Saturday, October 10, 2009

Speaking Farce-y

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.

29 comments :

Mel said...

One of my all-time favorite episodes of Frasier is the one at the ski lodge -- lots of slamming doors and lies and mistaken intentions and one of the funniest 22 or so minutes I've ever seen on television.

wayne said...

"I Love Lucy" did farce so good, 50 years later, it's rerun daily.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a farce each week.

This season's first 2 shows even had adultery jeopardy so they were just like a Feydeau French bedroom farce.

Aron said...

The first few Frasier farces were fantastic [Frasier's gay boss, Daphne's ex-fiancee]. After four or five, they felt forced. And few things are less funny than forced farce.

Kurt said...

Nonsense. Frasier farces never felt forced.

John said...

A farce in TV show -- with characters that (other than a really early episode) the audience is already familiar with -- also works best when the writers are able to work within those known personalities and character traits/flaws.

When the situation only works if this or that character has to be slightly out of their normal personality or (to borrow from Siskel and Ebert) when "the idiot plot" has to be invoked, creating a situation that only works if the characters act like idiots or at least well below their normal IQ levels, then no matter how good the jokes might be, there's a gnawing sense that something's just not right with the scene and it keeps you from fully enjoying what's going on.

Wallis Lane said...

"Frasier farces never felt forced."

Try saying that three times fast.

I agree about the ski lodge and gay boss episodes. Those were classic farces. I also loved Woody and Kelly's wedding from "Cheers"

To my taste, however, the 12 best farces in TV history were all 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers.

Ммм said...

As for me, no show ever did farces better than Joking Apart (by Steven "Coupling" Moffat).

Toby O'B said...

My favorite farce episode of 'Frasier' was the one in which all the males - including Eddie! - found themselves in Daphne's room when she specifically requested that they respect her boundaries.

Bob Claster said...

Wasn't Joe Keenan the Farcemeister on FRASIER? (His three novels, by the way, are among the funniest books ever written.)

emily said...

"Roz and the Schnoz"

Rinaldo said...

Joe Keenan was indeed the master farceur at Frasier, and I would rank his 3 classic farce episodes for that series as superior to any written for stage or film during that era. The ones I mean are "The Matchmaker" (Frasier's gay boss thinks they're on a date), "The Two Mrs. Cranes" (Daphne's ex-fiance visits), and "The Ski Lodge." Shining, perfect half hours of television.

I may have missed some later equally good examples, the attempts I did see struck me as... not forced, but not quite successful. The one with the family pretending to be Jewish for instance; it left me thinking during the initial setup, "But this doesn't make sense, there are easier more obvious ways to get out of this." And once a farce allows you to think that, the thing unravels.

I agree about Fawlty Tower.

Trixie said...

I enjoyed every laugh I get out of Frasier, but my favorite has always been Niles' Valentine dinner episode.

Mark said...

Frasier farces were the best. Well crafted and acted humor.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't a regular "FRASIER" viewer, so I can't comment on every attempt at farce, but Aron and particularly John above have a point.

I do know from personal experience that when an episode is predicated on a character - or worse, several characters - ignoring or refusing to utter a simple truth (often a single sentence or even word) that would immediately straighten out an artificially twisted plot, I reach for the only known relief from Forced Farce.

The remote control.

Gareth said...

Frasier did indeed have the best farces. The top 5 I can think of were all Joe Keenan episodes. 3 of those have already been mentioned here, so I'll give a shout-out for the other 2 - "Out With Dad" (where Martin pretends to be gay to get out of a date) and "The Doctor is Out" (where Frasier is mistaken for being gay, but doesn't deny it when theatre producer Patrick Stewart romances him). Brilliantly written and played to perfection.

whereimbloggingfrom said...

'The Matchmaker' and 'Daphne's Room' are among my faves because as farces go, they're quite realistic - not wacky like 'The Innkeepers' or relying a lot on coincidence like 'The Ski Lodge' - but no less funny for that.

Janice said...

I absolutely love the opening scene where Niles is ironing his pants and they catch on fire. The resulting sequence is magical. And it's true, the fact that his character stays true (he needs to run, but he's holding scissors so he must walk!) makes it that much more fantastic.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Sorry for posting as anonymous, but I am still vexed trying to sign in to Google. I directed all the Joe Keenan FRASIER farces. He truly is a master. Yes, some were more successful than others, but he is a master at the form. We were fortunate to have other skilled farceurs on staff too. And the sitcom form lends itself to them very well because, unlike a playwright, the writer does not have to spend the first act setting up the character and relationships--the audience already knows them--so it's straight to the complication and "Go!" Why don't more sitcoms do them then? Because they are extremely, extremely difficult to get right. They require the height of craft and cleverness combined with incredible puzzle making skills. The biggest mistake to be made is thinking that farcical behavior is silly behavior. Motivations must be grounded and each new lie or misunderstanding rooted in reality-or at least the characters reality. I've seen directors ruin even Feydeau with this misstep. As a side note, i told Roy Christopher, the set designer for "The Ski Lodge" that the big scene would not work unless I was able to see all the door in one master shot. This is often why farce does not translate well to film or TV. On stage you see all the doors slamming in one view but on screen cuts are needed which flatten laughs. On a soundstage it is a difficult trick to pull off, but Roy managed it magnificently. I was able to get that giant master you will see when you watch it. Anyway, just had to weigh in on my favorite form of comedy. Now back to my nook.

emily said...

Want to be impressed? Check out David Lee's credits.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lee, I agree completely. And that is why I have every episode of Frasier on DVD. Yes, all 11 seasons.

-Ralphie

Brendan DuBois said...

I like to echo Janice that the best farcial scene was when Niles was ironing his pants, and they eventually caught fire... and Eddie/Moose was watching and barking as well... pure amusing hysteria...

benson said...

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for all the entertainment.

Also, may I add another favorite Frasier farce- "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz". The scene with Niles teaching Martin how to speak like a Jew, and the sight gag with Niles in costume for the Christmas pageant.

J S Swanson said...

Wow! An appearance by Mr Lee. Classy. My 2 fave farces are The Ski Lodge & Out with Dad. Both episodes are a David Hyde Pierce master class in farce. And John Mahoney was also spot on in Out with Dad.

Matt said...

My favorite episode of Frasier is "Ham Radio."

I've only seen it once, when it was first broadcast, which was 12 years ago now. I remember howling with laughter at this one and it has stayed with me.

I'll have to watch it again within the context of your post, Ken.

Anonymous said...

One of may favorite Frasier farces is the episode where Fraiser and Niles buy the restaurant, and opening night turns into a disaster. And one of the best scenes in that episode is where Niles is squeamish about preparing the eel, so Daphne reaches into the tank, grabs an eel, swings it over her head, and slams it onto the counter.

flipyrwhig said...

The Ski Lodge episode is Renaissance-worthy. I always allude to it when I teach comedy in English class.

GabbyD said...

i really liked the farces in the UK coupling

Epiphany said...

The Two Mrs Cranes had the potential to be one of Frasier's best ever farces. However, for most Brits (and non-Brits who have 'the ear'), it was totally ruined by Scott Atkinson, the US actor playing Daphne's British ex fiancé.

He's right up there with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins as far as accents go.

With so many UK actors trying to make it in the US, why didn't they just cast a Brit in the role? I thought we came cheap?

If an actor can do the accent required - irrespective of original nationality - great. If not, don't bother.

Kevinmacduff7137 said...

For my money, Joe Keenan became the master of farce the day P.G. Wodehouse failed to make the journey from desk back to hospital bed. I have all the Frasier series and all three of Keenan's books. If that man ever decided to teach a course in farce, I'd give a leg to attend, except (as they said in the Monty Python movie) "I'm using it."

This blog is an inspiration to aspiring writers. Somebody talk Keenan into making his own blog!!!