Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How to do a farce

I recently was asked how we constructed farces on CHEERS and FRASIER. I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.

Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.

Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.

Generally, farces take place in real time. There are no fade outs, no dissolves, no relief. And as the piece builds the pace quickens. If done right, a farce should be a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and size.

Neil Simon, who wrote the wonderful farce RUMORS, is quoted as saying “At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.”

They’re incredibly tough to pull off but unbelievably satisfying when you do.

For a great example of a farce, check out Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE. And stock up on oxygen.

14 comments:

John Hudgens said...

Add another plug here for Rumors as well... Incredible funny play, one I'm proud to have been a cast member of during a local production of several years ago...

Anonymous said...

The textbook(?) for writing farce is Dinner at Eightish from the 5th season of Cheers.

The Master said...

Thanks for the excellent piece on farce structure. I have always found farce the hardest type of comedy to write, as the structure is so essential and so difficult. I don't agree about "One, Two, Three" being a great farce, as I think it's a fairly weak Wilder entry, and Cagney's overblown performance displaying just why he immediately retired on finishing it. To me, the best farce examples are any episode of "Fawlty Towers", but especially "The Kipper and the Corpse".
The greatest farce ever written, in my humble and always abject opinion, in Joe Orton's masterpiece, "What The Butler Saw".

The Master said...

PS. And of course, the three great novels from Joe Keenan are great farces on the page, just as his "Frasier" episodes tended to be their best farces.

Toby said...

The two best examples of farce from 'Frasier' (at least for me) were the episodes about everybody going into Phoebe's room, and the trip to the ski lodge.

The capper on the former with Eddie and Phoebe during the end credits was fantastic, as was the sequence with the spray in the eyes in connection to the Oedipal myth during the latter.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

My favorite Frasier farce is "The Two Mrs. Cranes" (a Keenan). What I especially like about that one is that different characters take the situation with varying degrees of seriousness. Daphne takes it very seriously, and fits Ken's requirement that the problem should seem serious to the characters; but Frasier is just playing along grudgingly, Niles is just playing along to get closer to Daphne, and Martin is just making stuff up for the pure fun of it ("I'm an astronaut"). So every character has a different perspective on the farcical situation and there's a different kind of comedy that comes from every character's reactions.

Another farce episode I like is "Who's On First?" from WKRP in Cincinnati (Mr. Carlson pretends to be Herb, Les pretends to be Mr. Carlson, Johnny pretends to be Andy). I just like the way the two different farce plots of the episode come together in the final scene and lead up to one big, perfect, why-didn't-I-see-that-coming twist punchline ("Just doing my job, Johnny").

And another vote for One, Two, Three as a great movie, though oddly enough I think the big farcical climax (turning Horst Buchholtz from a Commie into a capitalist) may be the weakest part of the movie.

Anonymous said...

Ken,
Doesn't follow as a true farce by your definition, but local station last night ran the episode you directed where Roz's baby's grandparents show up to meet her, and their noses arrive 5 minutes ahead of them....very funny episode.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

I've always liked Noises Off for its extreme levels of farce. Two words: John Ritter. The Farce Fucking Master.

Another one of my favorite Frasier Farce episodes is the one where Niles and Frasier open up a restaurant. I'm not sure but I think Kelsey Grammar "broke" when Roz came back in after the cherry dessert exploded. Any truth to that?

Sorry for the specific request but I'd love to hear a good blooper story...

--Tenspeed

ChrisO said...

As big a Frazier fan as I am, I have to say some of the farce episodes turned me off a bit, and for a specific reason. I would get really annoyed at the number of times a charcter would exit by one door while another character entered through another door, with neither character seeing the other. I realize this is found in a lot of farces (and may even be a basic element of farce for all I know) but it was such an obvious vehicle it would bug me every time. Sorry if I'm referring to any of your episodes, Ken.

My wod verification is vyujeur. It sounds like Inspector Closeau peeking in someone's windows.

Anonymous said...

First of all, your website is a fantastic source, thanks for doing it and please dont take too many vacations!

But...Wilders 1 2 3 maybe is an excellent script to illustrate how a farce MAY work, but please... the movie?

For that time period, it is plodding and the concept is just old-fashioned already THEN. The young male actor is characterless, as is his love interst. Surely farce demands characters who are almost over the top? It is only assisted helped by the energy of Cagney, who basically plays an over-the-top version of himself.

The interaction of the ensemble isnt happening without Cagney, the farce doesn't move but is a bunch of skits whose color depends on the single actors brought in.

But otherwise, I am reading with great interest!

Anonymous said...

Wait... I didnt read the other comments... "John Ritter"????!

Anonymous said...

More of your experience with scripts please!

I get the feeling after reading your text, that the way so many people use the sentence: "This is such a farce" in exasperation in some situation is wrong. The chances it is really a farce are slim.

So maybe one would have to stop and remind them after their sentence: No, actually, this is NOT a farce. Then go on to give the identifying characteristics of a farce. Although by that time, fists would probably be flying anyway.

Erik Holmberg said...

I saw a great definition on farce. It is a tragedy viewed from afar.

Paul Phillip said...

Great post. I'm working on MFA thesis with the topic of farce comedy and currently working on a mockumentary. Checked out the One Two Three. Wow, that is great!