Saturday, June 09, 2012

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.

35 comments:

Jeff Quest said...

Anyone have a best of list for Fraiser farces?

Rinaldo said...

They did others, but for me these are the three best (and the best ANY series has ever done):

The Matchmaker
The Two Mrs. Cranes
The Ski Lodge

All written by the great Joe Keenan.

Horaceco said...

In a question unrelated to your post, did you work that 6 pitcher not hitter vs the Dodgers?

Sebastian Peitsch said...

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582482/

'nuff said.

A_Homer said...

Great post, and also to add, Frasier captures the spirit of a farce because of the other attributes already established in the two brothers characters, that they have this inability to overlook what would be a "detail" that then spirals out of control, and their energetic commitment to following a plan through in spite of that spiralling out of control.

On a semi-related note: Did I miss this on an earlier post somewhere: Matthew Weiner was a writer on BECKER before he moved to create Mad Men!?

Tom Quigley said...

I still think that the "An Old-Fashioned Wedding" episode on CHEERS (the one where the minister who was to marry Woody and Kelly died before the ceremony) was one of the great sitcom farce episodes of all time. I believe David Lloyd got writer's credit for it.

benson said...

Two things:

Horaceco beat me to it, but in my best Allen Iverson voice: "Six pitchers? Six pitcher? We're talking six pitchers?

They were all great, but my two favorite Frasier farces were The Ski Lodge (I'm not gay, Guy) and Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz ("Jesus!" Great sight gag when Niles exits the bathroom)

DBA said...

Seriously, we can talk farces anytime, but the night after a no-no from a team you broadcast? Or are you writing up something giant for later?

Ken Levine said...

I did not work last night's game. I've now missed one no-hitter and one perfect game. Watched the Mariners' telecast though. Dave Sims, Mike Blowers, and Dan Wilson did a GREAT job of calling it.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. It's no secret that I love farces. Classic farces. Loved working out the stories in the room and loved directing them. Most of my favorites included those by Keenan, David Lloyd and Levine/Issacs who were masters of the form. I've noticed nowadays farce is often confused with silliness. They actually are dead serious. And they are extremely, extremely difficult to do. One variety requires multiple doors being able to be seen in one shot, which is why they work so well on stage but not on film or TV. For the ski lodge episode my one caveat was that the set be able to accommodate a shot of all the lodge room doors together. The brilliant Roy Christopher pulled it off, though I recall having to have the camera half way down the soundstage! I think I remember an homage to Feydeau on one of the cards in that episode.

Matt Patton said...

One of the greatest farces of all time, SOME LIKE OT HOT, is built around two characters who have something very serious at stake, namely, their lives. One of the thing that always keeps the film from flying off into silliness is the fact that one seriously wrong step and our heroes could wind up in the ladies' morgue. (Until it's discovered they're really guys in dresses, at which point they'll die of shame.) The other brilliant thing about the plot is the way that the big lie that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon tell to stay alive gets tangled up with all of the other big lies that Curtis' character keeps telling so he can seduce Marilyn Monroe. And, just at that moment, in walk the gangsters whose mass murder sent these two into hiding in the first place. And that entrance truly is a matter of perfect timing. It ratchets up the proceedings just that extra notch needed to keep you interested and set up the finale. Wilder didn't always get it right (LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and KISS ME, STUPID never quite jell), but when he did get it right, oh boy . . .

Paul Duca said...

Well...nobody's perfect.

Damon Rutherford said...

The problem with farces -- even the ones on "Frasier" -- are that they are not very realistic, and thus I have difficulty in accepting the premise of the lies upon lies and all the craziness/mayhem/wackiness that ensues. This is also the case for the catastrophe episodes, like the one on "Frasier" when the brothers buy a classy restaurant. Of course everything goes wrong! (Yawn.)

Have there been farces where those lying get away with it!? That too me would be much more interesting, if the initial lie was realistic and warranted, and then the increasing lies are subtle, logical, and believable -- even though the character(s) is/are still at the verge of breaking and doing whatever they can to win.

But inevitably the lies become too much and all is revealed. (Yawn again.)

Damon Rutherford said...

Errata:

The problem with farces ... IS ...

&

That *to* me would be...

(Can not NOT correct myself)

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

As great as the farces of "Frasier," are, and yes, they were absolutely amazing, have you ever seen the British version of "Coupling"? To me, that show did sex farce as well as Shakespeare did. I'm always in amazement at how they did it. I think farce is by far, the toughest genre to write. Lord knows, I've tried, and frankly I admire even attempts.

Dana King said...

This is, to me, what made Frasier stand out as a show. It could be the most intellectual comedy on TV one week, then a complete farce, and throw in a little slapstick, and pull them all off effortlessly. At least make them all seem effortless to the viewer.

D. McEwan said...

Well, I won't argue that Fawlty Towers did farce better than Frasier, but they did them every bit as well. It was 12 nearly-perfect farces. Adn the best wwas The Kipper and the Corpse which involved lugging a dead htoel guest around. You can hardly get more serious than that.

I have found farces really difficult to write, but on the few times I've brought one off, I find myself terribly proud of it.

In London in 1994 I saw a Feydeau farce titled An Absolute Turkey, though it was anything but. It starred Felicity Kendall, and I wish everyone who wished to attempt farce, either as a writer, a director or an actor, could see that production. It was utter perfection. Thank Heaven for the two interemissions. Without them, I'd have died of exphixiation from laughing out all my air and never being able to draw a breath in.

I do have a favorite farce: Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw: the verbal wit of Oscar Wilde, the bawdiness of Orton alone, and the most-perfectly constructed farce plot I've ever read. I've yet to see a stage production of it that does it justice.

I wrote a stage sex-farce set entirely in The Oval Office I rather like, though, as David Lee has pointed out, you need lots of doors, and I think I added about three more doors than it actually has, as well as a trap door in the floor, and a sliding glass door to a patio outside. I set it in unbroken real time, and the first line of act 2 is the last line of act 1 to emphasize that there is truly no break in the action. As for being about something deadly serious, hey, the farcical complication that drops the act 1 curtain is the realization that they've just accidentally nuked England off the map.

jbryant said...

Damon: I think if you made a farce "realistic," it would no longer be a farce.

It's sort of like complaining that fairy tales aren't realistic.

cshel said...

I love farce, and I love Frasier, so I thought the Frasier farces were really funny.

I want to write some farce, so thanks for the tips, Ken.

Woo hoo, David Lee.

Fawlty Towers was genius.

Anonymous said...

I think another great Frasier farce was Out With Dad. Worth it just for the look on Niles' face and his body language when he comes out holding Martin's pretending to be his boyfriend.

And I agree with McEwan about The Kipper and the Corpse.

pumpkinhead said...

Oh, that was me right above. Guess I forgot to fill in my name.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Joe Keenan once said, that although the farces were hammered out in the room just like any story, he prefeered to take them home to work out the plot points. Are there any other things that ae hard to do in a room?

Larry said...

Good farce is incredibly hard to pull off. A common mistake is, even though there's a heightened reality and a certain suspension of disbelief, by and large it's best to make most of the characters, especially the antagonists, at least reasonably intelligent. If everyone acts like idiots, who cares if you put one over on them? Anyone could do it.

Johnny Walker said...

Favourite Frasier farce? The Innkeepers (the one where they buy their favourite restaurant to keep it from closing).

That's the only show that left me with my mouth agape.

That said, as enjoyable as a good farce can be, I think the problem with farces (if, indeed there is one) is that they rely on surprise. The second time through is never as funny as the first.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous [Pumpkinhed] said...
I think another great Frasier farce was Out With Dad. Worth it just for the look on Niles' face and his body language when he comes out holding Martin's pretending to be his boyfriend."


Oh yes! The first time I saw that episode, I was VERY glad I was watching a recordiing of it rather than watching it live, because once Niles "broke up" with Martin and stormed out. ("I'm keeping the jewelry!"), I had to crank it back and rewatch Niles's entire scene from entrance to exit again, before going on to the rest of the episode. Lack of surprise didn't stop it from being even funnier the second time. Within a great script, there was David Hyde Pierce proving what genius comedy acting is all about. His face at each and every moment in his scene was beyond brilliant (same for his "body language") and into the realm of the comic sublime.

Anonymous said...

If you were to ask me five times which my favorite Frasier farce is, I'd have five different answers.

A shout-out, though, to the episode in which Daphne's ex-fiance Clive visits: after the entire thing falls apart, Clive still believes Martin's half-assed claim to be an astronaut. Beautiful!

Damon Rutherford said...

" Larry said...
Good farce is incredibly hard to pull off. A common mistake is, even though there's a heightened reality and a certain suspension of disbelief, by and large it's best to make most of the characters, especially the antagonists, at least reasonably intelligent. If everyone acts like idiots, who cares if you put one over on them? Anyone could do it."

This was a point I was trying to make as well with my complain about farces. Both Frasier brothers are very intelligent, if not geniuses, and to see them excessively blunder about and act without a respectable and believable level of intelligence in the farces seems to be too out of character for them.

Bob Claster said...

One cannot praise Joe Keenan enough. That last season without him on Desperate Housewives was painful. Also, his three brilliant books cannot be sufficiently praised, as they are among the very funniest books you'll ever read. Anyone who thinks that reading a book can't make you laugh so hard you'll have to put the book down hasn't read Keenan's books.

The Milner Coupe said...

I love the Thanksgiving episode where Frasier and Lilith are trying to get their kid accepted into that hoyty prep school and they keep making up excuses to go back to the dean's house. I've seen it a half dozen times and it's still funny.

mrswing said...

The best farces on TV ever were the great Fawlty Towers episodes. The Frasier farces get a very very respectable silver award.
Oh, there's an early sitcom by Steven Moffatt, Joking Apart, in which every episode was a very clever sexually-tinged farce. Some episodes were brilliant, some were too-clever duds, but the second half of the first episode of season 2 (phew) is among the funniest 10 sitcom moments EVER.

Johnny Walker said...

Good point! Fawlty Towers is still enjoyed today. There's something about farces that make them less funny to me, on repeated viewings, but maybe it's when the characters get really broad? I don't know.

Also, JOKING APART! I loved that show! I'd forgotten about it. I thought the first series was brilliant, especially the way it ended. I caught a couple of the second series, but it seemed too exaggerated. Plus I thought the first one was just so perfect on its own. A beautifully packaged story.

I can understand everyone involved wanting to take advantage of the success of the first series, but I felt it ended so perfectly that a second one could only detract.

I can't believe that was Steven Moffat! I had no idea who he was at the time. I remember Robert Bathurst acted his balls off, too.

Thanks for the reminder, I think I'll have to track that down.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. For anyone else who remembers JOKING APART -- the story of its DVD release is fascinating.

A fan bought the rights for the series and released it himself. So badly did he want it to be available.

Incredible.

chuckcd said...

I have always hated the unrealistic lying that characters do in sitcoms.
I guess its just too hard to simply tell the truth about the inflatable doll in the living room?

Tom Galloway said...

I'll second the nomination for British Coupling, in particular "The End of the Line", the final episode in the second series. I can't believe how many threads Moffat (who wrote all the episodes) managed to tie together in that 40 minutes or so.

Mrs Richards said...

Out With Dad is the single best episode of a sitcom - only ahead of Communications Problems on Fawlty Towers