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Thursday, May 12, 2005

I'm trying to reconcile two bits of comic wisdom. Both Chris Abbott and Mark Farrell pointed out to me that you cut comedy differently from drama. In drama, the witness says something, and halfway through, you cut to the investigator for their reaction. In comedy, you stay on the character saying the joke until they're done saying it.

At the same time, comedy isn't in the line, it's in the reaction to the line. We don't laugh during the line. We laugh in the pause after the line.

Is it that you don't cut to the other character's reaction because you don't want to telegraph it -- you want to save that character's reaction until the joke is out -- because it's the reaction itself that's funny?

In shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Mark and also DJ McCarthey have remarked to me that they get a lot of comic mileage from characters' reactions. We're laughing as they react to the situation -- and then we laugh again when they say whatever joke they have to say after we've seen the reaction on their faces:

-- Raymond's mom says something horribly annoying to him
-- Raymond does a slow burn
-- Raymond: sarcastic comment>

Thinking back I guess they did this on Friends, too, but I think the pace was faster so it wasn't as obvious a pause between the reaction and the line.

I'm not sure this is universal. You don't need to wait for the reaction shot:

Ross: comically expresses his frustration--
Rachel: unaffected, comes out with a zinger.

So the comedy isn't only in the other character's reaction. All we need is our own reaction. But if you really want to milk a scene, you're probably milking it in the other characters' reactions.

Thoughts?

5 Comments:

alex

don't watch much tv, but know friends. this reaction thing was done a lot with chandler after joey said something dumb.

like when joey was dating phoebe's twin. joey wants to go on date with twin on a given night but it turns out to be phoebe's birthday (and the gang is having a party for phoebe that joey can't miss). joey is irked because it's also the twin's birthday and they had plans too. 'what are the chances of that'? he asks.

here, ross and chandler wait for joey to realize what is going on with the twins having the same birthday. chandler gets most of the weight as he is sitting next to joey. wait, wait - you can hear the audience about to bust. joey gets it, throws his arms up and chandler says: there it is! audience finally gets to roar laughing at joke that's been ongoing for several seconds.

proof is in the pudding - check out jack benny's radio program. gracie allen would get in a zinger and, nothing...titters from audience but no reaction from jack. and, this was radio - no picture. at home the folks were looking at each other thinking 'jack just got burned pretty bad'. then, he'd say his line - it was okay, would get a laugh, but the comedy was in the silence between gracie's line and jack's retort. (if you listen, there is often huge response to gracie's line [i mean, sometimes just roaring laughs for maybe 10-20 seconds], followed by polite laughs after jack's response)

off top of head - seems like there is a corollary in psych thrillers - the scare isn't in the scare, it's in the wait for the scare. anybody that writes this genre knows: what really scares the audience is what's not seen, not what jumps out of the shadows


zilla
ps - there's also an axiom in classical music - the music is in the spaces between the notes

By Blogger kojled, at 12:33 PM  

I think it's a choice that affects the texture of the comedy. In a fast-paced comedy show like Reno 911 or The Simpsons, they use very few reaction shots, unless that reaction is necessary to set up another gag.

I'd compare the choice to the choice of whether to use a laugh track in a comedy. In both cases, you make a bargain: how much do we expect the audience to catch that this is funny? How much do we trust the actors to make the reaction shot interesting?

By Anonymous 'drew, at 2:19 PM  

Actually, the Simpsons does sometimes get humor from a reaction shot--the only problem is, it's harder to convey a reaction in a cartoon. So, the reaction shots often seem to consist of Homer looking blank (because it's easier to convey "blankness" in animation), or of Marge or Lisa saying "Ummm" or something similar (because an audio reaction allows the actor to convey emotion in the same way that a visual reaction does in a live show.)

But different shows definitely do this to different degrees--as you say, Raymond uses the reaction shot often and brilliantly, which I think is one reason why the show has such a classical feel to it.

By Anonymous Jacob, at 11:21 AM  

If you want to see perfect comic cutting, see the scene in Alexander Payne's "Election" in which Tracy tells Mr. M her mother works at the city's largest law firm.

By Blogger Larry Fouch, at 11:31 AM  

it depends on where your laugh is

the comedy in everyone loves... is in the reaction of the character.
so you cut to them so we can see their jaw drop or whatever they do.

when it's just the phrase itself that is funny, you stay where the money is.

By Blogger zen, at 10:34 PM  

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