Film Friday: How to Enhance Jokes in the Editing Room

It’s time I start a weekly blog series – lessons from my experiences in the film industry. We can call it “Film Fridays.”

I’ve been in and out of the cutting room for the last five weeks on our latest web series, Talent.  Every time I oversee editorial on a new project, I learn a lot.

Lately, we spent a big chunk of time tweaking scenes for comedy. Now, I have never been a funny man. I guess I missed the comedy gene my brother inherited. After weeks of shifting edits here and trimming shots there, I have a much better understanding of the temporal mechanics of comedy – at least in the motion picture form.

Want your joke to play better on screen?  Try letting it breathe.

Comedians pause after they deliver a funny line. They don’t pause to wait for the audience to stop laughing; they pause to illicit laughter in the first place.  Watch Australian comic Steve Hughes.

The same tactic works on screen. After a punchline, leave some air – make sure there’s a moment without dialogue, without busy sound effects, and without domineering score notes. Your viewers need time to process and react. If you cut to the next line of dialogue immediately, your audience might not have time enough to think the joke is funny. A loud sound effect or music cue following the punchline will compete with laughter, or worse, deny laughter altogether.

It is frustrating when an audience’s laughter drowns out the dialogue that follows. Information is lost and you feel like you missed something. But I can’t blame the audience for being loud; I usually blame the filmmaker for not understanding the moment he or she created.

Air is not a magical cure-all for comedy – the joke still needs to be funny. But air can help you preserve a joke. And if you’re lucky, enough air can create an awkward silence that twists a lame beat into a funny one. You have to try it to find out.

I suspect the air trick works in other forms of comedy as well.

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