Four Principles of Comedy Editing
I found this information online when looking for inspirations and ideas behind comedy editing, the full text can be found here:
1. Timing is key.
Timing refers to the choice, control or judgment about when something should be shown, cut to, or cut away from. Here I’m not only referring to a single cut or image, but to the internal pacing of a whole sequence. When you listen to a person who tells a joke well, or watch a comic who’s perfected his or her routine, you can see this principle at work. There’s set-up, rhythm, build-up, delivery—all executed with precision, suggesting that the act has been engineered and timed for a certain effect. Great comedians have mastered this principle, even going so far as to build in pauses for audience laughter and reaction.
When working with comedic material, an editor must simultaneously be both comedian and audience. If the performers themselves are funny and have great comedic timing, the job is easy. If the comedian or actor blunders a bit or the timing is off the mark, the editor then has to find opportunities to enhance the humor or create humor where no humor really exists. In that case, using his or her best judgment, the editor must select moments with the potential for humor and construct a sequence that an audience will hopefully find amusing, figuring out when and where to cut, and crafting a rhythmic, temporal dynamic of shots that will succeed in getting the biggest laugh. Achieving this is harder than it seems. While everyone has an individual sense of timing, you know great timing when you see it—when the joke hits the mark, coming not a split-second too soon or too late.
2. Use the right reaction shot.
The shot-reverse-shot sequence (for example, a person is shown observing something, then a reverse angle shot reveals the object being looked at, and finally a return to the person observing) is one of the most powerful and frequently used building blocks of film storytelling. When a character in a comedy says or does something funny, the film cuts to a reaction from another character, and then returns to the first character.
While the art of comedy lies in the juxtaposition (and timing) of these elements, I find that the right reaction shot is essential. Right doesn’t mean “correct”, but rather the most appropriate. An actor can give you ten different reactions, all of them “correct,” but what’s the most appropriate reaction shot to use in order to elicit the response you desire from the audience? Are you going for subtlety? Looking for affirmation of the joke or situation in the reaction shot, or playing against the joke and the expectations of the audience? Are you going for a giggle, a snicker, or an outright guffaw? How will you craft this joke or moment in relation to what came before and what comes after? All of these questions help to determine the right reaction shot to use. I frequently find that while there are technically many “correct” choices, there’s usually only one right one.
This viral video I edited shows these two principles in action. Promoting a new mouthwash, but also spoofing the hit show 24 in a mockumentary style similar to The Office, the timing quickens the pace and brings out the humor, while priceless reaction shots amplify the impact of the jokes. As in The Office, showing one character’s ridiculous over-the-top antics, followed by a cut to another character’s deadpan reaction almost always succeeds in making the humorous antics even funnier.
(The Office meets 24 in this spoof for SmartMouth.)
3. Let the audience in on the joke beforehand.
Sometimes it pays to let the audience know a key piece of information first. Hitchcock mastered this principle for suspenseful effect: By showing viewers important information (for example, a ticking time bomb) before his characters found out, he created a feeling of tension in the audience. Action and horror films today rely on this time-tested technique; when the killer is in the house and you find yourself screaming at the screen because the character is clueless, you’ll know this principle is at play.
But the same strategy can be used superbly in comedy. In an oft-cited hypothetical example from a Laurel and Hardy film,* the great editor-turned director David Lean advises using the old comedy maxim: “Tell them what you’re going to do. Do it. Tell them you’ve done it” to get the biggest laugh out of the sequence. This means suggesting to the audience what is about to happen in advance of the gag.
In Lean’s example, Laurel and Hardy are running down the street and Hardy slips on a banana peel and falls. Rather than cutting the sequence simply for smooth editing values (for example, Laurel and Hardy running in a full shot, cut to a close-up of the banana peel as his foot enters the frame and steps on the peel slipping, then cutting back to Hardy crashing down on the ground) which would no doubt elicit audience laughter, prime the joke by showing the banana peel well in advance. So Lean’s version of the scene would look like this:
1. Medium-shot of Laurel and Hardy running along the street.
2. Close-up of banana skin lying on the pavement. (You have told your audience what you are going to do and they will start to laugh.)
3. Medium shot of Laurel and Hardy still running. (The audience will laugh still more.) Hold the shot on for several seconds of running before Hardy finally crashes to the pavement. (The odds are that the audience will reward you with a belly laugh. Having told them what you are going to do, and having done it, how do you tell them you’ve done it?)
4. A close-up of Laurel making an inane gesture of despair. (The audience will laugh again.)
As Lean shows, by giving the audience a heads up to the visual comedy, you set the joke up to be even funnier, eliciting multiple laughs and prolonging the audience’s amusement. We have an idea of what’s going to happen, and when it does and is performed well and edited for the right effect (notice shot 4 is a reaction shot from Laurel), the comedic impact is more powerful than if Laurel and Hardy were running and Hardy surprisingly slipped on an unseen banana peel. Why settle for just one comedic incident eliciting a single collective chuckle when you can build up to the big joke with a rich set-up, foreshadowing close-ups, and funny reaction shots that will have the audience chuckling all the way through and roaring by the time the gag is pulled off?
A less obvious but still illustrative example of this principle can be seen in part one of a viral video series I edited for Consumer Reports, in which a wiry goof, Brandon, challenges a low-key Consumer Reports test driver, Jake, to a car race. Jake’s mild-mannered personality is a great foil for Brandon, who comes across as a classic smartass. Timing and reaction shots are integral to the humor as usual, but the principle of letting the audience in on the joke beforehand is at work as well. Like the Laurel and Hardy example, where the audience gets a hint of the joke in advance by seeing a shot of the banana peel well before Hardy slips on it, we flash a quick shot of the Dodge Viper peeling out not long after Brandon announces he’s going to race Jake. When we see that Brandon will be driving a tiny, super fuel-efficient capsule called the Smart Car and Jake, by stark contrast, gets the muscled Viper, we already know what’s going to happen. Take a look at the video to see how the “let ‘em in on the joke beforehand” principle is used to dramatize the race and ramp up the humor:
(Consumer Reports Video 1: Dodge Viper vs. the Smart Car.**)
4. Less is More
As I discovered when editing the Rolling Stone video featuring Aziz Ansari, sometimes cutting things out and showing less amplifies the humor. This made me curious about how other comedic material is edited to see if the editors on a TV show, for example, would employ the same principles. Because I was amused by Aziz, but hadn’t seen him in anything prior to editing the video for Rolling Stone, I decided to check out the first season of Parks and Recreation.
Set in the world of local politics (the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana), the show is the brainchild of Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the duo behind the American version of The Office. Amy Poehler, from Saturday Night Live plays the lead character, Leslie Knope, an ambitious but bumbling mid-level bureaucrat at whose expense everyone gets a laugh. Aziz plays office slacker, Tom Haverford, Leslie’s self-serving (and irrepressibly horny) colleague. Poking fun at the absurd complexities of small town bureaucracy, the show abounds with all the ignorance, idiocy, stupidity, hypocrisy and general buffoonery that we’ve come to expect from both versions of The Office. Executed in the same, frequently understated mockumentary style, Parks and Recreation throws jabs at citizens and bureaucrats alike, revealing how petty and unnecessarily complicated local politics can be—especially when every player has his or her own personal agenda.
I thought this page was really helpful for me to find what styles of shots I need to work with to make it work as a comedy. I like the idea of shot-reverse-shot reactions being needed and shown cleverly between a conversations. I will definitely use these ideas within my work.