Tickling The Sophisticated Funny Bone
How The Visuals of a Smart Short Comedy Can Lead to Film Festival Success
For good and for ill, comedy is the king of the entertainment industry right now. Each new week seems to bring with it the coming (Arrested Development) and going (Roseanne…) of revival comedy series. The success of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool franchises have helped make comedies the surest bet in superhero tent-pole films, a genre once reserved for the serious and melancholy.
This means that finally now is the time for short filmmakers to also take part in the comedy-entertainment revival by submitting smart comedies to festivals big and small.
A smart comedy? Winning festivals?? Yes, historically, it’s the dramatic material that’s been given precedent over comedies by festivals and awards…but with the number of quality comedic programming coming to the top streaming companies, the tide seems to be turning the other way.
A smart comedy can get beyond the merely clever or cute, and reach something more profound and poignant in its visualization of humor. A funny film with surprising heart, weight or intellectual stimulation is what festival programmers like to see…and to reward.
Despite all the good news for comedians and filmmakers with comedic sensibilities, smart comedies do not come along by merely shooting and submitting. Nor do they get made by good dialogue and a zany premise alone.
Consider the ever-astute Tony Zhou on Edgar Wright’s innovations in visual comedy to see what we mean…
Think this is only good for films that have 90 minutes or more to tell a story? Or that these sort of visual gags only work for broad comedies? Think again. As a primarily visual medium, it’s the visuals (and the aid of sound effects) that should be telling all of the best (and most subtle) of your jokes.
Let’s consider Pink Grapefruit.
Pink Grapefruit won the 2015 Jury Prize at SXSW, a film festival known for embracing innovation. The story of two young and obstinately single people forced to spend a weekend together may sound like a well-worn scenario, but it is primarily in the camera and editing choices that the film turns a familiar idea into a sophisticated (and award-winning) brand of humor.
Inspired by the Tony Zhou models of innovation in visual comedic filmmaking, here are the ways Pink Grapefruit brings the smarts to short comedy.
Surprises In The Frame
Pink Grapefruit is full of unexpected reveals of people and objects into the frame (though not always in the Edgar Wright way). One of the most simultaneously humorous and disturbing instances comes as the boyfriend of the couple responsible for setting up the two reluctant singles sees the two interacting amiably through a window. The wordless sequence starts from the perspective of the lovers, projecting a first flourish of young love and affection.
The scene quickly gains a gravitas, however, when seen from the perspective of the man who set the two up.
His skepticism, regret and longing for his own satisfaction are immediately visible. But just when the viewer least expects a humorous surprise…
…the frame reveals the full context of the situation. He is in fact getting satisfaction (of the oral variety), but it is a familiar and stale satisfaction, coming from sex without the freedom and excitement of being new. The decision to suspend and withhold the full vantage point for so long proves uncomfortably hilarious in its unexpectedness, while staying in keeping with the film’s pessimistic view towards the idea of long-term monogamy.
The Same Montage…But Different?
One of the most delightful elements of Pink Grapefruit comes in its insistence on returning to the same images or visual ideas, but always tweaking just enough to create a specific reaction out of the viewer. For example, see how director Michael Mohan uses simple mirror shots of the new couple at various stages of their relationship together.
The shot is first introduced as the unnamed woman gets ready to first encounter her blind date.
One can sense both her reservation and expectation in this voyeuristic zoom-in shot.
The mirror composition is used again later that night, cutting between the two lovers as they dress for a night swim.
These medium matching shots are less ambiguous than the first mirror shot. These two are clearly feeling awkward about (and potentially dreading) the first night together, filled with expectations of romance and sex.
By the time the mirror shots come back a third time, it is the next night. The two have already made a plan to have sex, and eagerly await their night together.
The visual comedy here can be found in the juxtaposition between the childlike-iconography (zealously brushing teeth, fully clothed again) and the thrilling anticipation of the sexual event impelling them on. The final recurrence of this shot is also humorous for the implication that the two are doing (and feeling) the exact same things at the exact same time. As if reflections of each other, the two play out a cartoonish pantomime.
Striking Synchronization Between Visuals and Sound
Pink Grapefruit interjects humor and imagination into otherwise conventional scenes by pitting strong visual choices against familiar sound dialogue. When the new couple first meet, they begin a standard rom-com meet-cute, full of awkward and uncomfortable banter. The camera lulls its audience into a false sense of security with a standard dirty single shot.
However, a quick succession of insert shots from both person’s perspective (happening while the two are talking) acts as a shocking, hilarious and necessary interruption into what could otherwise be considered a boringly constructed scene.
The intentional evasion of the eyes and face prove hilarious because it goes against traditional expectations of how one forms a first impression on a blind date. But in doing so it’s also more truthful to the character’s embodied experiences and first impressions. Sometimes the truth about the human gaze is both stranger and funnier than fiction.
Try to incorporate some of these visual ideas into your next short smart comedy so that you too can surprise and delight the judges and attendees of your dream film festival.
To watch the full film, Pink Grapefruit is available here!