What’s Scary, Funny, What’s Drama, Film?

This article in the New York Times absolutely fascinated me for a variety of reasons. I have two writing partners who are both writing ghost/horror stuff, so I think that some of the discussion of what horror moviemakers are thinking would be interesting for them. Evil meowing children are pretty darned scary. And I’ve always been much more terrified by the slow creeping of one slightly off thing after another than of Freddie Krueger, not that I’ve ever watched those movies because I’m not big on gore as a rule, unless it’s Terminator or Pulp Fiction. Anyway, I also find the article riveting because of what it says about the way filmmakers think, and I’m also writing screenplays. And that comedy and horror are similar in that you’re going for this involuntary, inexplicable reaction is a very neat concept, since my friend Susan and I are about to embark on a RoCo (romantic comedy) collaboration. [Oh, my God, it IS our RoCoCo! I’ve been trying to make that happen for a week and it was right there all the time.]
And then it’s just a good read. Enjoy it, but it’s long.

16 thoughts on “What’s Scary, Funny, What’s Drama, Film?

  1. Well — I read it pretty quickly — not a horror buff, and skimmed through the redux of horror in hollywood for the past few decades – but I THOUGHT I focused on the parts you were referring to…And I’m not sure I get it — Logic is paramount to me. I don’t think they were even talking about logic. They were talking about rooting the story in a pedestrian paradigm (the devil… good/evil… that kind of thing) — but there has to be an internal logic. I think we’re just using the terms differently.As to comedy — I think their definition of comedy is woefully limited. Just to evoke a single emotion — a laugh — or whatever — is selling comedy WAY too short, in my book. This is something I’ve thought about a lot — not just because i write it, but back when I was a critic – seeing SO much theatre, including comedy — so much of which was bad — I had little to do, often, but theorize about what I was watching. To me – comedy has more in common with music than it does with drama. Well…maybe not more, but at least as much. That is — it is HIGHLY constrained as to melody and rhythm…but infinite in its evocative reach. Also — like music — it affects us viscerally (a little piece of which is what the TIMES article was describing, maybe). I mean — if drama is bad, (I’m talking about in the theatre — where you’re trapped, the people are real, etc. — obviously, in tv/film, you can just leave or turn it off) you’re bored or maybe embarrassed for the actors – or maybe find it funny!!! If comedy is bad — it’s somebody off key and out of rhythm — you’re ANGRY. CRAZY. ANXIOUS. There’s something deep about our response to comedy — even though what’s “funny” is often culturally determined. You see what i mean?Thinking of it as a mechanism for evoking a laugh…yeah, I guess that’s true — but that’s the lowest end of comedy. A joke or something.Comedy and horror share surprise, certainly, as a traditional element. And the refashioning – re-presenting – of the familiar in a new and unexpected way — but in horror it’s just to scare us — in comedy, it’s to zap us into a new way of seeing. A re-working of patterns. That’s why sometimes comedy – when it’s amazing – when it works – is similar to the experience of enlightenment, you know? Well — I could go on and on…this touches on something I have Big Feelings about, obviously — but if you’re talking about untethering a story from its predictable moorings — GOD YES!!!!I’m sorry – is that what you meant? I’m sorry I’m such a maniac. Well…I’m sort of sorry.


  2. Well, yes, but that’s way more mental energy that I had expended on it. I write from a place that’s protean first and only sometimes am I later able to add logic and structure to it, and with great difficulty. Yes, comedy is all that. Ro[mantic]Co[medy]Co[llaboration, RoCoCo, ever since you said RoCom, I’ve been trying to make it RoCoCo and there it was.And I have always had difficulty analyzing art of any kind. I just respond, which is why I dropped out of the English department at Northwestern. And there’s so many kinds of comedy, all of which I like, from Bringing Up Baby, to Waking Ned Devine. Sometimes what I like about comedy is that it’s tragedy that makes you laugh.But I thought the thing about logic was interesting because with Jen and Kate, who are writing about ghosts and/or demons and reworking myth and fairy tales the RULES of the fantasy world are a tremendous preoccupation. We have all felt that it’s vital they be internally consistent and completely laid out and understood even if that never makes it into the text. But these Pangs say oh to hell with it, throw it up there, maybe it doesn’t make sense, maybe that’s why it’s so scary. And maybe too, you have to be a master to break these rules about the rules. But we all three like and read horror and ghost stories.But I was thinking about comedy and structure and logic and perhaps part of the wildness of some comedy (again maybe think of bringing up baby) it’s the illogic and weirdness that makes you go Wow and laugh helplessly. Why is it funny when she’s following him around with one shoe off and one shoe on? Or we went to see the Canterbury Tales at the kennedy center and there’s this one where this little guy in a red peaked hat and red robe follows someone around taking little bitty tiny steps. No logic, no explanation, no reason, he came he went. I was fucking on the floor, wiping my eyes. WHY? You can’t analyze it. Or I can’t analyze it. I guess I am saying “untethering from its predicatable moorings,” but with a kind of jumping off the mountain quality to it.In short, take this stupid dream I had that I was telling you about, it was almost like that time you and Mark and I went down to Frank and Maureen’s that time and we just couldn’t STOP entertaining them, working ourselves up to greater and greater breathless heights of babblement. And my feeling when I woke up was that yes, you could make something of that. Especially because either in my dream or in the immediate post-waking work I was doing on the scene I started having a character holding it to earth, the “how much blow did you do?” comments, and then somehow working into it that poker game where you stick the card on your forehead, so everyone but you can see one of the cards you’ve got. Don’t ask! The whole scene is about someone telling outrageous urban legend lies. My point is that I instantly started rejecting this because it was so illogical and then thought well why not? Why not just write it and see what it is? You can’t EXPLAIN why something’s funny or not. You’ve just got to fly with it and see if it works. You’ve actually DONE this though, on stage and on the page. Am I entirely out to lunch. Can you, do you, craft a laugh on the page? Does it come from the place my writing does, where it leaps out and then has to be gently wrestled into a form for delivery without ripping its wings off? And the best you can do is get a recognizable butterfly pinned to a board?Sometimes of course I grant you that I get something BETTER that I started with after some wrestling. But that’s when I go back to the well again and again and let it spit more stuff out to pretty things up. After all these years that flow is steadier and smoother.


  3. Yes – I think you CAN and sort of have to “craft a laugh” on the page — which is different from a person who’s just plain funny doing something that’s just plain funny (like the guy in the red peaked hat with the teeny steps) — but even then — I BET it’s not illogical. I mean a-logical. I just think I use very broad def of logic… I don’t think we’re saying different things. But — this I KNOW is true — comedy is crafted crafted crafted — and that’s where the “music” part comes in. The timing and pitch and melody are CRITICAL — and you know it in your bones. K words really ARE funny (at least in the strain of our national humor that’s jewish/eastern european.) Why? god knows. Or more likely…kod knows.Also – just for the record – both examples you used — the teeny steps and the one shoe on/one shoe off, are essentially slapstick – physical comedy, anyway – which has its own rules. ALL of which, I guarantee you, you KNOW!!!!!Filmmakers often “just throw it up there” – because, I think, they’re often making canvases, instead of telling stories. When they do BOTH — those are great movies. I think the ghosts and the internal logic HAVE to hold!! Otherwise – you can get a great (funny, scary, whatever) moment — like a great gag – but it won’t give you a great story. The show I just finished was loaded with “gags” — that’s a few seconds of air time!!! Even if they’re funny — that’s all they are. But if they’re rooted in character and story, and timed just great — they’re hilarious!!!!RoCoCo!!!! LOVE IT!!! If it’s not taken, let’s make it be our production company!!!!!


  4. RoCoCo forever, baby. And yes, that’s what I want for this RoCoCo, is a finely crafted story with some great characters and some well structured peaks and valleys and then see what these characters have to say. This will be new for me because I resist planning, but because this one is less intense for me I’m very up for trying something for me completely different.And I guess I do love slapstick when it’s like that and not a plank hitting Laurel in the face over and over again. But what is it that makes it one of my favorite moments in any movie when in Ned Devine, O’Shaunessey says, “Oh, I thought it was his intes-ines.” Or in the Full Monty when one says, “We’re your blokes, we’ll run you over,” or whatever the line is. Especially the last, it’s that painful edge between comedy and tragedy. And you laugh.Not that I think this story I’ve thrown up in the air has that kind of potential, it’s more a Meg Ryan-y romp, but this is going to be so much fun. Do you mean K words like kvetch? Or however you spell it?


  5. I insist on internal logic as a reader/viewer. I have a very hard time responding to almost any story if I can’t believe it’s real. One distracting logical flaw in a movie and I cannot focus on it the rest of the time. Comedy is an exception, though. Random nonsense is funny if it’s done right.WRT horror in particular, I think there is a huge difference between scaring and startling. I think talking about the startle response as if it were something truly frightening is a mistake. Like when someone has the hiccups and they say, “scare me,” and what they really want is for you to say “Boo!” not to say “Okay, your kid has been buried alive and the kidnapper, the only person who knows the exact location, just committed suicide by cop.”I know I’m stating the obvious there, but I think storytellers get the two confused all the time, especially movie makers where they have such a visual medium to work with. Slasher films, forex, work mainly off the startle response rather than actual fear. That’s why there’s always that quiet pause before the dumb girl in the nightgown gets her throat slit. And I think that’s kind of cheap. You may get a bigger reaction from the startle, but the lasting reaction comes from fear.


  6. I thought that would be your reaction, Jen. Good point between startle reaction (you Mom you) and real fear. Is there also a difference between tension and fear? I think meowing children is fear. I remember some italian horror movie fromthe ’60s where the devil was a child and the visual cue was this bouncing ball (was it called Burn, Baby,Burn?). Still gives me the shivers. But the slashers are all about tension. When is the chainsaw coming out?


  7. Yeah Lyda I think you’re right. I think tension was really the thing I was talking about with my startle rant. That long, drawn-out manipulation just to get you all bunged up – waiting for the release, even though you know you’ll jump like hell when it finally comes. It’s effective but cheap, like Taco Bell, and that has its place. But it’s not the same as fear.Yah, I’d say meowing children are scary.


  8. Another thing I thought of as soon as I hit Publish – tension is way easier to achieve. It’s a very specific formula, almost physiological rather than emotional, and it works the same way for pretty much everyone. But whereas your devil child may be scary to you, someone else may not even bat an eye. Fear is personal. Finding something that is widely scary is not as easy. Except clowns. Clowns are scary for everyone.


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  10. Interesting all this about comedy, I read your Lieberman post first (isn’t he just vile?)–and started thinking how the only way I don’t cry myself to sleep at night over the state of the world is by watching things like The Daily Show, which make it all so funny. And maybe that is the edge between tragedy and comedy as you say, Lyda, that helps to make it SO funny–when crafted just right. CNN doesn’t make me laugh, it makes me want to cry and dig a hole and lie in it until the horsemen of the apocalypse have done the deed and it’s safe for those of us left behind to come on out. But John Stewart, reporting on similar news, about makes me wet my pants. So, that’s the crafting, of course. Wording and timing and delivery. Although, John Stewart is still more of a moment, a laugh, not a fully realized comedic story/movie/play.Also, re: horror, I’m not a big horror buff, so probably can’t comment all that intellligently, but I remember once hearing the distinction between suspense and surprise–surprise being the cheap trick and suspense being the thing you really want to develop.Of course, I didn’t read the article in the NYT at all, because I can’t remember my account password. I know I have an account, I have every account, and surely they all have the same password, but, no, they don’t.


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