Scripting for laughs

The first rule about fart club is you don't talk about fart club. Or at least it's the overarching sentiment behind the doorknob/safety game currently tickling the funny bones of the under-10 crowd. It goes something like this. If your friend farts, you can quickly call out 'doorknob!' and earn the right to punch said friend in the arm until he/she is able to locate a doorknob and then touch it. However, shouting 'safety!' upon farting invokes immunity and the players are made to wait until the next time someone passes gas to get their giggle-laden punch on.
September 23, 2010

The first rule about fart club is you don’t talk about fart club. Or at least it’s the overarching sentiment behind the doorknob/safety game currently tickling the funny bones of the under-10 crowd. It goes something like this. If your friend farts, you can quickly call out ‘doorknob!’ and earn the right to punch said friend in the arm until he/she is able to locate a doorknob and then touch it. However, shouting ‘safety!’ upon farting invokes immunity and the players are made to wait until the next time someone passes gas to get their giggle-laden punch on.

Gary Pearson, head writer of DHX Media’s kids sketch comedy show That’s So Weird, broke the kid code and relayed the nuances of the game. It was his eight-year-old son who explained why exclamations of ‘doorknob!’ and ‘safety!’ were bouncing off the walls of the family home. And after a quick Google search, Pearson realized this underground fart club had millions of kid members across North America.

Like many other bits of comic gold he has mined from observing his son, Pearson incorporated the game into a recurring That’s So Weird sketch that features two trouble-makers who end up constantly interrupting each other by shouting the magic words during the skit, which is slated for the upcoming season now in production.

Now writing comedy for kids isn’t entirely as straightforward as conducting some kitchen-sink research with children. It’s an art-form in and of itself and the genre has arguably never been more in demand. Broadcasters are striving to commission layered comedic shows that engender co-viewing, draw a wider kids demo and stand up against the likes of The Simpsons. With that in mind, we spoke to kids comedy veterans to unearth some of their trade secrets.

Bring in the big guns

Looking to hold onto viewers who were migrating to adult nets to watch the likes of Saturday Night Live, Canadian kidnet YTV took the step to commission its first sketch comedy in 2008. Pearson, who started out at Toronto’s Second City and went on to write for MadTV and Canuck political satire This Hour Has 22 Minutes, explains that YTV and DHX Media focused on building a strong sketch comedy team first and then set about making the series kid-friendly. Out are references to sex and politics, but Pearson says there’s still a lot of territory to mine for jokes – embarrassment, relationships, parody, physical comedy, the list goes on. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re five or 95,’ he explains, ‘you’ll laugh at someone falling down, if it’s done the right way.’

Many of the parodies and send-ups speak to kid-specific popular culture, like a sketch called ‘Home School Musical,’ a commercial for pizza pants that you re-heat to eat by walking around, or an ‘on the street’ segment in which a female cast member asks adult passersby who is cuter, her or ‘her sister’ Justin Bieber. For parents, there’s a parody of Susan Boyle featuring the Scottish singer warbling operatic ditties about the need for kids to clean their rooms, which in turn relates to how children might perceive her music – old, tired, perhaps a bit screechy.

For Ben Ward, a scribe for CBBC’s Horrible Histories and M.I. High, moving to crafting comedy for kids from his training ground on primetime sketch shows wasn’t a huge leap.

‘You have to write what you think is funny,’ says Ward. He admits, however, that the clever, witty dialogue found in series like Friends only entertains children for so long. ‘You can only do that for a couple of lines then someone dressed as a bear needs to run in,’ he says. When writing for the character Basil Brush, for example, Ward says he had a guiding rule – a scene could only last one page before he made a point of cutting away to another visual, even if it seemed slightly out of context. ‘You need the turnover in visual ideas to hold kids’ attention, which you don’t need in a show for adults.’

Layered humor

During his tenure at 1990s British sketch comedy series SMTV, Ward wrote for an audience split 50/50 between adults and kids. It meant keeping up the visual interest for kids, while adding a layer of grownup wit. He cites a running parody of Bill and Ben, a British series from the 1960s that featured two puppets in flower pots, as one of the best examples. The SMTV version switched out puppets for humans pretending to be puppets and involved a lot of physical comedy and surreal elements, such as giant snails moving through the scene.

The subtext, Ward explains, was that the characters were actually tramps that often had tell-tale headaches and disreputable friends stopping by to collect money. In one instance a building company was going to pave over the garden. ‘So we’d have jokes about bureaucracy, while having a giant wrecking ball swinging through the shot and knocking the plants over,’ says Ward.

Likewise, Mellie Buse, co-creator of CBeebies’ Grandpa in My Pocket, makes a point of infusing the preschool show with humor that will get a chuckle from the parents in the room. She explains that Grandpa’s relationship with his pushy sister Loretta makes him emit a subtle, exasperated groan whenever she enters a scene. ‘The children get, ‘Oh no, not Loretta,’ but it’s the subtlety in the delivery that makes the parents laugh,’ says Buse.

Keep it real

For Buse, Grandpa in My Pocket hinges on the tangible relatablility and emotions of the characters that counter the very fantastical concept of a grandfather who shrinks and then wreaks havoc. ‘Of course nobody has a shrinking grandpa, but it’s played truthfully,’ says Buse. ‘If you can make those relationships credible and believable and recognizable and true, your laughs will be that much greater.’

Of course Grandpa in My Pocket has no shortage of slapstick antics, crazy characters and ridiculous situations. And Buse says that part of what makes the show so endearing to kids is that the relationship between adults and kids has been flipped – it’s the child who is the more responsible straight-man and the adult who is being mischievous and climbing up the drainpipe or disappearing inside a vacuum cleaner.

Jeff Biederman – who has worked on the last 39 episodes of Shaftesbury’s live-action kid sitcom Overruled! and is now co-executive producing a live-action/CGI comedy for Teletoon called Mudpit from Cookie Jar Entertainment – says the gags come naturally, but it’s the storytelling that can be a challenge.

‘If the audience isn’t connecting with with the characters, the jokes are a waste,’ says Biederman. He admits that a character can say something funny, but unless you care about that person, it’s just a line and it goes away. The other challenge is balancing comedic gags with action. ‘You’ll spend all this time coming up with clever lines and then in focus group tests, kids watch a character fall on his butt and that gets the biggest laugh.’

Like most comedic writers interviewed for this piece, Biederman says kids are a lot smarter and savvier than most grownups realize. He says writers tend to brutally shun script notes that ask for the removal of references or words that children might not know.

‘The kids don’t have to get every joke,’ contends Biederman. ‘If they don’t get one joke, there’s another one coming up two lines later that they will get.’ The consensus among this group of writers is that kids will ask about or research what they don’t understand. And if it just sounds funny, that’s usually enough. ‘At eight you don’t know that word, then at nine, you’ve heard it before, and at 10, you know the word and get the joke,’ says Biederman.

Squash and stretch

‘Writing for animation has its own challenges,’ says Biederman. The medium is so visual that the words can get in the way of the story the pictures are trying to tell. ‘There’s a huge visual element and you don’t know how they will animate it, but you have some idea,’ he says.

Toronto, Canada-based Skywriter Media CEO Kevin Gillis, who has been producing animation for more than 25 years, says he likes to turn the sound off while watching a new toon to see if the visual comedy really works. In fact, that’s how his team pitched the prodco’s Chuckles N’ Knuckles, an action-packed cheeky Ren & Stimpy-esque series about two rejected circus clowns.

‘You really feel for them, but the comedy comes from how they interact with each other,’ says Gillis. ‘It’s primarily the slapstick and the timing.’

In creating great comedy that brings together the perfect blend of storytelling with visual gags and timing, Gillis has made a process out of bringing the writers (who are sometimes stand-up comics) and storyboard artists together for roundtable meetings in the early stages of development. He says a give-and-take usually emerges in a creative session, where storyboard artists sketch out scenes and visual ideas as writers walk through the script, triggering something more from the writers. A great animation script then, says Gillis, ‘is a third the writer, a third the storyboard artist and a third the actor, which is a combination of voice actor and the animator, who acts via his pencil.’

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