Comedy formulas

The perception of comedy which Barry Sonnenfeld has is that even though a comedy duo makes you laugh, only one of the guys is meant to be intentionally funny. Men in Black worked well because Tommy Lee Jones had an extreme job but normal behaviour whereas Will Smith was the exact opposite. Barry reasons that Wild Wild West didn’t work because Kevin Kline wanted to hog the limelight so as to prove that he, too, was down with the kids. During the midway point in filming, Will realized what was going on and tried to play it straight without reverting to the role of buffoon.

Ken Levine believes that lead characters can only make people laugh if they are impatient, frustrated, lovesick, hurt or angry. If the character is depressed, it won’t be conducive to making people laugh. If the character is happy, it is comedy death.

Wong Jing thinks that there are 9 types of jokes: Words which sound like other words, words which have more than one meaning, metaphorical comparisons, sarcasm, satire, pranks, accidents, quirky physical behaviour and unawareness.

Mario Monicelli, an Italian film-maker, believed that most Italian comedies had downbeat endings. This is true, even if the ending is downbeat in a way which is comedic instead of dramatic. The logic behind black comedies is that the theme is tragic, but the point of view is humorous. This is why Six Feet Under (2001), Monk (2002), NCIS (2003), House (2004), Bones (2005) and Psych (2006) are popular TV serials. Most U.S. movie equivalents are less successful. An American writer named Flannery O’Connor went out of her way to say: “The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.”

When I was young, I assumed that Lemon Popsicle was an Italian movie. It’s telling that it is the most popular Israeli movie to be released in Italy. Mario’s belief is that there are 6 topics which always makes people laugh at comedies – death, hunger, illness, misery, poverty and senectitude. His other belief is that the more dramatic that something is, the more material that there will be for irony. In an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Michael Caine revealed that comedy and drama come from conflict. I believe that comedy is a lighter form of tragedy. Tragedy without humour is life without hope. Humour is the hope that follows through the tragedy. Italian comedy is tragedy with a humorous viewpoint. The most important part of humour is the moment of surprise. Dramas with humour in them tend to be welcomed because of the stark contrast. Dramas are elevated with humour, whereas comedies are deflated with drama.

Dramas are primarily concerned with logic, whereas comedies are about escapism. Dark comedies tend to have the main character dressed in black. For instance, Remote Control (1988) is about a `50s Sci-Fi movie which will brainwash the world for an alien invasion unless a video store clerk intervenes. My belief is that comedy is divided into three categories – childish, churlish and cerebral. Each category represents the three stages of life. Back to the Future had the potential to be the best example because it’s a high school comedy which is PG-rated and within the context of science fiction. The original shooting script was better in that it was more cynical and cerebral. When Marty was talking with his girlfriend, he was more worried that he sounded like a schizoid neurotic than worrying about sounding like his dad. Regardless, he still made it clear that he thought George wasn’t someone to respect.

Instead of romanticizing the prospect of resting under a sky of stars, it was implied that they were going to have sex in George’s car. Instead of Marty complaining about Lorraine possibly giving him a lecture about how she was like a nun when she was young, his girl talks about how her shrink thinks that a lot of parents are sexually repressed. Marty then talks about how Lorraine can’t be repressed about something that she knows nothing about. This sets up a better payoff than telegraphing that he will meet her young self. One of the things that makes BTTF a near-perfect script is that, for the most part, it sets up things without being predictable in the way that a lot of comedies (especially sitcoms) are. It’s become so cliché for a comedy character to say something that gets contradicted in either the next scene or a later scene.

Above all else, my first problem with BTTF is that, for nearly 2 hours, there aren’t enough jokes about the cultural differences. Too much time was wasted on the long-winded opening shot which exists for no other reason than to win an award for best director (no win nor nomination). The garage scene in general is a massive time-waster because it’s not necessary. Fans will argue that it establishes the plutonium theft, Marty being a guitarist and owning a skateboard, but things would still make sense if you jettison the opening scene. Even Steven Spielberg felt that the first reel should be cut down, until Rob Zemeckis told him that the only scene that needed to be cut was the cookie box purchase scene. There should be a TV series about how movies would benefit from being shorter.

My second problem is the amplifier sight gag. Marty would’ve been deaf. He should’ve worn ear plugs. Also, it doesn’t make sense as to how he flew backwards. What I would’ve done with this scene is have him fall over in a way which causes a chain reaction. My third problem is the scene where Biff tries to rape Lorraine on prom night. There could’ve been a better way for George to be a hero. If I was Bob Gale, I would have Biff look at Lorraine’s bottle before mockingly telling her not to drink and drive. He takes the bottle to drink away from the car, she gets out of the car and tries to get it before he pushes her to the ground. This angers George enough to want to hit Biff. Otherwise, what’s the point in casting the star of a family-friendly sitcom? No child should watch a movie where a man tries to rape a woman.

The screenplay for the Eric Stoltz version, while being funnier in some respects, was more serious in others. It was also more subtle. Instead of on-the-nose foreshadowing when Marty tells Strickland that history will change, Strickland foreshadows Marty’s catchphrase by saying that it’s not his day (i.e. Marty verifies this three times after the school day has come to an end). It’s mock-worthy that Michael J. Fox never had a catchphrase as Marty. The scene where Marty steps out of the DeLorean in the barn wasn’t intended to be played for laughs. There wasn’t a sight gag of him tripping over a haystack, which is forced because it’s logically false. Scrutinizing the scene results in realizing that this shot was filmed so as to prove that they weren’t reusing footage, since Fox wore Nike shoes instead of Converse ones. Speaking of which, this article is my way of settling an urban legend. If you look at the shoes and blue jeans, Stoltz is not the Marty who head-dives into the DeLorean to evacuate the Twin Pines Mall car park.

Instead of Marty comically swearing upon finding out that the Libyan has a machine gun, he asks about the Libyans. That’s not the only change in the scene. After Doc gets shot, Marty’s reaction is dramatically drawn out. There are more overt examples of the film being made less dramatic after Stoltz was jettisoned for good. Instead of Lorraine describing Biff’s hands as meat hooks, she merely described them as hands. Instead of saying butthead to Marty, he said dips#!t. Instead of telling Marty to make like a tree, he told him that if he didn’t shape up then Biff would be shipping him out. Instead of calling Marty a punk for tripping him up, he said wise-a$$ before telling him that it’s fat lip time. Before George and Marty enter Lou’s Café, there originally wasn’t supposed to be an exchange where Marty asks George what made him change his mind about asking Lorraine out. I suspect that they did this in the Fox version because they knew that George’s bedroom scene would need to be trimmed down.

Instead of explaining to Lorraine that Doc is his uncle, Marty has a conversation with her in Lou’s Café before he meets Doc again. The 1984 convo felt less like a comedy than a romance where awkwardness produces tension. Without Doc’s presence, there is more intimacy and less thoughts from the audience about what Lorraine thinks of Doc. Instead of a triple running gag where Marty comments about his time trip feeling like a dream, there was a motif of him gulping. The writers tried to interject levity in the cafeteria scene by having someone throw a paper airplane at Marty after Biff leaves. Another example is when Marty sarcastically jokes that the `50s version of the high school has been cleaned up. The worst inclusion was by having Doc saying damn four times instead of thrice as he waits for Marty to begin the final voyage. Originally, Great Scott! wasn’t meant to be Doc’s catchphrase. Instead of saying it three times, he said it once in the final act.

Instead of Marty making and keeping a promise to the boy about returning what became a skateboard, neither happened. This highlights how BTTF was initially a wry movie that was primarily for teenagers instead of an all-encompassing family-friendly film preaching morals. Ironically, they filmed the Playboy scene again. One example of morality being forsaken is when Eric’s Marty tells his girlfriend that he is taking George’s car without his permission. On the flipside, Fox’s Marty apologizes for damaging the barn. The final example of moralizing comes in the form of Marty saying goodbye to George and Lorraine in the fifties. This never happened in the Stoltz script. In Fox’s version, Lorraine lets Marty know that George is taking her home, then George thanks Marty for all of his advice. Finally, Marty wants the two of them to be gentle with their future son if he accidentally sets their rug on fire. His advice is too ham-fisted because of being specific.

The `55 dinner scene is notable for how the writers and Spielberg (who contributed to the revisional stage) tried to make it funnier such as Lorraine’s oldest brother wearing a beaver hat (Spielberg is a fan of Leave It to Beaver). There is even a shoehorned punchline about how Sam will disown Lorraine if she ever has a son like the boy who is secretly his grandson. The only upside is when Marty has to explain to Stella that she can’t call his mother because no-one is home yet. That works better than the original line of her being out of town. Had BTTF been a kids movie about a 13-year-old boy who’s always wanted to drive a car, it wouldn’t be contrived to have Lorraine’s dad tell her that he would disown her if she had a son like Marty. This is because Marty would be younger than her. Coincidentally, Sean Astin and Corey Haim were 13 at the time. With an older actor, a better joke would be that Lorraine will be disowned if she has a boyfriend like Marty.

Even when I was at the impressionable age of 10, I never found BTTF to be a funny movie. When Doc tests his telepathic technology, it’s more heavy-handed than what happened in the `84 version. I won’t spell out everything that happened; it was basically a house party where Doc proved to be the toast of the town. The script describes the many partiers as belonging to trendy social groups instead of scientists and old people. This makes his future outcast status all the more sad. As much as the writers like to blame Eric for not being funny enough, there is an underlying feeling that they realized that their jokes weren’t funny. For example, the scene in George’s bedroom had more dialogue where he thought that he was dreaming. Marty told him that he was having a Close Encounter of the Third Kind because he had reached the outer limits of The Twilight Zone.

For what it’s cracked up to be, the Fox version isn’t the perfect family film. There’s still too much swearing. They may as well have made it edgier like Sixteen Candles (a PG-rated John Hughes movie featuring John Cusack). The death of Doc is too distressing for kids. What the Bobs should have concocted was a scenario where the terrorists kidnap Doc to build a bomb but attempt to kill Marty so that he can’t report them. Also, Biff being sucker-punched isn’t funny because he earlier tricked George into thinking that his shoelaces were untied. The Fox version feels more like the sort of preachy film which Disney always specializes in. Once in all three acts of BTTF, a character says: If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Most of Marty’s humorous responses were removed not so much for running time but because, otherwise, it would be easy for people to give Eric the benefit of the doubt that he still would’ve been funny. By reducing the humour to physicality, it’s put him in a lopsided position where nearly no-one has positive presumptions of what his funniness cracked up to be. Nobody thinks that they will be cracking up when they see him. I know that I will crack up, because the script (for the most part) had better jokes. The only slapstick that was required of Eric in his version was how he danced with the guitar in the prom. Instead of emulating Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Angus Young and Eddie Van Halen, he would’ve emulated Little Richard, Elvis, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson.

If Eric had been allowed to film this scene then it would have been difficult for the film-makers to convince the studio head that he was failing to get laughs. The scene is the comedic centerpiece. For what it’s worth, neither version of BTTF is perfect when it comes to the comedy. What makes the Stoltz version more near-perfect than the Fox version is that the only flaw is Skinhead’s incoherent joke about Marty’s shoes. Having barely green shoes doesn’t make oneself comparable to a leprechaun. A better joke would depend on the possibility of light-up sneakers being created in the `80s (they only came into fruition in 1992). In that light (quite literally), the joke was more likely to be: “Biff, get a load of his shoes. This dork thinks he’s walking on sunshine.”

The below photo is what Eric was reduced to, no thanks to the perverse BTTF producers. In 1988, he resorted to mugging in order to prove wary casting directors that he wasn’t po-faced. This session was conducted by Rick McGinnis, but the face-pulling wasn’t his idea. He was put off by it. These photos were done to publicize a film titled Manifesto (a.k.a. A Night of Love). Pulling faces ended up paying fees as Eric was given an opportunity to act in a comedy titled Say Anything (a Cusack vehicle where the nominal helmer was Cameron Crowe). This led to a cascade of comedic roles, including a voice-only role on Frasier. As for the sitcom that the featured image advertises, Cheers is the best `80s sitcom. It’s the most symbolic of how American sitcoms changed.

The first two seasons are like watching Mork & Mindy. Coach was the former; Diane was the latter. The comedy, if not all of it, was undersold by schmaltz. What stopped it from being maudlin was Carla. Season 3 was a bit more cynical when Frasier was brought in to compensate for the ailing health of the actor who played Coach. Season 4 upped the ante for cynicism by having Woody introduced as the village idiot. Season 5 had Rebecca take Diane’s place, so the series became more cynical by the time that Seinfeld began airing in 1989 and convincing people that it was the first completely mordant sitcom. It’s ironic, then, that the last season of Cheers had higher ratings than the fourth season of Seinfeld (which both aired from 1992 to May, 1993). As evidenced by the Cheers spin-off, Frasier’s popularity had a lot to do with Kelsey Grammer resembling Bob Hope.


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