by Jim Barker.
“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations” – Chuck Jones
Farce is one of the most difficult, challenging forms of writing.
Perhaps more than any other genre, farce relies on the writer’s complete understanding of many of the things discussed here in previous posts, from the author’s Machiavellianism and inherent use of dramatic irony, to its most essential ingredient, perspective, all used to great effect.
It is, however, also one of the more misunderstood forms of writing from the reader’s perspective.
With an emphasis by some readers on traditional story structure, there’s a tendency to completely miss a farce’s raison d’être centering not on the goal of the story itself, but the rising complications stemming from it. Coupled with other inherent elements not always en vogue (a large cast, typically longer set-up and deliberate use of coincidences among others), the farce can seem almost counterculturist in some story analyst’s eyes – but lacking in structure it is not.
So what exactly is a farce and how does it differ from other forms of comedy?
On the stage, it’s a genre that is full of high-energy and very physical stage directions, often “choreographed” – something that still translates to film though perhaps less obvious because of editing. Typically, the plot of a farce is a series of highly improbable events or coincidences that has a tendency to become incomprehensible due to the many twists and turns.
The characters are often, but not always, larger than life and the humor is derived from mistaken identities or misunderstandings resulting in deliberate absurdity or nonsense. In farce, anything goes – which typically means any and all types of comedy are utilized to fulfill the story’s main objective: keep the audience laughing…but the trick is, like a five-course meal for ten, everything has to be prepared and precisely set up.
As for how it differs from other comedies, writer Ken Levine states, with some irony:
I recently was asked how we constructed farces on Cheers and Frasier. I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.
First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves, they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.
Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.
Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.
These are but a few of the reasons why an unsuspecting reader walking into a farce is more likely to be overly critical of the writing in this day and age when many scripts aren’t read beyond ten pages, certainly twenty if the writing itself doesn’t conform to some specific prerequisites they may have. (Doubly so if the unsuspecting reader doesn’t know what a farce actually is and how it deviates from traditional storytelling.)
What Ken describes sounds like it should pertain to any form of storytelling. A farce, however, which means to literally stuff, takes a certain amount of set-up in motion pictures where audiences normally don’t have the benefit of already knowing characters and relationships as they would with television sitcoms. As such, where another story may develop several key characters and their relationships, a farce does it to a much greater extent and cast. The end result is like a juggler tossing a dozen balls in the air as opposed to three.
A script such as Some Like it Hot, as classic a farce to ever exist, would be taken to task being read beyond its first twenty pages in today’s climate. Its set-up takes nearly twenty-five minutes before Joe/Jerry, in their attempt to elude the mob and play into the story’s conceit, become Josephine/Daphne. The stark contrast in tone between the set-up and what follows would also be seen as detrimental.
Furthermore, the goal, eluding the mob, becomes completely lost for the majority of the remaining story. The subsequent complications resulting in Joe and Jerry’s chosen methodology – dressing as female musicians – lead to more and more based on the growing cast and their respective perspectives and individual goals.
The same rising complications from both Tootsie and Arsenic and Old Lace also prove the story’s ultimate goal elusive: in any given scene one can get lost in what the actual story is about, what the goal is, and who’s actually pursuing what (as demonstrated in this scene from Some Like it Hot.)
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This article was originally posted on Jim’s blog https://www.wassupinlasvegas.com/entertainment/wassup-on-film/
You can also follow Jim on Twitter (@BarkBitesBack)