For the past three years, I’ve been helping out with Dragon*ConTV. DCTV produces short videos riffing on SF and fantasy for the Dragon*Con SF/fantasy convention. Since Dragon*Con focuses on TV and film, the DCTV spots mostly spoof shows like Star Trek or movies like The Matrix rather than books. The DCTV videos play before panels and costume contests, and are shown while people are standing in line to register for the convention. They’re meant to amuse and entertain those who are geeky enough to go to a SF/fantasy convention.
Over three years of writing scripts, helping film and edit the videos, and “acting” in them, I’ve learned a lot about doing short comedy. Especially since watching Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which has involved a lot of very unfunny sketches, I’ve been wanting to write about what I and the other DCTV people have learned.
The DCTV videos include “bumpers,” short text segments used in between the videos. I’ll talk about them later, since they involve a different set of skills. I’ll also be discussing the videos in depth, spoiling their surprises. I’ll link to the videos as I go, so you can watch them before reading about them if you want.
Shorter is Better
It took us a while to learn this lesson. In 2004 we did a full thirty-minute newscast. WDCN Channel 16 Action News (parts one, two, and three) ran before the Masquerade costume contest. It was entirely too long and too boring. Sustaining a parody’s setting over thirty minutes is hard. Even sustaining it over two minutes is stretching things. We’ve all seen the SNL sketches that needed to be put out of their misery long before they concluded.
Dragon*Con exacerbates this tendency. The DCTV videos are shown before panels and costume contests. People are milling about and talking with their friends and in general not watching raptly. Videos that are under two minutes work best in this environment.
The short form works to our advantage: we can run through a lot of different jokes, formats, and styles. By mixing things up, we can keep people interested longer, and the bits that die are shuffled off stage before the smell of them decomposing fills the auditorium.
No, Really, Make It Much Shorter
Not only should the running time be as short as possible, the editing should be as tight as possible. Eliminate pauses and gaps, unless they’re part of the joke. This kind of humor works much better when it’s rapid-fire. Movies and television have been getting more and more tightly edited as time has gone on. Watch an older movie like A Man For All Seasons — or even Star Wars! — and notice how much more relaxed its pacing is.
Take Unpimp My Space Station, a spoof of the VW “unpimp my ride” commercials from earlier this year. The first edit Brian did was nearly a minute long. The final version takes thirty seconds. If you watch any of the original commercials on YouTube, you’ll see the same sort of quick editing. The minute-long video was flabby and unfunny; the trimmed version works much better.
A Funny Concept Isn’t Enough
We have a bad habit of coming up with a funny concept and then not adding in any jokes. One example of this is Blood Train. Amusing concept, but lacking in jokes beyond “Klingons dancing”. Audiences didn’t laugh much. For another example, this one entirely my fault, see The More You Know: Mutants.
Once we’ve got the concept, we have to add in jokes. If the concept is the joke, you can’t do what we did with Blood Train and give the title, then keep going. You have to delay the reveal for as long as possible. Red Shirt Diaries is the classic version of this. There are some funny bits in the setup, but showing the title as the last thing is the reveal that got all of the laughs and groans.
Don’t Write Past the Joke
End strongly. This is related to the last point since, if your concept is your joke, you don’t want to give it away early. Writing past the joke works if you’re writing a long piece. It doesn’t work here. In commercials, we often let taglines to do the heavy lifting. For Soylent Green Baby Food, the first joke is the name of the baby food itself, which shows up halfway through. The other big laugh occurs when the tagline appears: “Soylent Green is people…people who love your baby“. The same is true for Swears Unlimited. That video may not have gotten many laughs, but the tagline reliably made people chuckle.
Different Audiences Will Appreciate Different Things
In 2005 we had a video called AT-AT: Like Nothing Else. We made fun of Hummers and H2s by replacing them in the ad with an AT-AT.
It bombed. No one laughed.
Regardless, we showed it again this year. And that time it killed. People howled. And I have no idea why it worked this year and not last year.
This is why it’s good to have short videos. Don’t like the current one? A new one will be along in a minute. Many different fandoms go to Dragon*Con. This year Brian created individual DVDs with themed collections of videos for various track rooms — the rooms where specific fandoms meet. There was a DVD for the Star Trek crowd, another for the Firefly contingent, and so on. In the big crowd events, mixing up the videos means you won’t lose the entire crowd except for those into Pernese shoulder dragons.
It’s Okay To Be Unfunny
It’s easy to fall into a rut. Within certain narrow confines, the audience at Dragon*Con is easy to please, and happy to laugh at the same kinds of things from year to year. If we’re only concerned with making the audience laugh and nothing else, we run the risk of stagnating.
My favorite DCTV video of all time is Tey Liv, a commercial for sunglasses that references a bad SF movie from the late 1980s. It never got many laughs, but I don’t want us to stop doing the occasional obscure joke like this.
Don’t Depend Solely on Verbal Jokes
Brian Richardson and I do a lot of the writing for the DCTV videos. We’re both very verbal people, so we tend to lean heavily on spoken jokes. Swears Unlimited is the worst offender in that regard. The thing is, it can be hard to follow what’s being said in large ballrooms. More importantly, physical humor is funny, and if we were to ignore it, we’d limit the jokes we can do. Tribbles on a Ship is completely redeemed by the physical bit near the end, and that joke consistently got big laughs. Ditto Trading Species: the aliens don’t talk, so all of the funny comes from their physical antics.
Pacing is Hard
Getting the pacing in a video right can be tough. I’ve got a theatre background, so I think of pacing in terms of beats, but it’s akin to e.g. the structure/setup/punchline approach of stand-up comedy. What do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?
I’ve mentioned that DCTV videos are short and tightly-edited. That can make pacing difficult. A good (and short!) example of pacing is XTEL. It’s got two jokes in there, and they get in, deliver the funny, and get out.
For a more extended example, let’s break down Cthulhu’s Clues, my parody of Blue’s Clues. A quick overview of the sketch:
- Title slide
- Host looks for a clue
- Host pulls out the handy-dandy Necronomicon
- Host mentions the thinking pit
- Host sings while Blue appears
- Host runs around. Blue flies, then barks
Since this is a longer piece, I alternated between set-up and joke until the end. The title slide gets a laugh. Then the clue-searching sets up the world. You get to ease into the look and feel of a Blue’s Clues episode. It’s longer than the other bits to build anticipation. The Necronomicon is the first big laugh, and is short to emphasize the joke. The thinking pit sets up the next scene where Blue appears, which always got some laughs. The host running off-stage leaves Blue as the focus, preparing for Blue’s barking by herself, which is the other big laugh. Then it ends the one-two punch of the host running across the screen in a Komedy Kallback, and Blue exiting stage right with a cartoonish FWEEP! noise. It’s not perfect, and there are things I’d do differently if we were to film it again, but I’m still pleased with the pacing overall.
Boil Things Down to Their Essence
For the major jokes, we lean on the parts of a show that have become iconic. For more current shows and movies we have more leeway, but as a series or movie ages, only certain things lodge in fandom’s memory. For instance, if I’m riffing on the X-Files, I wouldn’t depend on the Lariat car rental company to produce big laughs. Instead I’d stick with things like the I WANT TO BELIEVE poster that are better remembered today. We’ve seen that with our Matrix spoof The Blue Pill. It got a lot of laughs when it premiered in 2004. In 2005 it got fewer laughs, and nearly flopped in 2006. The name alone is no longer enough to trigger people’s memory of The Matrix.
I thought hard about this for Cthulhu’s Clues. Iconic elements of Lovecraftian horror that people remember are the name Cthulhu, Cthulhu’s wings and tentacles, and the Necronomicon. For Blue’s Clues, there’s the look of the show, the handy-dandy notebook, and the clues themselves. All of the jokes that depend on Blue’s Clues or Cthulhu use those elements.
Throw In Extra Bits
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t throw in references for die-hard fans or the truly observant. In Cthulhu’s Clues, the fridge magnets are all “IA”, and the bottom picture on the refrigerator is of a shoggoth. The top picture, the one with the clue attached, is a crayon drawing of the Dragon*Con dragon, and the picture on the table in the next scene is a bunch of Stormtroopers. The Thinking Pit is a riff on the Thinking Chair Blue’s Clues. None of this got big laughs, but some people did notice the little details.
News Just Isn’t Funny
Even after the thirty-minute newscast in 2004, we tried news again in 2005 with DOX News. We wrote news crawls, came up with full-blown news items…and no one laughed. We’re clearly not The Onion or The Daily Show. The only thing that consistently got laughs was the Superhero steroid hearings, and that for its one specific Super Friends reference.