Two Very Basic Tips For Writing “Film Noir” Comedy

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before, but I thought that I’d talk about writing film noir comedy today. This is one of my favourite genres and it was one that I was reminded of recently after I started playing an absolutely hilarious old sci-fi film noir computer game from 1994 called “Under A Killing Moon”.

This is a screenshot from “Under A Killing Moon” (1994), containing an example of the game’s comedic dialogue.

Although I’m not sure if I’ll review this game [Edit: Unfortunately not, due to getting distracted by another game], it’s something in a pretty rare genre. I mean, the only other examples of comedic film noir-style stuff I can think of are a brilliantly unique and absolutely hilarious novel called “Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis, possibly Malcolm Pryce’s “Aberystwyth” books (Surprisingly, although I actually lived in Aberystwyth for several years, I still haven’t read these books), Andrew Hussie’s “Problem Sleuth” webcomic and maybe a few episodes of various TV shows.

Still, having seen a few things in the genre (and having attempted to make several film noir-themed comic updates for my occasional webcomic over the years), I can probably offer a couple of very basic tips:

1) Observational humour: A lot of the best moments in the “film noir” comedy genre come from sarcastic descriptions of run-down, grim, squalid or otherwise disgusting locations. This type of humour can also come from descriptions of unusual objects, and the history behind them.

In short, film noir comedy works best when it is observational. The observations have to be short and pithy. They also either have to show the detective talking about something strange in an unsurprised matter-of-fact way, or show the detective giving an elaborate history of something trivial.

Here’s an example from Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”: ‘My suit and shirt were piled on the plastic chair I use for clients. I stole it from a twenty-four-hour diner off Union Square, back in my professional drinking days.

Not only does this quote include a description of something intriguingly unusual, like using a chair for storing clothes (personally, I find that a sofa works much better for this though) – but the hilarious story about the narrator’s professional drinking days is explained quickly and matter-of-factly. This sentence is designed to leave all of the comedy to the audience’s imaginations.

Although I won’t include any quotes of this, another inventive thing that Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein” does is to combine matter-of-fact descriptions with “shock value” humour. Often, something incredibly bizarre, obscene, depraved and/or transgressive will happen – and the narrator will just describe it in a fairly neutral way. By contrasting the narrator’s understated and unfazed reactions with shocking events, Ellis is able to create huge amounts of comedic irony.

2) Characters: Generally speaking, “film noir” comedy comes from the characters. Typically, the detective who is narrating the story should be somewhat down on their luck – with the humour coming from their endearingly crappy life.

The detective should be cynical and world-weary, but not too bitter or depressed. They should be in the gutter, looking at the stars – if only to comment sarcastically about how the light pollution from the nearby motorway is blocking most of them out.

Likewise, a huge part of film noir comedy comes from the detective’s conversations with other characters. These characters should be slightly eccentric in some subtle way or another. Likewise, the dialogue should contain lots of small quick moments of understated humour, wit and cynicism rather than more elaborate jokes.

Here’s a good example from “Under A Killing Moon”:

This screenshot from “Under A Killing Moon” (1994) shows the police chief talking to Tex Murphy, the game’s private detective.

Although the police chief is clearly insulting Tex, this is done in a darkly comedic way (eg: “I figured you’d be dead by now”) and with a level of boldness that says a lot about the relationship between the two characters. Whilst this moment isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, the irreverence of it makes the conversation a lot more amusing.

But, in conclusion, the general rule with film noir comedy is that lots of smaller subtle moments of humour are usually better than a few more elaborate jokes.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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