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Animation Comedy and Gag Writing

Jean Ann Wright finishes her series on writing for television animation with some tips on how to add comedy and gags to your script.

Is Johnny Bravo a chicken? The gap between expectation and the surprise result can make you laugh. © Cartoon Network.

Whats Funny?

Why does Johnny Bravo refuse to cross the road?Because hes no chicken!

What makes you laugh? Or more importantly what makes your audience laugh? Humor varies from culture to culture and from age to age. In comedy we set up a situation, increase the tension, and suddenly were stopped cold by something unexpected. Emotion gushes out, tension is relieved and exploded in laughter. Or at least thats the way its supposed to work! And it will if you set up the gag right. Comedy is a contrast between two incompatible frames of reference linked in an unexpected and sudden way. You lead the audience down the garden path (the set up), and then zap! Surprise is all-important. Generally, the bigger the surprise, the bigger the belly laugh. Two classic baby jokes: peek-a-boo and the jack-in-the-box. Theres the build up, the expectation, then the pop or shock. A running gag is a little different, as it gets funnier with each repetition. Often theres a twist as the gag repeats. Think of The Roadrunner, one long running gag. Some forms of comedy, such as satire, dont rely on a single effect, but a series of minor explosions or a continuous state of mild amusement. Experts believe that all comedy contains an impulse of aggression or fear. Its these emotions that are released when we laugh. Repression can contribute to a bigger laugh. Repression is the reason that gross-out and potty humor get belly laughs. In all comedy the energy of the comedy is important. Whether a situation is tragic or funny depends upon the audiences attitude, whether that attitude is dominated by pity or malice. Who is slipping on the ice? Is it the little old lady or the school bully?

Animation Comedy

Animation comedy is above all, visual with plenty of sight gags. It uses motion and misuses the laws of physics. The comedy is exaggerated and often illogical. Dialogue may be smart with comebacks, put-downs, puns, rhymes or alliteration. Titles are funny.

Mistaken identity is used as a comedy device in The Emperor's New Groove. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

Comedy Out of a Characters Personality

Some of the funniest comedy develops out of a characters personality. What makes that character naturally funny? Use a characters attitude, mannerisms and dialogue to increase the comedy. Reactions can often be funnier than the gag that has gone before. Use characters as different from each other as possible so that these conflicting personalities can bounce off of each other in a funny way.

Writing a Funny Script

Where does the humor of this series come from? Is it belly laughs, giggles, or smiles? Is there visual humor or funny, smart dialogue? Be consistent to the kind and amount of humor of that show. Whats funny about the stars personality? Combine people, places and props, juxtaposing one idea with a totally different one (a meek man and an office cooler in the middle of the desert). Place the unexpected in a surprising context. Place incongruous words or things in juxtaposition to create surprising relationships. Come up with something fresh, or at least put a twist onto a classic idea. Try creating an episode around a fish-out-of-water situation or an unresolved predicament (like a lie or a secret). Often theres an inciting incident that rocks the boat. The star may make a plan, but it turns into a textbook case of Murphys Law, and everything that can go wrong does. Complicate the predicament your star finds himself in by adding additional layers of problems. Escalate the trouble so that he digs himself in deeper and deeper. Be sure you have plenty of props available, as these are needed for the gags. Misuse your props. Make up your own wild gadgets. Set up your gags (build them), milk them, top them. Comedy is often done in a rhythm of threedum, dum, de-dum! Sometimes you can set up now and pay off later with a punch line. If something isnt funny enough, try adding cs and ks to the dialogue. These sounds are funnier! Use timing, tension, hints (letting your audience bring a little to the whole and bridging the gap). Use simplification and selection. Give the audience A, B, C and F, G. The audience should have to supply D and E. You dont want to write, Your baby brother eats like a pig! You want to say, Your baby brother is coming to lunch. Should I get out the trough? Dont tip off the surprise, the punch line, but save it for the end. Scenes usually go out on a laugh line, a stinger or a button. End your script with a twist!

Shrek used many pop-culture references to build comedy effectively. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Comedy Devices

Here are a few comedy devices that you can use in writing gags: Impersonation/Disguise (a character in costume or drag), Role Reversal and Anthropomorphism (two forms of reference and you oscillate between them), Pretense and Exposure (hypocrisy, The Emperors New Clothes), Pull Back and Reveal (the basic gag element is at first hidden from the audience), Hidden Element (the basic gag element is hidden from one of the characters), Misunderstanding, Turnabout (things are the opposite of what we expect), Understatement (A huge crowd is watching the takeoff of the first flight to leave our solar system. The spaceship rockets toward the sky, then explodes like a firecracker. Cool Surfer Dude: Looks like a dud, dude.), Manners and Customs (the juxtaposition of references from two different occupations, ethnic customs), the Smart Joke (upscale, In Beverly Hills the emergency number is unlisted.), the Dumb Joke (blonde jokes, women driver jokes), Kids Mistakes (not always funny to kids, Bill Cosbys Kids Say the Darndest Things), True Stories (usually these are a real belly laugh), The Excuse, Death (hard to make funny, but it can be done!), False Logic (How do you get milk from a kernel of corn? You use a low stool!), Malapropism (the wrong word, Dr. Seuss holiday dinner of roast beast), Insult, Pop-Culture References (Shrek), Metamorphosis, Shell Game (people, props, animals shuffle, hide and pop up where theyre least expected), and Funny Chase.

Its OK to Be Silly! Have Fun!

Why Does Johnny Bravo Refuse to Cross the Road?

A Spec Script By Jean Ann Wright (with apologies to)

FADE IN:

ANGLE ON CITY STREET

Johnny Bravo swaggers to the corner curb. He looks to the right. He looks to the left. He saunters off the curb. A huge truck whooshes by, HORN BLARING. Johnny is spun around in the trucks wake. Stars circle Johnnys head. He staggers back to the safety of the sidewalk.

CLOSER ON JOHNNY

As he juts out his chin.

JOHNNY Im no suckerand Im not licked yet!

Johnny looks to the right, looks to the left, and looks to the right again.

WIDER

As Johnny steps cautiously off the curb.

JOHNNYS POV

As a motorcycle zooms directly at him.

WIDER ON THE STREET

As Johnny does a two-step to dodge the cycle. The cycle hits a center divider instead and goes airborne, scooping up a street banner and landing with a CRASH on top of Johnny.

CLOSE ON JOHNNY

As he pokes his head out from underneath the cycle and carefully smoothes out his hair.

JOHNNY Oh, Mama!

The banner glides down and plops on his head.

ANGLE ON JOHNNY

As he limps to a crosswalk. Johnny slowly reads the sign at the curb.

JOHNNY School crossing! Cant get much safer than that!

WIDER

As Johnny steps off the curb looking intently to the right. From the left an old-fashioned, one-room school, high atop a moving truck, enters the shot and slowly fills the screen. The screen shakes. CRUNCHING NOISES.

JOHNNY (V.O.) School crossing! Oh, man!

FADE OUT

Jean Ann Wright has been teaching animation writing and development since 1996 and currently teaches for Women In Animation and The Animation Academy. Recently, she started her own consulting business. Shes sold her writing to DIC, Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. She enjoys serving on the Los Angeles board of Women In Animation and judging for the Emmys and the Annies.

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