“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations”
Farce is one of the most difficult, challenging forms of writing. Perhaps more than any other genre, it relies on the writer’s complete understanding of many of the things discussed here in previous posts, from the author’s Machiavellianism to its 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 improbably 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. Farces often take place in a singular location with a large cast, too, but it’s not a necessity. 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 – especially 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 – and 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, but a farce – 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 – like a juggler tossing a dozen balls in the air as opposed to three. Dare I say 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 because 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 (not to mention the stark difference in its tone.)
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 – leading 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.)
In Tootsie, rarely are we reminded of Michael Dorsey’s attempt to raise $8,000 to star in and produce his roommate Jeff’s off-Broadway play. We understand the motivation because it’s brilliantly conveyed with Michael’s perspective on acting in the opening credits, but once Michael becomes Dorothy, it’s ALL about the complications stemming from the web of character relationships to both Michael/Dorothy. Michael is, in fact, earning that money as Dorothy but with each new character introduced – and there are MANY – comes a complication to the means of that end (and eventually the end itself.) Michael ends up pursuing a relationship with Julie and when he’s not doing that, he’s avoiding all the complications his prior decisions have caused. When it all becomes too much, he ultimately pursues a way out – a way back to “normal,” essentially having accomplished his original goal once he became Dorothy and earned a paycheck.
This is where farce becomes inherently different from other forms of storytelling where characters exist as archetypes and/or functions of the theme and what an author is trying to convey. In farce, a character’s existence is to provide complications via their relationship to the main character – something that needs to be set up by their differing perspectives.
Julie: Michael’s romantic interest, but also Dorothy’s co-star, she doesn’t take to him and his pickup lines but thinks warmly of Dorothy. Complicating matters, she’s Ron’s love interest which provides a bit of a mirror to the Michael/Sandy relationship. Julie’s perspective can be summed up in her scene with Dorothy where she confides being a woman in the 80’s is complicated with all the pretenses and that a little honesty would go a long way (of course, how it comes out is a bit different and results in Michael later getting slapped when he tries the direct approach.)
Sandy: Michael’s friend who he feigns romantic interest with as a result of a complication. Michael convinces her to try out for the part of the hospital administrator on the soap opera, a role that Michael lands himself…as Dorothy. Sandy subsequently dislikes “Dorothy”. Complicating matters further, she really wants to believe in Michael’s interest for her, but it’s hard to after seeing a “fat woman,” Michael dressed as Dorothy, in Michael’s apartment. Sandy’s perspective, particularly when it comes to relationships, is defined after she has sex with Michael and says “Sex changes things. I mean I’ve had relationships where I know a guy and I have sex with him and then I bump into him someplace and he acts like I loaned him money.”
Ron: The show’s womanizing director who’s using Julie, who, as noted, is Michael’s romantic interest. Naturally Michael as Dorothy takes exception, leading to an ideology of feminism in the workplace as Michael’s aggressive style as Dorothy is seen as empowering to woman. Psychologically, Ron is an extension of Michael who begins to see how he treats women himself as a result of the way Ron treats both Julie and Dorothy. Ron’s perspective can be summed up in one word: the title, “Tootsie”.
Les: Julie’s father who’s romantic interest is…Dorothy. Michael, believing he’s going to spend a weekend with Julie (as Dorothy), ends up being courted by Les. When Michael, as Dorothy, makes an inopportune pass at Julie, she mistakes her for being a lesbian and pleads with her to tell Les the truth. Les’s perspective is “Bulls are bulls and roosters don’t try to lay eggs,” a layer of irony added considering the situation.
John Van Horn: The soap’s other slightly less overt womanizer who’s managed to kiss all the women on the show…and also in pursuit of Dorothy. Thank goodness for Jeff’s impeccable timing. John’s perspective is, well, it’s actually conveyed by what the other, real, female cast members refer to him as: “the tongue”.
Jeff: Michael’s roommate who’s caught in the middle of Michael/Dorothy and having to placate Michael in his moments of crisis with both Sandy and John Van Horn. Jeff’s perspective is shown when he confronts Michael after the phone rings and he’s pleaded with to not answer it. “You know, when you were playing Cyrano and you stuck a saber underneath my armpit through the couch, I didn’t say anything. When you were hopping around, ranting about your hump, saying that this was a bell tower, I didn’t say anything. But I don’t see any reason why I should just sit here, pretending I’m not home just because you’re not that kind of girl. That’s weird.”
George Fields: Michael’s agent who, along with the audience and Jeff, are the only ones privy to the truth of what’s really going on. It’s George’s perspective of Michael that segues the story into its spiraling complications when he says “Michael, you’re not going to raise twenty-five cents. No one will hire you!”
Those are the primaries of a rather large cast, all of whom do nothing in terms of conventional storytelling to stop Michael from his goal, but rather complicate matters stemming from his decision to become Dorothy in the first place. What makes this difficult for the writer to achieve is that those complications all stem from the various characters and their perspectives, each having their own belief system that impacts the way they interpret, or is often the case, misinterpret, the unfolding of events – and it’s here that we can probably come to one truth that often goes unrealized:
The key to “funny” isn’t necessarily what has happened on the screen; rather it’s what the characters think has happened.
For this to work, the writer has to, in the farce’s particular case, invest in their character’s a bit deeper in order to set up the story and its rising complications. I liken this to a slow, laborious tight winding of a top that takes both effort and time, the payoff being when you finally let it rip and watch it spin, bouncing off other objects and unsteady surfaces as we wonder how long can it go? (the “it” being our laughter in this metaphorical case.) Perhaps no scene shows this to be truer than in Tootsie where all the various plot-lines come together upon Michael’s revelation during a live broadcast of the show, leaving one question unanswered: does Jeff know?
In Frank Capra’s savory black comedy adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster marries sweetheart Elaine Harper despite his perspective that marriage is an “old fashion superstition.” His goal, to get on with honeymoon. Providing complications are his insane murdering family whom he makes the mistake of stopping by and seeing. Of course the audience is provided a different perspective, that from the policeman during his beat describing the Brewster sisters as “two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest old ladies that ever walked the earth. They’re out of this world. They’re like pressed rose leaves.” But from Officer O’Hara’s perspective, they must be awfully hard up to have to rent a room. Little does he know…
Much like Tootsie and Some Like it Hot, Arsenic and Old Lace‘s set-up in providing the story with a goal really amounts to little more than an excuse to cause all sorts of complications when Mortimer decides to break the news to his aunts before leaving for their honeymoon. There’s nothing at first other than Mortimer’s conscious that keeps him from going – until he finds a body hidden in his aunts’ window seats, shifting the focus to getting brother “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, who he believes responsible, consigned to a sanitarium. But once brother Jonathan arrives, he who is also a murderer and looking to stash his own body, the focus shifts yet again as Mortimer is subsequently drawn deeper into the mounting complications stemming from a growing cast and, much like the other films, their own distinctive perspective, set of values and beliefs that tend to clash with one another.
As one might imagine, an uninformed reader sitting down to read a farce may find it confusing with so many characters to set up – something by today’s standards would leave many wondering “who is this story about?” Furthering the complication from that perspective is the seemingly shifting nature of what the goal actually is and the farce’s tendency to follow its own course of story logic (it’s been said writers are allowed one coincidence per script…but farces are inherently dependent on them). Sure, there’s still three (or four, depending on whom you ask) acts in many cases – Tootsie providing a strong argument for this overall structure, but the misperception of lack of structure stemming from pursuing a strong story goal comes from the preconceived notion that every story fits into some particular formula to begin with. In that regard, it’s a bit silly to criticize a work that’s accomplished what it set out to deliberately do.
Simply put, pages have to be devoted to each of these characters and their identities which means laying out the beats for their motivations, desires, attitudes and beliefs which – as noted numerous times before – results in their world view/schema that, in turn, dictates their actions, reactions and behaviors, elements which make the reaction to a scene more important to the audience than the action (something discussed at length here.)
As such, a writer is forced to build all this around some kind of framework or theme in the most expedient and efficient means possible. Sydney Pollack once stated in an interview that the challenge with Tootsie was setting Michael alone up within the first eight minutes so that the audience believed he was not only a great actor capable of playing a woman, but unemployable as well. With this and the notion we’re supposed to be laughing at what otherwise might as well be a tragedy to the characters themselves, the laughs tend to come fast as the writer attempts to pull all the right strings at the right time to keep the story moving along at a clip that continually introduces complications on top of complications – most stemming from the power of perspective – as the author does double duty, pulling the strings of both character and plot to a degree John Mortimer once stated farce as being “[a] tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.”