The Canvasser: Clean Cut Humour – A Blast from the Past

Following up on my prior post, the next project that I’ve been working on is the Canvasser, a screenplay about an earnest but overmatched volunteer who decides to make a long-shot run for city council before he has to go on welfare. Today, I want to go into some details about the type of humour I tried to emulate.

Over the past twenty years, film comedies have tended to become more raunchy, violent and predicated on shock value to generate humour. This trend appeared to start with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, continued in There’s Something About Mary and reached its zenith with The Hangover trilogy. The growing success of this type of comedy has influenced the spec screenplay market to produce more extreme or shocking comedy stories in order to stand out from the crowd, make their first sell and get their start in the industry. Please see the excellent screenplay review website, ScriptShadow, for more details on the trends in the spec screenplay market.

However, I did not feel comfortable a comedy in that vein. First, I don’t think I would good at it. Two, I’m a public servant, a job I love and respect. I would not want to write anything that would reflect poorly on my employer and the Canadian public at large. It may be a day job, but it’s a day job that I enjoy and want to keep doing. Third and finally, I think the type of market for that type of comedy has become extremely saturated. Audiences have seen this same type of comedy over and over again and have seen the enveloper pushed further and further. I’m not sure that there’s much left to mine in shock gaps and gross-old comedy. Furthermore, I believe that it’s hindered innovation and creativity in the comedic film genre in the North American market. Comedy has become formulaic and quite frankly dull. In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in the British style of comedies as pioneered by Edgar Wright and his compatriots Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Their Cornetto Trilogy films Shaun of the Death, Hot Fuzz (ESPECIALLY Hot Fuzz!) and The World’s End, used smart  writing, clever composition, innovative cuts and shots to create humour in ways that we hadn’t seen before. Hot Fuzz is so full of clever ideas that you don’t notice some of them on first viewing. One of my favourite jokes is when Nicholas Angel meets the Sandford Police Service and we cut to a shot of Sgt. Tony Fisher, played by Kevin Eldon, looking up. Behind Sgt. Fisher is a easel pad with numerous negative traits like disloyal, rudy and unfit encircling Sgt. Fisher’s head.

Hot Fuzz: Sgt. Fisher Easel Gag

These three movies are full of smart jokes like this that take advantage of the unique advantages of cinema. This seemed like to meet a far more promising source of inspiration then the latest gross-out comedy.

In terms of political comedies, most films approach the subject of politics from a cynical perspective, presenting politicians as self-interested narcissists, voters as apathetic and stupid and the system as fundamentally broken. While some of these critiques are valid, it is not the image of politics that I have seen over my experiences volunteering on numerous politicians and interacting with voters for over a decade. Political campaigns are driven by thousands of people who sacrifice their free time with no or little expectation of reward or comparisons because they care about their home and how it is run. Voters care greatly at politics, they just don’t like the options, or lack thereof, that they’re presented with. In my municipal campaign, I was blown away by the technical expertise and intelligence held by many citizens about some very complex subjects. I saw hundreds of people work hard for free to shape their communities for generations to come. Unlike most political comedies, my experiences have given me a hopeful and optimistic view of politics in Canada and I wanted to translate that hope and optimism to a comedy.

Based on the above reasons, I tried to establish a number of rules that I tried to follow when writing the first draft:

  • Don’t insult voters, they fully deserve our respect;
  • Keep it clean, there are enough gross-out comedies, we don’t need another one;
  • Be innovative, try to use the strengths of cinema to create jokes and gags that haven’t been seen before.
  • Be positive, there’s a solid heart of hope and optimism inherent in our politics, try to capture that as best I can.

I tried to follow these rules as best I can during the first draft and I’ll try to reinforce it during the subsequent drafts.

That’s enough for today. In subsequent posts, I’ll go into detail about the two main characters, their flaws and their motivations; and then general five act structure that I wanted to follow in writing the screenplay.

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