Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Creating Comedy Situations: Misinterpretations

You're writing a scene and you want it to be funny.
What do you do?
First, you can look for what might naturally be funny about it.  Maybe you throw in a twist or two.  Create a comedic surprise.  Write some humorous lines of dialogue.  All good ideas.
Let me present another possibility -- a comedy situation.
Putting the characters in a comedic situation instantly increases the chance for great punchlines, action humor, prop humor, and toppers that take a scene from a mild chuckle to a gut-busting howl.
Let's look at one of those situations from the "Comedy Writing For Screenplays Class."

STRUCTURE: One or more characters has misinterpreted a situation and continues to act out of an incorrect perspective.
This creates comic opportunities by having characters operate as if they're in completely different worlds.  It is also an easy way for a writer to look absolutely brilliant.
Our example is from the movie, "MY COUSIN VINNY."
In "MY COUSIN VINNY," written by Dale Launer, Billy and Stan have just been put in prison while awaiting trial.  Stan is completely paranoid that someone in the prison is going make him a sex slave. Watch how this misinterpretation rules Stan's behavior in this scene.

As Bill and Stan step into the unit, cheers and sexual taunts
ring out.  Bill and Stan try to ignore the other prisoners,
but can't hide their fear.  Stan is on the verge of tears.
They are shown to

CELL 1-32
The door slides open.  They enter their new home -- a 6' by
10' cell with steel bunk beds.  The door slams shut.

You know what happens in these places?

Yeah, I know what happens in these

NOTE:  For the whole second act, these guys are constantly in "fish out of water" situations, but this is the set up for this scene to turn into a well-written misinterpretation.

And sometimes, there's a big guy
named Bubba that no one wants to
tangle with and he'll protect you.
But then you have to become his sex-
slave and do whatever he wants.

There's only the two of us here.

Stan's eyes scream fear.  He points outside the cell where
four folding beds stand against the wall.

What about those cots?  I mean, what
if they put someone else in here?

Billy has had enough.

Shut up.

NOTE:  That's the setup for the entire scene -- the fear of a big guy named Bubba.  And here he comes.
As you read the part, pay attention to how Vinny reacts naturally for his character while responding to Stan's natural behavior for his character.   Neither are acting out-of-character, but they are misunderstanding each other.


CELL 1-32 -- LATER
Billy sleeps on the top bunk.  O.S. Inmates begin taunting
someone else.  Still panicking, Stan rushes to the bars for
a look-see.  A guard escorts Vinny to the door.
The door slides open.  Vinny hands the guard a pair of one-
dollar bills as a tip.  The guard shoves them in his pocket
as Vinny steps in.  He shakes Stan's hand.

You must be Stan.  How you doing?

Why'd they bring you in here?

I just got in.  I asked where the
new guys were and they brought me
(Spots Billy)
Hey, he's sleeping, huh?  Cute little

NOTE:  Notice how they are having the same conversation, but each one is operating out of a different paradigm.  Stan is freaking out because "Bubba" has arrived.  Vinny is just trying to establish a relationship with his new clients.
Second, notice how everything Vinny says and does plays into Stan's paranoia.

He turns to Stan, who is already backing into the wall.

Maybe I'll just start with you.
We'll let him get some sleep.

Vinny leans in, deliberately smiling to relax Stan, but Stan
thinks something else is going on.

I don't wanna do this.

I don't blame ya.  If I was in your
situation, I'd want to get through
this whole thing as quickly and with
as little pain as possible.  So,
let's try our best to make it a simple
in-and-out procedure.

NOTE:  Vinny's language would be innocent in any other situation, but with the misinterpretation, the writer has provided us with language that can be easily seen differently from Stan's perspective.

Stan darts away from him and moves to the front of the cell.
He cowers onto the chair by the bars.  Vinny moves in.

Relax.  Relax.  Maybe we should spend
a couple of moments together.  To
get acquainted...You know, before we
get to it.

Vinny touches his shoulder.  Stan squirms away.

What's wrong with you?

I don't want to do this?

I understand, but what are your

What?  To you?  I don't know.
Suicide.  Death.

Look.  It's either me or them.  You're
getting f--ked one way or another.

NOTE:  Stan continues to react to his fear, while Vinny reacts to this confused situation.  What makes them incongruent is how each character's reaction plays into the misinterpretation of Stan.

Stan tries to bolt away from him, but Vinny's too fast.  He
helps Stan back into his seat.  Towering over him.

Hey, hey.  Lighten up, okay?  Don't
worry, I'm going to help you.

Oh, gee thanks.

Listen, I think a modicum of gratitude
would not be out of line here.

You think I should be grateful?

Yeah, I mean, it's your ass, not
mine.  I think you should be grateful.
I think you should be down on your
f--kin' knees.

NOTE:  Most of these lines from Vinny are punchlines.  They take Stan's fear and build on it with incongruent responses – incongruent to Stan's fear, that is.  But this only works because of the misinterpretation.

I'm sorry, I didn't know it was such
an honor to get a visit from you.

Hey, I'm doing a favor here.  You're
getting me for nothing, you little

Boy, that's one hell of an ego you

What the f--k is your problem?  I
did not come down here to get jerked

Stan jumps to his feet, ready to protect himself.

I'm not jerking you off.  I'm not
doing anything.

Fed up, Vinny pushes Stan back into the chair.

You're on your own.  I'm just taking
care of sleeping beauty here.

Vinny pats Billy on the ass, waking him up.  To Stan's
surprise, Billy jumps off the bed and hugs Vinny.

Vinny!  Vinny bag-of-donuts!

And at that point, the misinterpretation is revealed and the gag is over.
The structure is of a misinterpretation scene is simple:
1.  Provide a logical reason why Character A would misinterpret the words and actions of Character B.
In this case, combining a prison stay with Stan's paranoia is enough of a reason for Stan to misinterpret the situation.

2. Have Character B pursue their normal agenda while Character A reacts like B is doing something else.
Vinny is simply there to meet his two new clients.  But Stan responds as if Vinny is the "Bubba" he fears.

3. Discover as many possible ways the misinterpretation could cause humor in the situation.
With this scene, any reference to "Cute little guy" or "it's your a ss" or "with as little pain as possible" or "simple in and out procedure" etc. instantly provokes the "Bubba" fear -- and audience laughter.

4.  Reveal the misinterpretation.
That was done by Vinny giving up on Stan, patting Billy on the ass, and getting a hug from Billy.   Obviously, the reaction from Billy was the last thing Stan would have expected, so it was the perfect reveal or this situation.
As you've seen, a good comedy situation can turn an ordinary scene into a very funny one.   That's the value of a good comedy situation -- multiple laughs from the same set up.

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