As an independent filmmaker specializing in animated comedy, I'd like to share my thoughts and observations on how to create projects intended to make people laugh (in a good way). By taking a close look at recent popular shows and movies (i.e. Simpsons, Family Guy, Shrek, etc) I've outlined a brief analysis that identifies some of the major strategies of humor used in many of today's animated television programs and shows, as well as the advantages/disadvantages of implementing them. Just a note before we continue: this article isn't intended only as a guide for comedy filmmakers- I'm sure those of you who appreciate good humor will get something out of it as well.
The following compilation is the result of my own observations, and I'm certain you'll see what I mean if you take a closer look this Sunday night when Family Guy comes on. Later, I'll share some of my own thoughts on the subject of creating effective humor for mainstream audiences.
1. PARODY: This involves poking fun of well-known genres and plot formulas (action, horror, porn, etc), and making references to well-known films, TV shows, famous people, significant historical events, etc. Very often, these genres, films, and TV shows are spoofed. Think of the number of times you've seen a reference to a Kubrick film during an episode of The Simpsons, or a Star Wars reference in Family Guy to emphasize a joke.
Advantages: First off, it's easy to do and often elicits laughs. The basic structure of the joke is based on a well-known source, and the audience is likely to get it right away.
Disadvantages: To be blunt, it's lazy filmmaking. Too much parody thrown in a story can often be interpreted as a lack of creativity/originality, and ultimately limits the project's depth. Jokes/gags of this kind will only last as long as the spoofed or referenced subject is popular or is fashionable.
2. ANIMATION THAT IS DELIBERATELY BAD/CHEESY: Includes the use of poorly drawn/animated characters and backgrounds as an important element of the humor.
Advantages: Sometimes more efficient and more cost effective than using more detailed animation techniques. It's funny to watch and calling some attention to the bad animation can generate new jokes and great sight gags. Think of shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021.
Disadvantages: Like the parody, this can quickly turn into lazy filmmaking. Depending only on bad animation for laughs might make the project difficult to maintain in the long run.
3. GROSS-OUT HUMOR/EXPLICIT LANGUAGE: Includes humor that is, but not limited to being scatological, sexual, bloody, etc. Also includes use of foul language. Since the Simpsons and South Park, audiences have come to expect jokes of this kind.
Advantages: In small doses and if done with subtlety, gross-out humor and the use of explicit language combined with visual sight gags can be hilarious.
Disadvantage: Easy to overuse. Dialogue containing too many four-letter words for the sake of being obnoxious will turn off most viewers. Gross-out humor, if only used for shock value, will seem shallow if it does nothing to contribute to the overall story.
4. NON-SEQUITORS (RANDOM HUMOR): Jokes, statements, events, etc. that happen out of nowhere.
Advantages: Absurd humor that occurs at random works on several levels, which include the outlandishness of the act itself, its unpredictability, and also its general disregard for logic in context with the scene's apparent focus. It can take an audience by surprise, and can add some originality to the project.
Disadvantages: If an absurd and random act suddenly shifts the focus of the story, it may disappoint viewers who have otherwise been engaged in the narrative. Also, many people may not "get it," which has the potential of restricting the viewing demographic. When a nonsequitor serves as a story's conclusion, it's usually evidence of an inability to create an effective ending.
On creating more effective humor:
Characters with unique qualities: Trying to be original isn't easy, but it is a lot of fun. When creating characters, don't worry too much about whatever's "hip" or "in" at the moment. Start off with characters that have very specific personality traits, habits, etc. Base them off yourself, off of people you know, your experiences, or just let your imagination run wild. Give your characters specific hobbies, unusual interests (i.e. a hero that can't resist objects that squirt water), and/or specific likes/dislikes. These concrete qualities will often provide opportunities to develop character, storylines, and above all, humorous events.
Stories with solid conclusions: Many creative folks I've talked to notice the difficulty of coming up with good endings. No matter what the genre, filmmakers of all sorts can learn a valuable lesson from mystery novel authors. When you come up with the idea for a film, start by knowing how it's going to end. This gives the story focus, and makes it easier for all the events to logically pan out. Another important tip to remember- audiences will almost always forgive a film with a bad beginning, but will never forgive a film with a bad ending.
Understand that being funny isn't the same as acting funny: Okay, what does this mean? Here's an illustration: There was a video on the internet of a careless skateboarder falling on his face multiple times after trying to coast off the roof of his parents' house. It wasn't funny to the skateboarder, but it was funny to most of the people who saw it happen. Why? On a psychological level, it's in our nature to laugh or take some kind of satisfaction in someone else's misfortune/failure so long as the screw-up doesn't result in death or dismemberment (most of the time). On a more practical level, most of the online viewers laughed at the sheer idiocy of the act. After all, the careless skateboarder who plunged off the roof actually expected positive results from his stunt. So how do we apply this to creating comedy? Create situations that are funny to the audience, but not to your characters. One effective way of doing this is having your characters expect serious results from doing things that are clearly dangerous, stupid, or both.
These are just a few pointers to help you get started with creating your own comedy, or to help you understand some of the more successful comedy out there today. I hope you enjoyed the article. Have a good laugh!