Lesson #7

October 13, 2014

Lesson for This Week


Cutting Comedy -- so it's funny

Fish Called WandaIn my opinion, editing comedy is a lot harder than cutting battle scenes or action sequences. Of course, really good action editors may disagree with me, but I find that the concepts of comedy -- pacing, set-up, geography and the like -- are very difficult to control. In addition, everyone has different opinions about what is funny, As a result, you're constantly mediating between wildly opposing points of view. It's a test of politics as well as cutting skills.

Fish called WandaBut, what else is new?

Tonight, we're going to be looking at one or two scenes from the 1988 comedy A FISH CALLED WANDA, edited by John Jympson,a film which still makes me chuckle because of its plot, casting, timing and near-perfect execution of comedy.

In the first scene tonight, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is attempting to seduce Archie (John Cleese), a straight-laced lawyer into revealing the details about where some stolen jewels are hidden so that she might get them and run away from her partners in the crime. Establishing that Cleese's wife (Maria Aitken) is off to the opera, she arranges a meeting with Archie at his house, bringing along one of her partners -- Otto (Kevin Kline), a very dim, easily angered American, who she has been passing off as her brother.

Fish Called Wanda
Fish Called Wanda
Fish Called Wanda
Fish Called Wanda
Fish Called Wanda

The genius of this scene comes partly in the geography -- first there is the construction between Curtis, Kline and Cleese -- how can Curitis' character get Kline hidden so he doesn't tip off her plan? Then, when Cleese's wife arrives, the scene shifts to a different set of rules -- how can Curtis hide herself and how does Cleese deal with the situation? In the third section of the scene, the comedy switches to a more verbal one -- how does Kline's character deal with getting himself out of the room. Finally, the scene shifts into a geographical one again -- how can Curtis get out of the room with her necklace. To deal with the geographical portions of the scene it is important to know where we are at all time. Even in the more verbal portions of the scene, Cleese or Curtis still keep us in contact with the geography.

The second scene we might look at comes from later in the movie after Archie refuses to apologize to Otto for calling him stupid. The humor here comes not only from the action but from the way in which the scene is melded to the preceding scene -- the twisting camera move revealing Archie hanging upside down, rather than standing up as we are led to believe. Comedy is often about setting up expectations and then intentionally not delivering on them.

Men In BlackFinally, in the completely unlikely event that we've got more time on our hands, we'll take a look at a scene from MEN IN BLACK, edited by Jim Miller, in which two goverment agents are trying to track down the invasion of Earth by a dangerous alien being. Notice several cutting points here. First, notice how the scene is played as much on the woman as it is on our two agents, who are the stars of the film. Think about this from the point of view of what the comedy in this scene is -- action and reaction. Note that the Rule of Threes plays even more strongly in comedy, where the setup, the race to the punchline and the punchline as often delivered in threes.

A second point is to see how the scene is set up in terms of shot sizes. Where are the wide shots and the closeups? Where is it important to reveal the geography and the jokes, and when is it important to avoid showing them? The "lean forward moments" in a comedy are often the punchlines, and it is important to lead up to them, just as you'd lead up to a character revelation.

Finally, remember what David Lean is supposed to have said in regards to getting the biggest laugh out of a sequence. "Tell them what you're going to do. Do it. Then tell them you've done it"


Ryan Case on editing comedy and "Modern Family"
Ryan Case, the Emmy award winning editor of Modern Family, talks about her editing style, concerns, comedy, workflow and more, in this series of interviews with Moviola Digital.
The Art of Editing Comedy
As part of a long discussion on editing a skit for Rolling Stone, author Faisal talks about his four rules for editing comedy. They are 1) Timing is key, 2) Use the right reaction shot, 3) Let the audience in on the joke beforehand and 4) Less is more. Note the fact that these are all items that apply to any type of editing, with the third point really about The Rule of Threes.
Editing Comedy
A multi-part series from Gael Chandler in which identifies a number of important rules for cutting comedy. In the fist installment she mentions that timing is the most important idea, in the second installment she mentions that reactions are critical and something called the Rule of Three (which roughly match what I call establishment, set-up and payoff). Installments three and four are more technical -- three details setting up your NLE for multi-cam or single-cam comedy and four very very briefly talks about a laugh track.
Art of the Guilltine's Discussion of Comedy Editing
This article talks about David Lean's theories of comedy editing which, oddly enough, boil down to another version of the Rule of Three. In this version, you have 1) Tell them what you're going to do, 2) Do it, 3) Tell them what you've done.
David Zucker talks about comedy in his movie THE NAKED GUN 2.5
.In this handout, done in 1999 for the release of the third movie in the NAKED GUN film series, David Zucker talks about 15 rules that he followed in creating the film. Some of them are even straight. And, hence, valuable for this type of film.

Assignments for Next Class

500_DaysEdit Scene 24 from 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
This is one of the early, introductory scenes where we are establishing both the workplace and the tone of the film. You will be getting a copy of the lined script for the scene. Note how the script supervisor uses photos of each setup to help communicate what the shot is about to the editor. Note again, how all set-ups that start on page 9, for instance, are on facing pages that face page 9 in the script.
Note also that this scene falls into the genre of romantic comedy. That means that here, in the first ten minutes of the film, we need to set up the tone of the film. Find the humor in this scene and mine it.
Prepare For Editing in Premiere Pro
Next week you will start editing a sequence in Premiere Pro and, in order to prepare you for this, your class on Thursday night will be the first of three devoted to this and other pieces of software in the Adobe Production Suite. A very quick, and surface tutorial, can be found on the Adobe TV website, some of which can be found by clicking on this link. A good tutorial on the great "hover scrub" can be found there.There are some good tutorials on lynda.com which can help you get started in much more detail.

Added Information

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Interview with editor Debra Neil-Fisher
This podcast is by Partick Don Vito, who is an editor and assistant editor and briefly didthe FILM EDITING PODCAST. This interview, with Debra Neil-Fisher, editor of the Austin Powers films, among others, discusses getting and keeping a job, as well as her approach to editing, an approach which is (at times) very different from mine.
Jeff Wolf taks about editing comedy
On AOTG.com jeff talks about editing John Waters' film A DIRTY SHAME.
Editing Comedy When The Dailies Aren't Funny
Faisal Azam, who edited a skit for Rolling Stone with Aziz Ansari, talks about what he had to do when the dailies on a skit at Bonaroo (where Ansari pretended to be Bruce Springsteen's road manager) didn't work because everyone was in on the joke from the beginning. Azam gets to the core of the matter - comedy is about setting expectations and then creating surprise. Later in the article Faisal also talks about comedy in broader ways, such as "times cutting things out and showing less amplifies the humor."
Anne Coates talks about editing UNFAITHFUL (PDF File)
Anne Coates is a thoughtful, but internal, editor whose personal passion has informed films as wide ranging as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and OUT OF SIGHT. In this interview, a portion of which was handout out tonight (the full version is available here), she talks about the balance of editing a film like UNFAITHFUL. One comment I particularly like is the following:
Editing on film is an inward process of carefully thinking about your cuts beforehand, then making them in the right place at the beginning. With the Avid system, I often put the rough cuts in immediately where I think they should go, then work out the details afterwards. I like to have thinking time when I edit and the Avid gives me both the opportunity for quickly trying different things and for taking the time to feel the overall emotion, drama, or humor of a particular scene

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Last Modified - October 15, 2013