Monday 28 February 2011

A Big Silly Thing

Okay, enough talk about money and courses and radio. Let's do some script nitty-gritty: the time, A Big Silly Thing.

Sometimes, when sitting in a room storylining Miranda, we talk about big silly events happening - those big farcical moments that stretch the laws of probability and credulity, but are undoubtedly funny.

When that happens, you need to ask two questions. Is it funny enough to justify this stretch in credibility? It may well do. A big clear physical joke that does not contravene character is fine. You can bend the laws of Physics as much as you like, ironically. But when a character behaves implausibly for the sake of a joke, the audience won't like it. So play with Newtonian physics by all means, as long as the joke is consistent with the characters and the story. But don't mess with the characters.

But even then the timing might not be right. And here is the second question. Where is it happening in the script? Once or twice, I've found myself saying out loud 'It's okay - it's the end of the show so we can do it'. I've been trying to work out why I say that - and let's remember this is an art, not a science - but this big silly events can happen at the end of the script, but not in the middle.

Maybe it's because everything in a sitcom needs to have consequences, right the way to the end. If someone does something miraculous in the middle of the show, the characters would have to respond to it in some way, which could knock your story out of shape. There would be 'fall-out' from the story. But if this silly thing happens at the end, we're spared all that reaction. Besides, know that the slate is wiped clean and we begin again next week with everything back to normal.

So, a Big Silly Thing is essentially a 'joke for free' - or something that tops a set-piece scene or moment. Almost like a punchline. I shouldn't really matter. And it certainly shouldn't be a plot resolver - or it may look like a Deus Ex Machina, which is essentially a resolution to a story that none of us could have seen coming and isn't merited by the characters. (See Measure for Measure for Shakespeare's lousiest ending when a Duke appears out of nowhere and wraps it all up. I've not read it or seen it, but it sounds dreadul.)

The characters are the key - they get themselves into messes, and they have to get themselves out again, or at least overcome characters flaws in order to accept help.
I'd be interested to hear the views and experiences of others.


  1. Timing is everything. As long as everyone involved in the joke is taking the situation "seriously" then the outrageous event will be at least worth a giggle. Thanks for the big silly thing

  2. I think it's in McKee's 'Story' (or possibly the Goldman books) but he says that by the third act you can afford to take some license with the story; hopefully you've earnt the audience's trust and engagement. The third act should take off and soar through the air, like, so don't sweat the small stuff. Right?

    Anyway, that's why I think you can get silly at the end.

    Also, is there something in using a big silly event at the end of sitcom to subvert reality - effectively breaking the fourth wall? Which is really the essence of all good jokes. (the overall story is constructed like an elaborate joke).

    Seinfeld, for example, often culminates in something that stretches reality but the first two acts of the story are based on an observation of a minute human truth.

    The example that springs to mind - but isn't the best one - is the race episode where Jerry is forced into racing an old rival from school. It starts as a (believeable) story about Jerry cheating in a race and ends with a very cinematic Superman pastiche.

    Right? Right?