Film & TV

How to Direct a Comedy: 8 Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Comedy Script

Written by MasterClass

Sep 11, 2019 • 5 min read

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Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Directing comedies can seem like a lighthearted pursuit, but in order to direct comedy, you have to have extensive knowledge of the genre. Whether you are directing an indie comedy or a big-budget franchise film, understanding the fundamentals of directing comedy will help prepare you for success.

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5 Different Types of Comedy Film

In order to direct a great comedy, you need to have a basic knowledge of the different sub-genres of comedic films and how they differ from each other.

Genre affects everything from tone to shooting style. As a comedy director, it’s your job to understand the genre you’re working in. Some of the most popular genres of comedic films and TV shows include:

  1. Romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are situational comedies based around a romantic story arc. Romantic comedies are generally feel-good stories that appeal to a wide audience. Movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle are some famous examples of romantic comedies.
  2. Slapstick. Slapstick is a genre of comedy mostly based on physical comedy and sight gags. Some of the earliest examples of Hollywood comedy films are slapstick, largely due to the fact that they lacked sound and therefore had to rely on visual jokes to hook their audiences. The tradition of slapstick comedy can be seen in more contemporary films like the Austin Powers franchise. Modern slapstick comedies often rely on broad humor and gross-out gags that appeal to a wide commercial audience.
  3. Parody. Parody films generally spoof or satirize well-established tropes in dramatic film genres. Parodies generally choose a specific genre like thriller or action to satirize. Movies like Airplane! or Scary Movie are some famous examples of popular parody films.
  4. Mockumentary. Mockumentaries are comedic films or TV shows that explore their story through the lens of a documentary. Mockumentary films were popularized by director Christopher Guest with mockumentary films This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. Mockumentary TV Shows dominated the television landscape for a time following the success of mockumentary comedies like The Office and Parks and Recreation.
  5. Surreal/absurdism. Surreal or absurdist comedy is a style of comedy based on illogical or irrational situational humor. Surreal comics often rely on a deadpan style to relate seemingly absurd ideas in a serious straightforward manner. British comedy has a rich tradition of deadpan absurdist comedians and comic groups like Monty Python who produced multiple box office hits in the 1970s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian.

8 Tips for Directing and Shooting Comedy Films

Directing comedy films is hard work. It’s worth knowing a number of essential tips and tricks to set yourself up for a successful endeavor:

  1. Pay attention to casting. Good comedy writing is nothing without a good cast. When directing a comedy, film directors need to spend a good amount of time in the casting process working with potential actors to make sure they are getting the best possible actors for their film. Good comedy performers often come from different disciplines in the comedy world. Many stand-up comics and comedy writers can be great actors when given the right material.
  2. Use improvisation. Encouraging actors to improvise on set can oftentimes turn an unfunny or mundane scene into a comedic tour de force. Some of the funniest and most iconic moments in great comedy films are the result of improv. As a director, it’s important to understand the rules of improv and how to encourage and guide actors in the improv process, without being overly prescriptive. Many of the best comedy directors have improv backgrounds and can speak to actors from a place of experience. Incorporating improv into the rehearsal process can also be a useful way of generating material before you get on set. Learn more about improv here.
  3. Work on the delivery of jokes. Jokes are a very important part of great comedy. That being said, not all comedy screenplays are built around jokes. Jokes are structured around a stand-alone set-up and punchline, whereas traditional lines of dialogue are character-driven lines written to fit into a larger scene. As a director, it’s your job to cast actors who know the difference and to make sure they are delivering lines of dialogue in an appropriate way on set.
  4. Know about the differences between single-camera vs. multi-camera TV shows. TV comedies are generally split into two different categories: single-camera and multi-camera. As their names imply, the difference between the two has to do with how many cameras are filming at any given time. Multi-camera shows are generally shot on a soundstage, oftentimes in front of a studio audience. Most classic sitcoms like Cheers or Friends are multi-cam shows. A single-camera TV show is shot like a feature film, with one camera running at a time. Single-camera shows can take place on soundstages or on location.
  5. Get a good director of photography (DP). A good director of photography can help you translate your comedic vision to the big screen. Even the best directors are aided by skilled directors of photography who set up shots and make sure that everything runs smoothly.
  6. Study your material and genre. If you want to direct comedy, start watching every comedy you can get your hands on. Study the great comedy directors and emulate their work. There is no better way to learn comedy directing techniques than by watching what your favorite directors do and taking note of their styles and choices. If you live in a city like Los Angeles or New York, there are a ton of comedy venues where you can watch live comedy and study comedic timing and joke structure.
  7. Edit with care. Great comedies are often made in the editing room. The best scripts can be brought down in post-production and conversely mediocre source material can oftentimes be elevated to comedy gold. Learn all that you can about the editing process before starting post-production and then find a good editor who can help craft your footage into a well structured final product.
  8. Practice with shorts. If you’re a novice director, the process of directing can be very daunting. That being said, there has never been a better time to start making your own films. Whether you’re middle-aged or in high school, if you have a smartphone and basic editing software, you’re capable of making high-quality comedy shorts. The best way to learn is to start writing and directing as much as possible.

Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your stand-up, navigating the world of film and television can be daunting. No one knows this better than Judd Apatow, who, at age 15, took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he is the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In Judd Apatow’s MasterClass on comedy, the Emmy Award winner relates all he knows about creating hilarious storylines, writing great stand-up, and directing movies that leave audiences in stitches.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Judd Apatow, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin, and more.

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