience "loves to hate."
J. (Switzerland): Especially for comedy, is it important to have a actor in mind when you write?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): I think it's important in Switzerland, where the small community of actors (and the many different dialects) make many projects difficult to cast. If you know a strong actor, and can write a comic role which complements that actor, you're giving yourself a big head start. On the other hand, if the part is really funny, the actor will rise to the role. A screenplay of mine is being cast in Los Angeles now, and the feedback from the actors is, "Wow, I really want to play this part." That's what you want from a script. If the actor is enthusiastic, the audience will be too.
Stefan (Berlin): Is there something special you can tell about dialogue in comedies? I think dialogue is much more important in good comedies than in other genres (and I don't want to say that dialogue is unimportant in other genres!).
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Good comic dialogue does three jobs
- it tells a joke
- it reveals the truth of the character's experience or feelings
- it advances the story.
You don't get all three levels of dialogue in the first attempt, so try writing in pieces. First, write the truth, for example, and then make it funny. Or first lay in your story exposition, and then figure out how to make it funny and revealing as well. Writing is rewriting, and this is especially true when writing comedy.
See my book, THE COMIC TOOLBOX, for a more complete discussion of writing dialogue in this "three dimensional" way. There are some specific strategies and tactics you can use.
Stefan (Berlin): What is the difference between comedy writing for TV (maybe sitcom) and cinema?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): TV writing is easier because the setting is more closely defined. In sketch comedy, you have, basically, a stage. In sitcom, you have maybe 3 or 4 sets. But cinema requires that you use the whole world for your setting, so you have to make many more choices. And choices make your work harder and more complex. Also, a screen story is much longer than a sitcom, requiring more evolution and growth of characters, and more depth of feeling. Finally, sitcoms are circular: they take the character back where he started. Screenplays are linear: they take the character to a STATE OF CHANGE.
J. (Switzerland): Some people say, you can't learn comedy. You can only learn a couple of tricks, tempo, precision and clarity. What would you say to that?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): I don't agree. Some people are just naturally funny, but that only means they have an intuitive understanding of the comic tools they use. Most people can learn the craft of comedy. The ones who never get there are the ones who don't have THE WILL TO RISK. They're afraid to take chances. People who are naturally funny are just naturally willing to take a shot at being funny. I can teach craft; I can't always teach fearbusting.
André M.: What are the differences in structure between a comedy and let's say a drama or a thriller?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): The big difference lies in the ending. Comedies are a "happy ending" genre. The hero learns a lesson and gets a reward. The reward is often in the form of "inclusion": Someone gets to join a group or community, or gets a wife, husband or lover. In drama, the outcome is often more ambiguous. In tragedy, the outcome is a clear defeat. The hero fails to learn the lesson and ends up excluded from the group. In thrillers, mere survival is the goal.
Structurally, though, the genres are much the same. People have used my "comic throughline," for example, to plot their dramas and thrillers, and found that the structure works quite well.
André M.: Is comedy an important genre for TV? For movies? Do TV stations or distributors search more often for comedies or for other genres?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Comedies are important for domestic markets because they're inexpensive, easy to produce, and gives domestic audiences "a look at themselves" on TV. International distributors are much more interested in drama (especially action/adventure programming) because it travels much better from country to country . A car chase or gun battle plays the same in any language. So: Local tv stations and distributors will seek comedy. International players seek drama.
J. (Switzerland): Do you always know when a scene is going to function, to make an Audience laugh?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): No. So you MUST TEST your material. Expose your work to people who haven't read it before, and ask them to TELL YOU what works and what doesn't. Give them a script and a pencil, and tell them to mark what they find funny and what they don't. It's a scary, but very instructive and important exercise. Beyond that, to quote William Goldman, "Nobody knows nothing." In the end there's just no way to know what's going to work without trying it. So try it! Throw it out the window and see if it lands!
Stefan (Berlin): What do you know about the differences between the American and the European esp. the German market?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): The American audience is generally a broader one, in several senses of the word. First, it's much bigger, and so product must be pitched to a more common point of view. This tends to make American product "safer" than European product, because it has to work for so many more people in order to be financially successful. Also, in my experience, Americans are much more "morally uncompromising." They like clear-cut endings, good-guy-wins endings, without a lot of ambiguity. I think Europeans are much more sophisticated because they're exposed to so many different influences, including American ones. The only culture America knows is American culture, but every other country in the world has at least two: their own culture and American tele-culture. This endows them with a much broader (and in my opinion better) perspective.
Stefan (Berlin): Is the comedy a more plot driven or a more character driven genre?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Comedy is character driven in this sense: At the end of the day the point of a comedy story is to take a character on a journey from DENIAL to ACCEPTANCE of some point of view. In Groundhog Day, for instance, Bill Murray goes from being an asshole to being a nice guy, and learns how important it is to be a good person. Thus, the character's GROWTH drives the story. The plot merely serves to catalyze or trigger that growth.
Sammy (Paris): If one looks at comedies as a whole, they seem to have one principle : No one sufferes any damage. They fall down, stand up and carry on. No one Is hurt. But I do think time and comedies have changed and these rules don't apply anymore. Do you agree?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Right now I'm thinking of WAR OF THE ROSES, where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner virtually destroy each other, yet somehow manage to survive. If a comedy can survive that, it can survive anything. I think you're right that comedies have become somewhat less safe (though I'm not sure that that's an authentic evolution so much as a current taste) But at the end of the day, as I've said, comedies are about happy endings. A character learns a lesson and gets a reward. In that context, there's not a lot of room for real damage.
Sammy (Paris): Comedy has a lot to do with rythm. I suppose it has to be quicker than is other genre? But even in other genres, we should enter in a scene at the last possible moment and leave as quick as possible ? So what's the difference?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): I have heard it said that comedy is drama plus exaggeration. Structurally, the scenes are not much different. In terms of the characters' defeat of expectation, the plots often evolve the same way. In all genres, as you point out, it's good strategy to arrive late and leave early (like parties). So the difference is exaggeration within the scene and, primarily, the fact that the comic characters' actions and reactions are filtered through their strong comic perspectives, rather than through what we think of as a normal or rational perspective.
André M.: Do you know some people specialized in comedy writing in Europe?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Charles Lewinsky is a major force for comedy writing in Swiss TV. If I had any questions about comedy writing in the Swiss and German realms, he's the person I'd ask. Beyond that, I can't think of anyone in Europe who does exactly what I do, in terms of teaching and writing about the form and structure of comedy.
Manny: John, you said that you don't know anybody besides Charles Lewinsky who writes about comedy in Germany. Have you ever heard of Jurgen Wolff who wrote a book on how to write sitcom?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Yes, of course, thank you for mentioning Jurgen. I had forgotten him. His book is a solid text, full of plenty of useful information. I don't know if he's actively working in Europe, though. Does anyone out there have the answer?
Manny: Jurgen Wolff is based in London but works a lot for german televison. He was exclusively working for Columbia Tristar for a while but is free now. he was for example on the "script doctors fair" Scriptforum in Berlin last week.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): "Script Doctors Fair." Man, that's a party I'd like to have been at. Right down the street from the "Witch Doctors Fair," and across the road from the "Alchemists and Wizards Conclave."
Garbo: I am interested in comedies that change one's mind over something. An old example: Divorce à l'italienne, or films of Frank Capra that show that a simple citizen can do something even she is not famous or rich. But e.g. I was very disapointed by Erin Brokovich.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Well, first of all, ERIN BROKOVICH is not a comedy, but a drama with humor. Second, EB is very typical of a new trend in American filmmaking, wherein the narrative storytelling is quite loose, and the characters are quite flawed. Not only are they flawed, but they don't always end up fixed when the story is done. Other examples include BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and HIGH FIDELITY. I think this is good for America: we're getting away from good-guys-in-white-hats and moving into a more ambiguous place. But I can see how you'd not like EB just the same. For my money, Julia Roberts' best movie was PRETTY WOMAN, and she hasn't come close since. But that's just me.
Garbo: Could you tell me more about the sense of drama with humour ?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Comic characters are not "real" characters. They are intentionally exaggerated for the sake of making them funny. Thus, when we watch a comedy, we expect, first, laughs, and second, meaning. In a drama with humour, it's the other way around. The characters are real, and they act like real people act. Along the way, they are sometimes funny, just like real people. But we expect, in a drama, first, meaning, and second, comedy. It's a question of emphasis.
Anne-Catherine (Geneva): What does no more make laugh today, that did make laugh before?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Slapstick has gone out of style. You don't see very many "Three Stooges" type movies or "Pink Panther" type movies, where the only point is to see someone acting like a fool. The only current exception I can think of is "Mr. Bean," but that has more to do with Rowan Atkinson's talent than with any market demand.
Manny: John, you spoke before about 'safe' comedies and I believe you did that meaning that there are some concepts that cannot be destroyed no matter what you do. An example is maybe Golden Girls. Which of the newer comedies that are on now are the best in that sense?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Actually, what I meant by "safe" comedies was "ideologically safe" comedies, where the status quo is not challenged, and people aren't made to feel uncomfortable. In terms of comedies that are so strong conceptually that they can't be destroyed no matter what... well, I'd mention WILL AND GRACE and DHARMA AND GREG. The clash of comic opposites is so strong and clear that these shows will probably continue to do well so long as the actors care to play the roles.
André M.: Could you give us 3 titles of comedies you particularely liked these days? Thank you.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): To the two mentioned above let me add DREW CAREY and MALCOM IN THE MIDDLE.
Robert Nortik: Truth is the center of comedy. I like this idea, but could you tell more about it.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): The thesis of my book and my workshops is that "comedy equals truth plus pain." If you understand the underlying truth of a situation, and how it makes someone in that situation hurt, you can then apply comic tools to that truth and pain in order to create comedy. For instance, here at my desk in Los Angeles, the truth is that I want to "look good" to you chatters in Europe. The pain is that I fear failing to live up to your expectations. Applying comic tools to that situation, I could suddenly decide that the "character who is me" has lost the ability to type, in which case my next response would impact the underlying truth and pain of my situation by looking like h;lwht;eliyh;l8ey;gd;kjop8 2o3pyo8;h 2334has;dh w4lihgl;ihe ;lihgeilh.
A lot of making comedy work comes from being able to see the real suffering that people experience. To do this, you must be completely honesty about your own suffering. In another context (poker) I teach that there's no trick to mind reading: Simply know what you are thinking and you'll know what everyone else is thinking too. In other words, to learn to read other people's minds, just get good at reading your own.
Aline V. (Bruxelles): Hello John and thank you to answer our questions. Do you think I can make a comedy fast silent, working on situations and how actors play? Do you think I have to be careful when writing the script or a lot of comedy actions will appear when filming scenes?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): If I understand your question, you're asking me if there's a market for silent comedy. In the sense that it hasn't been done lately, sure. I do think you have to develop the script fully, rather than rely on actors' improvisations and "found art," but that's just me. If you have talented actors (and are a talented director) then you might get exactly the movie you want by creating the "scaffolding" and letting the actors build the building.
André M.: What do you think of european comedies? Did you see some european comedies?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): I see quite a lot of European comedies, as it's my business to know what's going on out there. I am constantly impressed with the choices that European comedies make -- choices that American comedies could never make. An example that comes to mind is the British sitcom (or non-sitcom) called ROYLE FAMILY, where these people just sit around... and talk... It's utterly strange to my American sensibility, but delightful just the same. European comedy can afford to take more chances than American comedies because the market demands are so much smaller.
Manny: John, would you think that a character fighting against a higher force (let's say a boss that is never there but gives his directives only by phone and seems always to know already what his employee did or even thought) is a concept that could work today for a sitcom?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Not by itself. Comic conflict exists on three levels (again I'm quoting from 'The Comic Toolbox', hereinafter referred to as CTBX) Global, local and inner. Global conflict is fighting against that boss we don't see. He's impersonal. He doesn't care about our hero, nor even know that our hero is alive. Local conflict is DIRECT EMOTIONAL WAR BETWEEN PEOPLE WHO CARE. Co-workers, lovers, family, etc. Inner conflict is the character's struggle to square opposing forces within him- or herself and/or to answer the question "Am I doing the right thing?" The best comedies have all three levels of conflict working at once.
Manny: So coming back to the character I mentioned before it would be necessary to add another person and they both struggle for the better position in relation to the invisible boss?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): That, and also struggle against each other for what I call "ascendance of world view." On a psychological level, people (and not just characters) want outer reality to conform to their worldview or opinion of reality. And they do everything in their power to make it happen. Comic characters do the same thing, only more so. If you have a character who believes that "all men are evil," for example, she'll do everything in her power to prove "ascendance" of that world view, by trying to find evil in all men. What a problem for her when she falls in love!
Manny: Right that is what it was! it was a meeting of wise guys with even wiser guys and they all knew exactely why so many scripts are not good. But they had no idea on what to do next.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): As a "script doctor" myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who practice the craft. But to me, I distrust any script consultant who is not actively engaged as a writer himself or herself. I feel that my greatest strength in teaching and training writers is that, as an active writer myself, I know exaclty the form and texture of the shit my students are going through. :-)
Manny: Thanks a lot for that statement, John! I think it could be sent to a lot of Script Doctors Houses in Germany at the moment. I think even if you don't succeed at the end to get done what you wrote you have to try in order to get the feeling of hwo difficult it is to meet the truth on the piece of paper in front of you.
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Well I agree with you agreeing with me. We should get together and form a party: The People in Agreement. Do you agree?
Manny: I agree! And I'll contact Uschi Keil to get more about your workshop. Will you talk about german tv as well? Do you get a chance to see some of the german sitcoms before you do your workshop? I'd really be interested in having your opinion on some of the things that are on right now here. (Unfortunately we don't have had jet DHARMA and WILL and GREG on german tv as far as I know.)
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): The big problem is translation. My German is "high school" german and "hitchhiker" german, not much use for watching TV. However, I'm sure we can make time to sit down together with some current programming. If someone whispers a translation in my ear "on the fly" I'll be happy to give you my uncensored response!
Aline V. (Bruxelles): Some people say that comedies do not cross language frontiers. What do you think? That's why I'm preparing a silent comedy movie (short film). Am I right or should I forget this project?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): I talked about this earlier: Some comedies do suffer in translation, and they work best with their home audiences. But look at Seinfeld. People around the world love it, without knowing the first thing about the New York culture is springs from. Nevertheless, I think that a short silent comedy is an excellent idea (if it's genuinely funny) because it begs the question of language altogether.
Slim Panatella: I had heard that there's a German translation of "The Comic Toolbox" coming. Is that true?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Yes, it's being published by 2001, and should be out in 2001. In the meantime, English language versions of both CTBX and my latest book, CREATIVITY RULES, are available on www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.
Garbo: Is there a translation in french of "The Comic Toolbox"?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Not to my knowledge, though I know that my publisher is actively seeking foreign partners for all my books. If you know of someone who is interested in publishing a french version, contact me and I'll put you/them in touch with my publisher.
Garbo: On your workshop in Geneva, do you plan to treat the drama with humor, or not? Can you tell us more that what is written in FOCAL's newspaper?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): Well, I don't know what exactly is in FOCAL's newspaper, but let me say this: All my workshops provide "rules, tools and a good, swift kick in the motivation." Beyond that, I work very hard to meet the specific needs of my students. If you're interested in the nuance of drama with humor, I'll find time in the workshop to address that subject (and find a way to make it interesting and relevant to everyone else too). In the main, expect to get a lot of information about comic tools, story structure and "the inner game of writing."
Manny: How would you describe your book "Creativity Rules" is it a toolbox as well? Does it give you examples on how to improve creativity or how to direct it to the goals you want to achieve?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): All of the above. Creativity Rules is to general creative writing as Comic Toolbox is to comic writing. It provides fearbusting exercises, structural tools, information on writing with a partner and working with an editor, some fun and games, and a long look at the underlying function of creativity. The goal is to make writing, as a creative act, easier, faster and more effective for you.
Robert Nortik: Why do we want to be funny even if we are not?
John Vorhaus (Los Angeles): To pick up chicks at parties. No other reason. :-)
Copyright © FOCAL. All rights reserved.
"The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You're Not"
"Creativity Rules: a Writer's Workbook"
Proposed by FOCAL and the Master School Drehbuch, pitchpoint.org (closed in 2002) was a web site which combined script development and marketing. It was a marketplace for materials which helped young authors and producers in the publication and acquisition of film, television and multimedia material. Pitchpoint.org was the meeting point for authors and producers in search of partners in Europe and around the world