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The art of comedy

A funny thing about being funny: It’s seriously hard word. We asked the creative minds behind some of our favorite hilarious movies, TV shows, and web videos to share a few of their humor secrets

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The Art of… Action Comedy
Brett Ratner‘s upcoming Tower Heist — starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller — is a crime caper with lots of laughs. Here, the director explains how he found the right balance.

I’ve done many different kinds of movies, but action comedies are the kind of movies I always dreamed of making. When you mix the two genres and you get it right, it just works like gangbusters with an audience, because they’re getting so much.

It’s also the hardest genre. The most important thing, in my opinion, is tone. You have to believe the stakes are real, but you have to be funny at the same time. It’s walking a tightrope. I grew up watching Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. I really learned from those movies. Eddie Murphy actually took the genre to a whole new level. In his action comedies, he did his thing and everyone else was very, very real. Marty Brest directed Beverly Hills Cop like an action thriller. And when they were making 48 HRS., Walter Hill told Eddie they weren’t making a comedy. Here’s a mistake a lot of action comedies make: They surround the star with comedians, everybody’s trying to be funny, and you lose the substance. In order for the audience to care, it needs a real story with real drama, real emotion, real relationships, and — most important — a real villain. The humor has to come from the characters, and that’s true of all the great action comedies, going all the way back to Freebie and the Bean and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The idea for Tower Heist started with Eddie. He said he wanted to do a movie where a bunch of working-class guys even the score with the people who got rich off their backs — a classic underdog story. The bad guy is a Wall Street bigwig who swindles them out of their pensions in a Ponzi scheme, so he became a very timely villain.

It’s dangerous when you have Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, because everyone else can become invisible, so I went for the best dramatic actors. Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Gabby Sidibe, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni — they can stand toe-to-toe with those guys. Eddie was such a big fan of Matthew Broderick. He said he’s seen all his movies and he especially loves Ferris Bueller.

I think all the movies I’ve made in the past prepared me for this: I had visual effects in X-Men: The Last Stand; comedy in Rush Hour; The Family Man had a great relationship; After the Sunset was a heist movie; Red Dragon had suspense. I took something from all of them for Tower Heist. The toughest action scene was a set piece where a car was thrown off the side of a high-rise building. We built a four-story facade and I actually put Ben and Eddie in the car. We could’ve faked it. We could have done it on a greenscreen and they could have pretended to be really scared. But we didn’t. There’s something about gravity; their faces change when they’re hanging upside down. They weren’t comfortable, they were nauseous, they had vertigo, they weren’t happy. But you gotta do it. It makes it more real.

The Art of… The Sitcom
Want to know what it takes to make a hit sitcom — or ”hitcom,” as we like to call it? Then go to Christopher Lloyd, the Emmy-winning co-creator of Modern Family, and ask him. That’s what we did, and here’s what he said.

I’m all for good jokes, but I think you’d be better off having one joke for every three pages if it’s a great joke, rather than three jokes a page and you’re missing as often as you’re hitting. The key to a good comedy isn’t the comedy — it’s the heart. What are we exploring here? What feels real? The jokes are the surface of it, but the core of the show is the flesh-and-blood characters. Don’t worry so much about making it funny. Worry about making it emotionally satisfying and the jokes will come.

Never build a sitcom around someone who wants to be a star and doesn’t want to share the spotlight. You’re going to run it into the ground. Have multiple characters and multiple character dynamics to explore. Stay away from clichéd roles — the wacky neighbor who always drops by, the sexpot friend to the married woman, the incredibly knowing and neurotic 7-year-old. For some reason, oversexed old people are still a go-to place. Imagine the network saying, ”There’s just something so delightful about a 75-year-old who’s horny.” I didn’t think it was delightful the first time.

And make it a little easier for yourself by not doing topical things. I started out on The Golden Girls, and there were a ton of jokes about things that were in the news. A lot have been cut for syndication, but every now and then there will be a joke about Jerry Falwell going down a waterslide. You can barely remember who Jerry Falwell was, let alone the time he went down a waterslide.

The Art of… The Viral Video
Funny Or Die has produced a seemingly never-ending parade of sidesplitting online clips. Creative Director Andrew Steele shares the company’s formula for success with this five-point plan for creating a viral video.

Stay topical
There are stupid and obvious things that are universal and eternal on the Internet: babies, boobs, kitty cats. I’m not saying we’re not guilty of getting into those areas occasionally, but we try to avoid them. We live in the eye of the storm of the news cycle and try to tap into what people are talking about.

Whenever possible, wrangle a celebrity
The Internet is driven by search, and when you add a name to your video, it just aids everything. We have an idea for Erik Estrada. We doubt he’ll do it, but we’ll go out to him. It’s a delicate process.

But don’t necessarily use the celebrity’s idea
I’m not going to name names, but we’ve had to turn down some pretty stupid ideas from people. It’s more about trying to cajole them to do your idea.

Keep it short — and cheap
If a video can sustain itself, it can be any length, but two to four minutes is the average. And we’re not Jerry Bruckheimer. We can’t run out the door and make pirate movies. We don’t have the budget to buy the rights to a Rolling Stones song. We’re a garage company.

Don’t be afraid to fail
We have a little more freedom to be dark and edgy than other people, so that’s a big plus for us. The whole point of the site is that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay wanted a place where they could play. So you just put stuff up — and then watch and wait.