Saturday, January 21, 2017

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.

This is a re-post from five years ago.

24 comments :

Pat Reeder said...

There were many episodes of "Frasier" that were great farces (like the one where the family pretends to be Jewish at Christmas to fool Frasier's girlfriend's Jewish mother, and Niles blunders in dressed as Jesus). But my favorite has to be the one where Frasier's family all pretend to be something they're not to fool Daphne's ex-boyfriend. The way Martin takes delight in throwing ridiculous curveballs into the narrative, like claiming to be a retired astronaut just to make it more convoluted, lifts it to the next level. Favorite line: when Niles (I think) says that Daphne's married name is "Daphne Moon-Crane," and Martin muses, "I remember the first time I drove the moon crane."

BobinVT said...

The ski lodge episode of Fraser.

Mateja Đedović said...

Any recommendations for great farces? My favourite is "Noises Off". Unfortunately, Bogdanovich broke the pacing with a misjudged close-up when Michael Caine leaves the theater to throw a cactus out.

Gwendolyn said...

The Two Mrs. Cranes makes me laugh just to think about it.

Bill Avena said...

I loved FAWLTY TOWERS for its farce, what with corpses falling out of closets and trodden-on ducks.

Diane D said...

Obviously we know you are an amazing writer, but this has to be one of the best blog posts I've ever read! Your description of a farce is so compelling, I felt like I was actually watching one! I had to take a deep breath when I finished. My absolute favorite FRASIER episodes are the farces, especially the one where Martin says he used to be an Astronaut!

Jerod Butt said...

When I see the word farce, I think: Joe Keenan.

Jeff said...

"The Innkeepers"

Douglas O. said...

Is your definition of a farce the one that's agreed upon by comedy writers? The reason I ask is that I frequently see the word used to describe many types of broad comedy, anything from the FRASIER episodes you describe to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE THREE STOOGES.

VP81955 said...

To me, "Married...With Children" often was terrific farce.

Donald Benson said...

"Noises Off" the movie was okay, but not a patch on the stage play. Act one was an unfortunate final rehearsal of the play-within-a-play's first act. Act two was that same act seen from behind the set a few weeks later, with relations between actors strained. Act three is out front during a later performance, when things have deteriorated to the point of collapse. It doesn't so much end as just stop.

Kevin said...

Another vote for"The Innkeepers," especially the bit with Niles, Daphne, and the eel.

D. McEwan said...

"Mateja Đedović said...
Any recommendations for great farces?"


You can't top Joe Orton's masterpiece farce What The Butler Saw.

" Douglas O. said...
Is your definition of a farce the one that's agreed upon by comedy writers? The reason I ask is that I frequently see the word used to describe many types of broad comedy, anything from the FRASIER episodes you describe to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE THREE STOOGES.


The term "Farce" refers to a specific form of comedy, the one so well described by Ken. Many people writing about comedies use the terms "Farce" or "Farcical" very, very incorrectly. They assume if a comedy is goofy and far-fetched, that it's farce. They are wrong more often than right.

The Marx Brothers are often described as "Farceurs" and their movies as farces. They are not. Only the Marx Brothers movie Room Service is a farce, and sometimes they included a farcical scene, like the scene where the detective is trying to find them in Groucho's apartment in A Night at the Opera, or the in-and-out-the doors sequence in The Cocoanuts, but overall, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera are not farces. (BTW, the Frasier episode "Room Service" is also a farce, and for my money, funnier than the Marx Brothers movie of the same title. The Marx Brothers were too carefree and anarchic to make farce work. The Frasier "Room Service" was written by two obscure guys called "Isaacs & Levine.)

OK, Ken, I won't say Fawlty Towers did farce better than Frasier, but then FT did farce every bit as well. FT is 12 perfect short farces.

Philip said...

I like the premier of season 5 I think, when Daphne wants to put off her old flame only to see that he is now successful, but has lied about being married to Niles. The pointless lie Marty makes about being an astronaut is so funny!

I'ven't watched a ton of TV, but i agree, so many good Frasier farces!

Anonymous said...

CLUE the movie. Great farce, with bodies no less.

But Fawlty Towers. Period.


Sean

Joe Blow said...

Could someone please explain the difference between screwball comedy and farce?

Nick said...

An absurd situation - where the characters lie and then have to build upon their lies by lying again and again?

Brilliant! You've just described the Trump administration!

Now I know it's a farce

Terrence Moss said...

Mad About You did a great one too: "Giblets for Murray" - the third season's Thanksgiving show.

cadavra said...

In fairness to Bogdanovich, Disney took away the film and recut it, as well as tacking on that dreadful happy ending. But he deserves full credit for filming what had been widely described as an unfilmable play.

One definition of the difference between farce and screwball comedy: realistic characters in an unrealistic situation vis-a-vis unrealistic characters in a realistic situation. Though the textbook definition of the latter is a story in which the romantic leads are the comedians, and generally act, as Howard Hawks put it, "like damn fools."

Joe Blow said...

Thanks, Cadavra!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mateja Đedović: A lot of great ones in French theater, of course. Beyond that, you might look up some of the British playwright Ray Cooney's plays. I agree with D. McEwan that the Marx Brothers were not in general farceurs, but the great, great hotel scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is, as he says, an exception. (They're lying, but for *serious* reasons!) I don't in general think farce - like stage magic - adapts particularly well to cinema because part of the tension is that the actors' timing has to be so precise and so flawless, and in cinema you know they can do as many takes as they need to get it right. TV, shot in front of a live audience, seems to be able to do it much better.

My personal problem is that I'm less and less interested in characters who tell stupid lies for trivial reasons.

wg

Pseudonym said...

"Mateja Đedović said...
Any recommendations for great farces?"

I second the choice of WHAT THE BUTLER SAW. I would add:

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, William Shakespeare. (This is arguably the original English farce from which all English farces are descended.)
CHARLEY'S AUNT, Brandon Thomas.
NO SEX PLEASE, WE'RE BRITISH, Marriott & Foot.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Larry Gelbart (of course), Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim; having said that, a lot of the credit goes to Titus Maccius Plautus, who may be considered a pioneer of the farce in many ways.

An honourable mention goes to Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. I'm still not sure if this is strictly a farce or not...

D. McEwan said...

"Blogger Pseudonym said...
An honourable mention goes to Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. I'm still not sure if this is strictly a farce or not..."


Arsenic and Old Lace is quite definitely farce, a black one, and one of my favorites. All your examples are indeed farces. One could sneak in Where's Charley?, since it's a musical of Charley's Aunt, one of the most venerable farces around.

Pretty much anything by Feydoux. I saw Feydoux's farce An Absolute Turkey onstage in London many years ago, and it was screamingly hilarious from start to finish.

One can argue about their quality, but the movie What's New Pussycat and the movie/stage play The Ritz are farces also.

Steve Daly said...

Just reading comments mentioning "The Two Mrs. Cranes" and "The Ski Lodge" made me laugh out loud, to the point where my eyes have welled up a little.