David Zucker talks about Comedy

For Class #12

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com

This article appears in full form on Robin Kelly's Writing web site:


In writing "The Naked Gun 2.5: The Smell of Fear", I relied on 15 simple rules formulated in 20 years of writing, producing and directing comedy with my brother, Jerry, and partner Jim Abrahams. It has been said that comedy is all but impossible to teach - I have never once read a book about it - but we found it was possible to list certain things not to do. These rules are listed below in no particular order. And please don't try them at home.

1. Joke On A Joke.

We never try to do two jokes at the same time. When Leslie Neilson, who plays the role of Lieut. Frank Drebin of the Los Angeles Police Department, delivers a punchline, he always does it straight; he never tries to be funny on top of it. Likewise if there is something going on in the background, the foreground action must be straight and vice versa.

2. Unrelated Background.

A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. A good illustration of this rule occurs in "Naked Gun 2.5" as Leslie Neilson complains to George Kennedy over drinks, "Is it just me, Ed, or is the whole world crazy?" As George tries to reassure him that "no, it's just a small percentage of the population," the waiter turns to leave and we see he's naked under his apron. Unfortunately, half the audience fails to notice this because they're still laughing at the silly drink the waiter has brought the lieutenant. This is a blatant violation of the joke-on-a -joke rule but at least now they'll all have to come back to see the movie again.

3. Acknowledgement.

Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. In "Airplane!", Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges engage in an argument, while behind them watermelons crash down from the ceiling and Indian spears thud into the walls. The actors do a fine job of ignoring the spears and watermelons, but because this bit violated Rule number 2 audiences still didn't laugh. All in all a disappointment.

4. Breaking The Frame.

It's usually not a good idea to remind the audience that they're watching a movie. Robert Hays gets away with it in Airplane! after Julia Hagerty scolds him in an early scene. He turns to the camera and complains to the audience about his plight. The movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these, because you run the risk of breaking the spell. The suspension of disbelief is of prime importance, much as it was during the Reagan Administration.

5. That Didn't Happen.

Completely defying logic is bad , but something that is on and off the screen so fast that we can get away with it is OK. Example: Robert Stack in Airplane! yells to Lloyd Bridges. "He can't land; they're on instruments!" And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it's done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.

6. Can You Live With It?

Once a joke is made, it can't be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs, like Gary Hart. In "Naked Gun", Leslie and George are seated in a car, munching pistachio nuts. In the process, their lips and faces get smeared in red. But in the next scene, when Leslie goes snooping in Ricardo Montalban's apartment, he's got to be clean. This rule also applied to personalised licence plates. How long can "HI 2 U" be funny?

7. Axe-grinding.

Belabouring an ideological point past the humour of the joke. We never axe-grind. Except for, well, maybe some environmental stuff. Sometimes.

8. Self-Conscious.

Any jokes about the movie business or comedy itself. A strict no-no, except for an isolated instance in "The Kentucky Fried Movie" where the bad guy listed all his nefarious activities, including "gun-running, drug-trafficking, motion picture distribution..."

9. Trivia.

A joke understood by so few people as to make it not worth the effort. In "Top Secret!" a character during an ambush cries out, "My God, they're going to kill us all!" - an arcane JFK assassination reference. Since the movie's release in 1984, only one person we know of has understood it, not enough to make "Top Secret!" a hit.

10. Straw Dummy.

A hollow set-up for a joke or when the target is fabricated. Even if the joke hits the target who cares? We had an elaborate sequence written for "Naked Gun 2 and a half" involving Leslie being trapped in an oil barrel processing plant but the jokes all depended on machines we made up ourselves in an elaborate and expensive set. Fortunately, Paramount insisted on deleting the scene, saying they needed the money to pay the lawyers.

11. Jerry Lewis.

We don't do anything Jerry Lewis would do. (OK, maybe a telethon, but that's it.)

12. Technical Pizazz.

We don't do lots of car crashes and fancy special effects. Mindless action without a comedy pay-off never works, except at the Democratic National Convention.

13. Piling On.

When a particular target has had enough and it's been used up. In the seventies, Nixon jokes. In the nineties, Quayle jokes.

14. Hanging On.

Knowing when a joke, or a newspaper article, has gone on too long.

15. There are no rules.

And so we've tried to follow these rules as closely as possible, realising that perhaps what is most important is knowing when to ignore them. And of course this is all in the interest of making better cinema for the movie goer. I feel strongly that the Hollywood community has a responsibility to the public, to play an active role in this effort and to limit the amount of cosmetic surgery done to any one person.

©David Zucker, 1999

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All material, except where noted, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008