LESSONS FROM A HONG KONG VETERAN ACTRESS AND A SINGAPOREAN DIVA
What they taught me about comedy writing
When you’re creating a comedy series, it’s only natural you would want to hire comedic actors. Let’s say you were lucky enough to cast very experienced actors as your leads. Yet, when the show is put together with all the lines delivered pitch perfect, the comic spirit sputters like a candle wick put out in the rain.
The funny is missing. What went wrong?
A LOCAL SITCOM STARRING A HONGKONG VETERAN AND A SINGAPOREAN DIVA
In 2002, I helped to create a sitcom called Oh Carol which ran for two seasons. It starred two legends. One was Carol Cheng, a veteran Hongkong actress and the other was local comedy diva, Kumar. I had been writing for a few years then and had grown comfortable working with actors but this was a different league. Carol Cheng was known to have a sharp tongue and did not suffer fools gladly. I had a recurring nightmare of the actress reading my pilot script and then deciding to take the next flight back to Hong Kong because the writing was so terrible. I worried being the first writer in Singapore to send a well-known actress back to her country within 24 hours because of my script. I sat in on the table read. I listened so intently to how Carol spoke the lines that I thought I had willed myself to hear frequencies beyond the human spectrum. I answered every question that Carol asked as politely as possible. I tried my very best to give her the funny lines and the funny words. Kumar was a natural. In the room, he cracked everyone up with a quip every now and then. So everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, this was going to go well.
But when the first season played, one thing became increasingly clear. The funny that both of these actors were known for, was not translating to the screen. What happened?
THE EYES HAVE IT
Let’s start with Kumar.
We know him as this fearless performer on stage. A comedian who’s unafraid to bare his soul, raw and unedited, to an audience. The nature of his material, however, was not suitable for the format of a clean-cut comedy about the love life and trials of a single career woman. Kumar, on stage, made jokes about our insecurities, our hang ups about sex, our unexpressed prejudices. He used comedy as a missile to deliver truth. His comic routines were raunchy and made you uncomfortable, and it was bearable only because it was hilarious as well. We were not tapping into Kumar’s strengths as a comic performer.
But more importantly, during the entire first season, Kumar wore dark glasses for his character.
You could hardly see his eyes. And I think that was what put the distance between his performance and the audience. Kumar’s comic persona was made for the stage, loud and far reaching. Television however, is the medium of close ups. And we focus very much on the eyes.
I learnt that the eyes were not just windows into your soul, they were windows into a comic performance as well.
What about Carol Cheng’s eyes then?
FINDING THAT COMEDY CONTRAST
Carol Cheng is a sharp dresser, with eyes that are bright, curious, and penetrating. She’s also armed with more savvy than mortals like you and me. You don’t survive in the Hongkong Film and Television industry for more than twenty years without acquiring oodles of savvy. Like all veteran professionals, she memorized her lines, came prepared on set, and woe befell any extras who fumbled their one line during her scenes. During filming, she knew instinctively where she should sit or stand for the camera to catch her best angle. She was able to give you five different interpretations of one line, depending on the context of the scene. And every one of them would work.
But something was still missing.
It was not until the second season before I realized what was missing in the Carol Cheng funny equation.
THE GIRL FROM UNDER ONE ROOF
Carol Cheng’s character was not in itself a comic character. She was ambitious, cynical, cold, sarcastic and would slit her wrists before she would open her heart to anyone, not exactly traits that would endear herself to a heartland audience. Comedy needs contrast. I realized I needed to pair Carol with another character who had traits that were directly opposite to those of her character. Someone who’s lovably clueless, unabashedly fond of pop culture, and unafraid to look silly.
I found Vernetta Lopez.
Vern had already proven her comedic chops in Under One Roof, playing a typical teenage girl who lived in a heartland neighborhood. She had great comic timing. She could plunge into the most ridiculous situation and make it credible with a truthful performance. Check out episode 10 of season 2 titled The Lover Man, where Vern’s character had to fake knowing mandarin so she could clinch a job as a beauty consultant. We cast her as the sister of Carol Cheng’s character. Putting her next to Carol Cheng’s character instantly brought out the humanity in Carol Cheng’s character.
We realized that beneath the cool and abrasive exterior, Carol was at heart a family person, and just wanted what everyone of us in the human race desires — companionship, connection, and warmth. The fact that Vernetta’s character could put up with Carol Cheng’s character, implied that no matter how cold Carol might seem on the outside, we sense that this was just a front she puts up to hide her vulnerability. In other words, she’s human like the rest of us.
The second season improved considerably. The chemistry between Carol Cheng and Vern was electric. It was a pleasure and joy to see the two of them work though scenes I wrote for them. I found that I had advanced another level in my understanding of how comedies work.
LESSONS I LEARNT AS A WRITER
Looking back, I wished we had integrated Kumar’s stage presence and his particular comedic stylings into the show better. When you hire a comedian known for a certain style, you should try and incorporate as much as possible his stylings into the personality traits of the character you are writing in your show. I realized also that you should, as far as possible not have your character wear dark specs, especially a lead in a comedy, not if you wished to show some humanity. Not if you want to close the distance between an audience and the character. It’s one reason why villains wear dark shades, or in the case of Darth Vader, a dark visor. Fear comes from the unknown, and the impenetrable. Humor, however, derives from the known, with complete accessibility.
In a comedy, the funny comes from the reaction. It’s the reaction that subconsciously signals to the audience that they are permitted to laugh. In Seinfeld, the writers realized at the end of the first season that Jerry was not an actor. He could only do what he did best. Making funny observations on the many small quirks of human behavior on stage. He wasn’t a dramatic actor, or one who did pratfalls like Chaplin. He was better off reacting to his zany neighbor, Kramer, and his ever-unlucky bald friend George. Jerry’s reaction to their antics allowed us, the audience, to observe and as Jerry laughed, we laughed. Jerry was, in the parlance of the industry, the “straight” man.
Just as Carol was the straight man to Vernetta Lopez.
The next time, if you’re lucky enough to be creating characters for a comedy series, figure out who’s the straight man to your zany characters and remember –
THE EYES HAVE IT.