Sunday, October 21, 2007

Speaking farce-y

Writing related stuff today.

The Toronto Star just published a blistering expose of the Sitcom Room by one of our first attendees, Rick Whelan. I've got calls in to my lawyers but of course they haven't returned them. By the way, we still have an open seat for Sitcom Room II. If you can be in L.A. November 3 - 4, you might want to grab it before someone else does. Here's where you go. Thanks.

Onward...

One writing question I'm often asked is how are farces constructed? 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. And for my money, no show ever did them better than FRASIER.

24 comments:

Tim W. said...

I think one of the reasons it worked so well on Frasier was that both Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce did manic so well. I'm reminded of the episode where Niles invites Roz, Daphne and Daphne's boyfriend (who's also Roz' ex-boyfriend) to his cabin in order to try to get Daphne's boyfriend to fall for Roz again, leaving Roz for him. When Frasier and Martin show up, hilarity ensues.

RAC said...

I loved the season four episode "To Kill a Talking Bird," where Niles has a talking bird attached to his head, covered by a towel, which mimics guests at his party. I laughed until it hurt.

Pseudonym said...

Not all farces require lies, of course. Some of the best rely entirely on incomplete information.

Diogo said...

all farces seem to require also sex, or the prospect of having sex with someone, and someone being gay or pretending to be gay. those are recurring themes. (Frasier's gay boss, Martin pretending to be gay to get out of a date with a woman, and even the ski intructor in the cabin episode had to be gay, so he could be interested in Niles.)
another kind of writing I like is the "known joke" episodes, that somhow always seemed to surround Frasier, in other words an episode where is made the butt of a series of jokes untill the end of the episode, and the audience is in on the gag, like the classic "the heart is a lonely snipehunter" from Cheers, and "Radio Wars" from Frasier.

Unkystan said...

One of the best? Woddy & Kelly's wedding. And all in the kitchen. (Who knew Lilith could play the spoons?) Brilliant!

Diogo said...

that's an amazing episode! one of my favourites. the only problem I had with is the very last joke, where it turns out the original priest turns out to be alive. I mean, it was funny, but one would think that in between those people they could check a pulse accurately.

Anonymous said...

The funniest Frasier I saw was the episode in which Frasier and Niles attempted to host a dinner party at Maris' beach house while trying to conceal the stench of a beached,dead seal doused in Maris' perfume and covered with her frilly robe. Brilliant, brilliant writing and execution. What struck me about Frasier was how these two uber cerebral elitists (Niles and Frasier) would end up doing this wacky I Love Lucy physical schtick. I think part of the reason the farce on Frasie worked so well was due to the contrast between the uptight characters we knew and loved and the absurd predicaments they created for themselves. I don't know how many actors, writers and directors could have pulled that off so successfully. And Ken, as a viewer I agree with your assessment awhile back about David Hyde-Pierce. What an amazing actor.

Christina said...

If you like farce (I do!!), I recommend the movie Death at a Funeral, directed by Frank Oz. It has all of the elements you mention.

emily litella said...

I loved the "blistering expose." It's high time more attendees exposed themselves.

...nevermind...

Ger Apeldoorn said...

If we are nominating, I also prefer the dead seagull episode of Frasier above all others and the Woody/Kelly wedding on Cheers. I had to pick the ten best single comedy episodes for a dutch magazine and they were boh finalists. And since Chuckles the Clown was in there as well, David Lloyd was most nominated writer (he wrote the wedding episode).

Ken comments are completely to the point. Every element you mention is vital, especially the character's wanting something, the pressure never letting up. That's where many bad farces fail; they introduce plot points or pieces of bussiness that don't further the story. Or the director can't find a way to act it that way;I just saw a new version of Arsenic and Old Lace that completely lost it's audience halfway through, by letting up the pressure. A combination of a couple of weak points in the play and one or two bit actors, who coulnd't keep it up. I like the bit about lying too. I did a farce episode on one of my series here in Holland, where the main characters find themselves in a hotelroom and they are remarking to each other they hope the situation they are in won't develop into a farce. One of them has a theatre backgound and he tells the other that they won't find themselves in a farce, because in a farce the characters are always lying to each other and they don't do that because they love each other. At that point the audience already knows that they both have told several whoppers.

Two major misunderstandings about farce... one, that it should or often has sex as a motivator. This is just one strand of farce. Both Oscar Wilde and American writers such as Kaufman and Hart have shown it is not necessary to use sex. Most American farces use money instead. Some British farces use lose of status (as in Fawlty Towers).

The other misunderstanding is the idea that frace is eventdriven. That a farce is just one thing happening after another. That's where last year's In Case Of Emergency tended to go wrong. The best farces are character driven.

Ane more thing... when I interviewed Joe Keenan last year (the writer of the most famous of Frasier's farces), he said that he preferred to plot a farce. After the basic idea was esteblished in the writing room, he usually went away to make a roadmap on his own. It's just too much work to be able to do it in a group.

Jason Tammem├Ągi said...

The one where they open a restaurant together is a classic (Les Freres Hereaux I think). Fraiser does indeed do farce magnificiently.

You can usually see the setups and misunderstandings in the opening minutes, know exactly what's coming and yet that anticipation makes it all the funnier. I really admire the writing in Frasier.

CL said...

A Fish Called Wanda is just about the perfect farce to me. It also has practically every element mentioned here including the British and American stereotypes.

Claudia @ The Crafty Weasel said...

Frasier was, without a doubt and by far, the best sitcom ever created!
The cast worked brilliantly well together but most of all, the dynamic between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce was absolutely fantastic!

Little Miss Nomad said...

Am I losing my mind, or is this particular post a rerun? I swear I've read this before...

D. McEwan said...

While I love the great farces on FRASIER (The ski lodge episode always stands out in my memory, and the one where Martin pretends that Niles is his boyfriend.), I believe there was one show that did them better: FAWLTY TOWERS. 12 perfect, gemlike, half-hour farces.

And it disproves the sex-is-required addition one poster put up. The funniest epsiode of FAWLTY TOWERS, in my opinion, is THE KIPPER AND THE CORPSE, which is about death, not sex, and how inconvenient it can be to have a cadaver cluttering up the place. (ARSENIC & OLD LACE and Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY use this problem also, and there's a bit of it in Joe Orton's LOOT, although, as it's title implies, money is the big motavation in that play.)

My favorite farce is Joe Orton's WHAT THE BUTLER SAW. I remember seeing an inept production of it at the Laguna Playhouse once. They had blown it right off with the set. It was wide, expansive, and the sides opened up to embrace their whole, enormous stage. Ruined the claustrophobia and let out all the pressure. (Their cleaning the play up for their senior-citizen-heavy subscribers didn't help any either.)

A year or two later, I saw an excellent production in Santa Barbara, where they not only had a small set, but had two flats at the procenium, making it look like it turned in and held the chracacters trapped. The pressure was ON.

Orton was a master. And WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, although a lot about sex, was at top about madness, the other topic in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE as well. It's set in a madhouse, only you never see any of the inmates. It's about how crazy the doctors and their families are.

For the record, I find farce plotting to be the hardest writing I've ever done.

Diogo said...

I don't think it totally disproves it. I too am a fan of Fawlty towers, and if you check the episodes there's at least 2 I can think of that are based or are fueled by the perception that everybody is sleeping around. One is the 3rd episode of the 1st series, where Basil thinks not only that an attractive guest is hitting on him, but also that Polly is involved with a couple of friends of friends that are in town for a wedding. I believe it's called the wedding party. and than there's the classical "psychiatrist" show, where Basil's fears and anxieties about sex fuel him into thinking a married couple of Psychiatrists is analyzing his every thought and move. 2 out of 12 is not bad. lol
Also, if you really want to prove my theory, "Three's company" did almost 200 shows of farce. and, almost in every occasion it envolved someone hearing something that, if misunderstood could be contrued as sexual, or have some kind of connection with sex. I'm not saying that it is always what it's about, but, at one point or another there seems to be elements of it in farce.

Anonymous said...

>>The Toronto Star just published a blistering expose of the Sitcom Room by one of our first attendees, Rick Whelan.<<

Well, it certainly gave me blisters when I read it, or mayby that was the woman I met in a bar last week.

Alaskaray

D. McEwan said...

What I wrote was that THE KIPPER AND THE CORPSE was the best of FAWLTY TOWERS's episodes, and it's not remotely about sex, which DOES disprove the idea that sex MUST be a factor in Farce. (No sex in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE either.) Without question, there were a large number of sex-motivated episodes of FAWLTY TOWERS. Basil's extreme Puritanical streak was a major component of his character make-up. One of the biggest laughs in the whole series was the sight of Basil's handprint on the pretty bimbo's breast.

If you have to cite crapola like THREE'S COMPANY to make a point about farce, we're speaking from different planets. I saw maybe three episodes, 30 years ago. It was garbage, not worth the electricity needed to power the TV long enough to watch it, and not worthy of the term "Farce". Critical regard over the years has certainly confirmed this verdict. Limp situation comedy was what that was.(In other words, my mother loved it. Mother's rotten taste strikes again!) I wouldn't go so far as to say Joe Orton wouldn't have peed on THREE'S COMPANY, because I suspect he would have.

Bedroom farce is a major sub-genre of farce, but non-sex farces are out there also. How important was sex as a motivator in the Opening-a-restaurant episode of FRASIER?

For a real Theater Major's Pointless Argument, try this one on: traditional farce structure requires three acts. WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, which is generally held to be a perfect farce masterpiece, is two acts. Is it a Classical Farce? I want 2000 words by Thursday. Spelling counts.

DMC said...

My favorite farcical episode of Frasier is The Ski Lodge.When Martin enters towards the end and finds everyone in comprimising positions,his calmly stated, well goodnight all,cracks me up.

Anonymous said...

I love all the Frasier episodes that have beeen mentioned, but I want to put in a good word for "An Affair to Forget" - David Hyde Pierce's physical comedy is brilliant and I always get a hoot from the translations from German to Spanish to English..."Irresistible? Maris?"

Judith

Anonymous said...

While I truly enjoy the farcical episodes of Fraser, and there were so many of them, it seemed to me that the writers very often wrote many lines of seemingly normal dialogue all to set up a punch line. My absolute favorite was when Daphne had put on a lot of weight and had hurt her ankle and fallen in the living room. After Fraser, Niles, and Martin manage to pick her up, Martin quips that "it took three Cranes to lift her". Correct me if I'm wrong, but everything in the episode to that point was there just to set up that line, and it was hillarious!

Bob

Anonymous said...

Yes, Frasier often built farce up to a great punchline:

Consider An Affair to Forget, and the brilliance of having the housekeeper translate German into Spanish, and then Frasier translate Spanish into English for Niles's benefit, all leading to the following exchange:

Niles: "En Garde!"
Frasier (exasperated): "Niles! Just what we need -- a fourth language!"

Or First Do No Harm, the episode where Frasier dates Teri Hatcher, but she only wants free therapy. Niles suggests that Frasier is dating her out of a latent desire to flex his analytic muscles, and Frasier responds: "Niles, Marie's a beautiful woman with a fabulous body, and you think I'm only intersted in her mind! How shallow do you think I am?"

Couldn't make that up. But someone did.

Batocchio said...

I've been catching up on Frasier late at night in reruns. Some really sharp writing. Grammer and Pierce really commit!

bygeorge said...

I just saw "Dad's night out" (I believe, the one where the Dad pretends to be gay). Perfect example demonstrating your tutorial on farce to a "T". Funny.