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Cutting for Comedy: The Art of Crafting a Funny Moment

London, UK
With the ‘humour’ category added to Cannes Lions’ 2024 agenda, and the general need for more content which makes us laugh out loud, LBB’s Nisna Mahtani asked editors what it takes to get that perfectly timed edit
Difficult to nail but imperative to capture – humorous elements of a creative project often deliver the most impact. From movies to TV shows, OOH ads to creative copy and even looking at the ins and outs of a script, it’s important to hone the comedic process of a project to deliver the funniest results.

So where do the important aspects of comedy come into play? Every part of the process, from script to execution, demands delicate handling to ensure the comedic spark ignites in just the right way. But arguably, the most important aspect is honed during the post production process of editing, which brings the entire project together. In the hands of adland’s editors, impromptu dialogue, imperative aspects of the script and those crucial pauses can be leaned into, fine tuned and crafted into some truly magical moments. 

In a quest to unveil the secrets of achieving that perfect comedy edit, LBB's Nisna Mahtani puts it into the minds of the post-production edit masters. How do they approach this particular genre? What intricacies enable that all important laughter and what are their top tips for creating something memorable?

Here’s what they had to say:

Bryan Cook

Executive creative director of post production at PXP

Editing comedy in a commercial context – where you are usually working within a very constrained runtime – is all about getting through the setup of the joke as quickly as possible to give time to the punchline.

Jokes need space and air to land, so the setup must move quickly and establish the narrative world from the first frame.

As an editor, the setup is the part you have to be merciless with, as everything extraneous that doesn't help set up the jokes needs to go.

Once you hit the funny bits, it's all about pacing. Your pace must be such that the viewer gets the jokes and has time to react to them. This is often a matter of frames, as being slightly too long on something can lose the audience as much as if you move too quickly. In this way, a comedy spot resembles telling a joke in real life, if you don't give the listener space to laugh at the joke before moving on, they will feel rushed and put upon. Making someone laugh is an intimate experience, so your pace needs to respect that the viewer is engaging in a conversation with the work.

The other main key to editing comedy is really valuing your first few days with the material. After being in a bay for weeks cutting the piece, you will stop finding it funny as a result of familiarity. So, you need to be really locked in at the beginning of the job when the material and humour are fresh enough that you are reacting to it the way the viewer will when they first experience it.

[JaSocial - 'The Talk']

Ned Borgman 

Editor at PS260 

I’ve found editing comedy to be a two-step process: find the funny and then dial it in. 

I’ve been lucky to work with creatives who write funny scripts and directors who capture those scripts in fun, unexpected ways. That means we have a lot to work with when we step into the edit. There are options to sort through. You can’t use them all, so you start categorising and power ranking. What are the jokes? How do they work? What do they require? A pause? A look? A reaction? A specific line delivery? What are the punchlines? Can you use more than one? Should you? What’s building the tension? What’s releasing it? What’s making me laugh? And does that even matter? It should.

Finding those answers means finding the best setups to focus on. That’s the hard part. The next is the fun part. It’s time to dial it in.

What’s making the funniest stuff funny? Now, make that stuff funnier.

What is there to exaggerate? A sound design detail? The music? A performance? The pacing? What can I push? What if that pause was longer? Can I fit in a second reaction shot? What about a third? Is a fourth too many, or still not enough? Does she look back up if I hold on to that take long enough? Does he ever look over to her? Does that make it funnier? What happens when I play it loud? What about quiet? Playing it small is best, right? Unless it’s better to go big.

And where would we be as editors without the mighty split screen? Controlling the flow with a mask down the middle, releasing the right information at the right time. But why stop there? Let’s make up a whole new take. Combine her line from here with his reaction from there. Try that setup with this punchline. We’re right back in the writer’s room.

If all else fails, cut to the wide. Comedy lives in the wide shot.

Chuck Willis 

Editor at Lost Planet

For me, it’s always a feeling. Does it make me laugh? I guess to cut comedy, you first need your own sense of humour. You need to be funny and have a knowledge of the history of what’s funny. Whether it’s ‘Buster Keaton’ or ‘Animal House’, ‘Monty Python’ or ‘The Office’, you must have a personal frame of reference. I worked a lot with Chris Rock on the Nike Lil Penny spots; he knew the history of comedy and would talk at great length while in the recording booth. It has always amazed me that we can actually get a laugh in 30 seconds. To create characters, build a story, and get a laugh at the end of it all is simply astounding. 

The great funnyman Cliff Freeman would watch a spot down and, in his South Florida accent, simply say: “That’s funny.” Which, for him, was high praise. Ultimately, comedy is about all the pieces coming together; yes, the perfect pause or quick cutaway is great, but don’t underestimate the value of choosing the right performance, a well-timed sound effect, great music, or the power of special effects. I guess that’s why it is so hard.

It’s not just one thing, but a collection of all the pieces that generate the big laugh.

Andrea Mendoza

Editor at Cut+Run

When approaching a comedy edit, it’s important to remember what I felt when I first watched the footage: What in the footage made me laugh the hardest? I have learned to trust my own intuition and to lean into what makes me laugh. The truth is comedy is subjective, much in the way of music. We all have different sensibilities and the jokes will land differently for all of us. With that said, there are certain lessons (or rules if you will) to cutting comedy.

One of the first lessons I was given was by Dylan Tichenor. I was lucky enough to catch a seminar he was presenting in NY; after which I shimmied my way up to chat with him. I knew I had limited time, so I clumsily asked for advice on how to cut comedy. He simply replied, “Cut fast.” And not just cut fast for the sake of cutting fast, but do it with pace and intention.

Comedy often happens in a wide or medium shot. There is usually so much information there; whether it’s the reaction of the other actor/s or the environment that helps support the moment. Some of my most favourite comedic moments lie in the reaction. 

Sometimes the reaction can be funnier than the joke itself!

 In fact, it can save a bad joke. So I am always on the lookout for great reactions from the actors.

And then there is the power of sound design. I try to keep sound flowing through every frame of the edit. How can I use sound to amp up the comedy; it has its own comedic voice. It is an extremely powerful tool.

I started in this business because I love movies, comedies in particular. If you know me, odds are you know I am constantly quoting films. Cutting comedy takes quite a bit of discipline and a thirst for knowledge – luckily, there’s a bounty of amazing source material to analyse (and enjoy.) In watching the classics like Mel Brooks to new school directors like Edgar Wright, Christopher Guest, and Greta Gerwig; there are lessons everywhere.

It is an ongoing education; and each project is another opportunity to work with creatives and a director with the goal of entertaining, imparting happiness, or delivering an awkward moment – all in the name of comedy. 

Ben Campbell

Editor and partner at The Quarry

Comedy in ads is rarely ‘laugh out loud’ like the kind of laughs you get in an episode of ‘The Office’ (US), ‘Parks and Recreation’ or ‘Blackadder’.

You don’t have the kind of time to build a character up and then watch them suffer, albeit without major consequences. Building empathy, “Yes”, you say, "I too feel like that sometimes” and with such a feeling of an intense lack of loneliness, you push out air in a kind of loud rhythmic sort of way. Laughter.

I'm amazed sometimes how much I have heard, “That’s funny,” without a hint of rhythmic air expulsion. It’s tough for clients who want to bring their audience closer to their brand with laughter. For me, really good comedy is often shocking and that can be too much of a risk for clients, especially in an age where people are wary of the backlash from the smallest offence. On recalling the face-sitting moment in ‘Borat’, I had never seen an audience react like it, me included. It was pandemonium. People out of their seats, wandering about the auditorium, falling apart. I guess what I am saying is that it takes a bold client to really embrace the genre because there are no half measures in doing a genuinely funny 15, 30 or 60-second spot in those time frames. Client and agency should be willing to take a few risks without picking it apart for fear of the smallest offence. It’s about gut. Is this funny, did I laugh? Yes. Great! Then it’s funny.

From an editorial point of view, if I'm laughing that’s a good start but I'm very methodical in my approach. I don’t like leaving anything to chance. If it’s funny on the page, I just tighten the screw and go as bold as I feel I can take it, if it’s not funny on the page I work to find something in there. It may be one small thing, a juxtaposition of two shots, a moment left too long, or a sound.

Usually, with good comedy scripts, you see it clearly from the agency brief all the way through the final edit. Then it’s normally a bit of push and pull between director and client. The director wants an outlandishly odd-looking actor, and the client is nervous about putting off their audience with such an awful (read hilarious) face. They reach a compromise, and then what was a very funny idea slowly becomes diluted going from a big fat laugh to a mere, “hmm” and a smile. 

Comedy - for me - is about risk, schadenfreude and a touch of great casting.

Saam Hodivala

Editor at Shift Post

In broad terms, you could say that comedy is about outlandish situations being presented as realistically as possible. Something I've found from cutting comedy over the years is that the biggest laughs tend to come from a character's reaction to a situation rather than the situation itself. In my experience, grounding a comedic beat with a great reaction allows the audience a moment to take stock of what they’ve seen and relate to it.

In this Harry's spot, the reaction itself becomes the joke, with his incredulous reaction to a mundane act taking centre stage.

[Harry's - 'Satsuma']

Phil Hignett

Editor at Final Cut

My approach to comedy is binary – it's either funny or not. I’ve built my sense of humour over decades of watching movies, listening to stand up and telling jokes. Trial and error. A lot of errors, including a friend’s 21st birthday speech which resulted in silence. Angry silence. 
Michael Jordan missed more game winning shots than he’s made. Am I comparing my editing to the greatest athlete of all time? Of course not. But I do look great in red. 
Luckily, the more you fail, the more you learn; jokes become instinctual. Everything you say or do is automatic; If you think about a joke too long or anticipate the punchline you miss your moment. That's why they call it a quip, not a sloooowpe (shoutout to the hilarious ‘Shallow Hal’). 

The same goes for editing; if you cut too soon or too late it just isn’t funny. To continue/torture the basketball metaphor,

every joke has a shot clock, and one microsecond too late, all that effort getting your players into the key position has been wasted. 

Lucky for us, in the edit, you’ve (usually) got time to experiment and carefully craft a moment to make it as good as it can be. Speed ramps. Fluid morphs. Use any techniques at your disposal to make things quicker or slower and hit that perfect timing. 

Blessing, meet curse. There are virtually limitless ways of cutting something. You can drive yourself mad looking for the perfect cut point. That’s where your instincts kick in. In my experience, your first attempt is pretty darn close. You can always make it a few percentage points better, but all that heavy lifting is done on your first go. Hold on tightly, and let go lightly (shoutout to the slightly less hilarious ‘Croupier’). 

The best thing about editing is also the worst: Time. If you hear the same joke over and over again it gets old and boring and unfunny. Of course, it does. Of course, it does. Of course it-- So it’s important to remember that initial reaction and trust it. 

You probably have to watch the same 30 seconds of a commercial hundreds and hundreds of times. Maybe millions. Who really knows? Time is vital to the edit and meaningless to the editor. Suffice to say it can get a bit tedious. Lucky for me and unlucky for my wife, I have a
memory paradox; excellent long term, horrific short term. I'm like a goldfish who can tell you Dikembe Mutombo went fourth in the '91 draft. 

This enables me to retain information about characters, stories and emotions, while also allowing me to reset my opinion and watch the same joke repeatedly to analyse it accurately. 

Comedy is subjective, so surround yourself with people who make you laugh and do as much stuff with them as possible. Is there a better way to spend a life? Maybe hitting a game-winning shot in the NBA finals, but even that is fleeting. When you edit comedy, you get to laugh along with amazing people every day.

Robin Burchill

Editor at Bandit

I find odd, uncomfortable, but decidedly human life experiences to be a rich source of humour - maybe not necessarily 'ha ha' funny, but something that pokes fun at situations we can relate to. The pregnant pause reigns here and the drama lives in the silence between the words. One of my spots that I hope illustrates this is an Old Spice commercial showing a young man who is flummoxed when his girlfriend asks which friend of hers he thinks is the hottest. Despite how innocent the question seems to be posed, he knows it's a no-win situation for him, so he says nothing. The moment he registers his predicament is the one that draws the viewer in. The editing style is naturalistic, not drawing attention to itself, but the suspense builds and a quick cut to a reaction creates the humour. We feel the 'squirm', but observing the situation at a safe distance gives us the perspective to see the humour. We’re laughing because we know it’s true and 'there by the grace of God…'. The story could just end there, with our young man 'suspended' in this uncomfortable space forever, but an added twist thwarts expectation adding another layer and, hopefully, one last laugh.

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