Killer clowns Steve Kaplan and Chris Soth have proven that comedy is no laughing matter. There are certain premises which lend themselves more to comedy than others and it’s serious business.
Write a one sentence logline to describe the essence of your comedic premise according the following structure: The hero, a verb describing the conflict, an antagonist (villain) and the world in which the movie takes place. In comedy, characters are non-heroes because they lack vital skills and inevitably fail.
Something funny is inherent and highly subjective and unintentional. The perpetrator is oblivious to the situation. For instance we find it funny when we see someone sliding on a banana peel. Comedy is intentional such as telling a joke.
The difference between a comedic and dramatic idea lies in the way it’s executed. You should be able to tell if it’s a comedy from the premise. Consider the recent movie “Easy A”, where a high school girl deliberately ruins her reputation to fit in by lying about her non-existent sexual exploits.
How do you push a dramatic concept towards the comedic? It all starts from character because characters drive the action and therefore the plot. The worst possible person with the most to lose being forced in a situation makes a premise comedic. e.g the perennial bridesmaid, or the lawyer obliged to tell the truth. A bridesmaid who doesn’t want to get married or a highly religious lawyer forced to tell the truth carries no inherent conflict.
A non-traditional character inserted in a traditionally dramatic story can also make a story comedic through parody. e.g James Bond substitued with a swinging hipster from the sixties in “Austin Powers”.
An atypical situation for a character can be comedic e.g a high camp, incompetent villain can add a comedic spin. e.g Dr. Evil, His straight laced son heightens the comedy.
A comedic premise is the lie that tells the truth. It could never realistically happen, but when it defies probability, all hell breaks loose. After the initial grand lie, the remaining plot must be organic and honest. Consider “Liar Liar”. A lawyer can ‘t (or won’t) always tell the truth. If you continue to raise the stakes, you risk over-egging the pudding or “bananas on bananas” (someone slipping on multiple banana peels) as Kaplan puts it. Improbability becomes impossible and ridiculous. It undermines the initial comedy and upsets its delicate balance.
Take what’s ordinary and make it mythic (extraordinary) and vice versa. Trust in your luck to stumble across a good idea/ premise. The weaker the premise, the more contrivance you need to make up. Funny gags are forcibly inserted rather than allowing the comedy to naturally unravel. Consider the following premise: The only time a college football team wins is when the nerdy mascot gets laid. This implicitly comedic idea creates character and event to drive the movie. It’s silly enough to let the movie write itself rather than degenerating into a gag fest. The main character needs two friends to assist. One is a big lug which may hinder progress (contagonist) while the other is has great suggestions and a loyal friend (side kick). The three musketeers propel the comedy.
Bring in characters through need and theme or else you may have unnecessary characters. Every character must serve a dramatic function. Use characters such as clever tricky servants, morons, zany idiots, battle axe wives and saucy columbines with a heart of gold. Allow characters to improvise with a set cast.
Comedy is a closed universe so characters require a unified truth. Characters must be complimentary to each other. Each character must serve relationships, connections and story functions. Let characters pursue their own goals. Since comedy relies on a limited number of stock characters, comedic characters tend to stay the same, but the situations change.
A strong comedy requires comedic hero, comedic villain or a comedic world. Two out of three elements are required for a successful comedy. Three out of three is overkill.
A locale or environment can be a character. Certain environments are intrinsically funny such as the cut throat world of male models in “Zoolander” or dog showing in “Best In Show”.
So, my fellow scribes, use these tips to write better comedies.