How has the contemporary American comedy lost its way?
It’s not that it’s no longer funny, says Every Frame a Painting video essayist Tony Zhou, but that it’s top-heavy on improv and light on sight gags. While directors like Judd Apatow, Paul Feig and Nicholas Stoller manage to give their actors space to create authentic portrayals of midlife crisis and arrested development, or to find the fun in dysfunctional relationships, their sense of what’s cinematically possible for comedic moviemaking and performance is limited.
Enter Edgar Wright.
In this video essay, “How to Do Visual Comedy,” Zhou makes a compelling and über-comprehensive case for the greatness of the British genre specialist’s skillful blend of formal techniques and well-timed comedic performances. Not only does Wright take a page from Monty Python’s playbook (as seen at the 4:52 mark of the video), using framing and composition—specifically, what’s in frame and what’s not—to coax laughter from audiences, but he even does so to heighten transitional scenes that are typically phoned in by whom Zhou would unfavorably cite as “lazy” filmmakers. Watch below for examples of Wright’s innovation in visual comedy.
Need some cliff notes? Wright’s eight “rules” for imbuing the mundane with some much-needed manic hilarity, as identified by the video, are as follows:
- Things entering the frame in funny ways (watch at 5:15)
- People leaving the frame in funny ways (watch at 5:28)
- “There and back again”—a framing gag that shows characters move toward something to find out what that something is, then return back to their original position out of surprise, annoyance, fear, or some other emotion that reveals something funny about their character (watch at 5:44)
- Matching scene transitions (watch at 6:08)
- The perfectly timed sound effect (watch at 6:22)
- Action synchronized to the music (watch at 6:38)
- Super-dramatic lighting cues (watch at 6:53)
- …Well, Zhou doesn’t analyze what number eight is, but it’s safe to say that the point is, watching someone bust ass trying to hop a fence is sometimes worth the price of admission. (watch at 7:14)
There’s also a bonus ninth rule that’s better seen than explained (watch at 7:28). At any rate, whether you apply Wright’s principles in your own films or not is moot, so long as you take away Zhou’s parting words: “The frame is a playground, so play. And the next time you go to a theater and you pay 15 bucks to see a comedy, don’t be satisfied with shit that is less inventive than Vine.” MM