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Genre or Die, Pt 4: Comedy

Comedy is not something I really think about in my own work; I don’t think of myself as a funny or witty person and comedy is not I think one of my scripts’ strong points. Yet weirdly my scripts are often praised as being funny, if not as a whole (I tend to avoid the whole comic premise), then in part – usually lines of dialogue or a character’s outlook, rarely a scenario.

And that’s what really makes and defines a comedy spec first and foremost in my opinion – a scenario. Something original, funny from the first look. You need to be able to see the comic effect from just the premise I think to be successful (of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, there can’t not be when you’re speaking generally).

So what scenarios make funny comedy?

The Screwball Comedy. The likes of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor made this aspect of the genre, something like Brewster’s Millions is a classic. Often these comedies are star-led – Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are key figures in such genres in the 80s and Jim Carrey in the 90s. I suppose the likes of Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand are trying to corner this market at the moment.

The Police Screwball Comedy. Like the above, but with protagonists and/or other characters involved in police-like duties (because they’re not always police, but detectives too or people having to act *like* detectives) that it deserves its own splinter genre: Beverley Hills Cop, Police Academy, Turner and Hooch, Every Which Way But Loose, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to name but a few.

The Morality Comedy. Jim Carrey’s very fond of these: Liar Liar told us that a father in nothing but name is not an actual father and The Truman Show made us think about the nature of existence and reality TV. He’s not the only one though; comedy that includes pathos often has a specific point or message behind it.

The Romantic Comedy. Covered in more detail by this post, but also includes those so-called “Dick Flicks” where much lewd behaviour ensues. A friend of mine insists on this basis that Porky’s too is an early “Dick Flick”, though I don’t remember enough about it to have an opinion on this.

Kid-Orientated Comedy. Not to be confused with children’s comedy (below). The Kid-Orientated Comedy places children and the machinations of family life as the focus of the comedy – and it’s nearly always from an adult’s POV: think Parenthood, Cheaper By The Dozen, Mrs. Doubtfire, Three Men and A Baby. Even Look Who’s Talking asked us to believe a baby could think like an adult.

Children’s Comedy. Children’s comedy is often buddy movies like Toy Story where two conflicting personalities must overcome their differences or fight an evil plan or evil figure, like in Monsters Inc or Monster House. Interestingly, Children’s comedy seems to be the most adapted from known works like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or Lemony Snicket.

The Christmas Comedy. These are so popular: The Santa Clause, Santa Claus: The Movie and Elf are obvious choices but Rom-Coms are often set at Christmastime like Just Friends. In addition random comedies like the weird Jack Frost where a man is killed at Christmas and is reincarnated as a snowman his son builds pop up too. If you read the Ink Tip newsletter like me, you’ll know how hot prodcos seem to get for the Christmas Comedy, they appear to ask for them EVERY WEEK it seems. Yet the number of times a Christmas Comedy has turned up at Bang2write? Three times. You may be missing a trick, people…

Musical Comedy. Songs and comedy mix well: the likes of Little Shop of Horrors and Jim Henson’ Muppet adaptations of the likes of Christmas Carol provide plenty of laughs and are the most obvious, though occaisionally we’re treated to dark adult musical humour courtesy of people like Tim Burton with Sweeney Todd.

The Supernatural Comedy. Again, kids’ stuff comes to the fore here with the likes of Ghostbusters, but flip a coin and you also have Beetlejuice which seems quite tame now (especially since he’s even had his own kids’ cartoon) but back in the 80s was very rude in comparison: “Nice fucking model! Honk HONK!” This is often where the comedy cross breeds with horror too, with the likes of Severance, Shaun of The Dead, Black and Sheep, etc.

The Surreal Comedy. There are many comedies that take a bizarre and absurd premise and run with it, yet somehow work. The most obvious here would be the work of Charlie Kauffman, especially in Being John Malkovich. The key to this genre is, yes the IDEA behind it is weird, but in actual fact the plot is quite straightforward: people go into John Malkovich’s mind and the power turns them corrupt. A lot of the comedy specs I read that want to draw on Charlie Kauffman’s legacy make the mistake of making the plot as weird as the premise, so I’m lost.

Dramedy. Often closely linked to the Morality Comedy and the protagonist is a “real” person that “funny” things happen to… Yet we have so much pathos it takes us out of comedy in many places. Sideways is a clear dramedy I think, as is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind.

Yet it’s the scenario that is nearly always undersold in the comic specs In fact, sometimes the same scenario turns up again and again, written by the different people – and it’s nearly always comedy premises that seem to “boomerang” like this. The greatest offender is the Rom-Com where a complete loser becomes a love god, but other ones that turn up loads include the guy who stands to inherit a fortune or a business (or a fortune and business) by a certain time if he proves himself in some way or the girl who has to find a man by a certain time or bust Cinderella-style. That’s not to say none of these can work by the way; I have seen a couple that have been very funny, but most are not. However the very fact that some scripts can make a familiar concept work when others cannot shows I think that it’s all about GRABBING your audience with your concept in comedy, making them WANT to sit down and be entertained – and yes, ultimately want to laugh, since comedies by their very nature are out of the ordinary (real life and its various pressures can hardly be described as a “laugh a minute” for most people, even actual comedians) and thus difficult to pull off in a plausible AND funny way. Basically you need specific elements to be funny in my opinion.

So what elements often lie at the root of good comedy?

The Protagonist. Protagonists are often passive in the comedy specs I see. I would make the argument that even if protagonists APPEAR to be passive in comedy, they often actually aren’t – unlike thrillers, which can sometimes get away with washing their protagonist away with intrigue or the horror genre with bloodshed (with the protagonist only fighting back sometimes in the second half, sometimes even just the third act). A passive protagonist in comedy I think is often a well-written illusion.If a writer DOES go for a passive protagonist however, in a comedy we need ANOTHER CHARACTER to take the reins for them in the first instance in terms of making decisions that drive the story, “setting off” that protagonist, even forcibly.

Conflict. Well, conflict is always good: conflict might be drama, but then it’s also the basis for good humour too. One of the reasons many of the specs I read aren’t funny is because everything is too easy for the protagonist: they meander from event to event making witty remarks. Whilst those witty remarks might be funny in isolation, they do not a comedy script make. If you believe as I do that good comedy lies in scenario and premise first, then you must have enough obstacles in your protagonist’s way to real make him/her fight for what she needs… By taking it away just as they get near, you can create humour.

Pathos. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said “Life is unrelenting comedy, therein lies the tragedy of it”. People remember a good comedy when it has an element of pathos contrasted with it; that’s why we remember the likes of Four Weddings for that funeral speech by the Scottish bloke out of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns (name?? Grrr). You don’t need to go overboard on this – just introduce a small element, a breather from the madness and it can go a long way.

Simplicity. A good comic film is clear and concise, with the prtoagonist’s goal simple to see. Ace Ventura wants to solve his cases in his films – first the missing dolphin, then the missing bat in the sequel, clearly borrowed from the likes of the Beverley Hills Cop films and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The Dude in Big Lebowski wants to chill out – but no one will let him. Shrek in a similar way wants to be left alone. In the Home Alone Films, Macaulay Culkin wants the burglars out of his house by whatever means. In The Mighty Ducks, they want to win the game. In Planes, Trains & Automobiles John Candy wants to get home. In Little Shop of Horrors, Rick Moranis wants to impress the girl; in a similar way, so does Eddie Murphy in Coming To America. In Ghostbusters, they want to clear the city of um…ghosts. Are you seeing a pattern here? If other genre’s premises should be simple, then a comedy should be UBER-SIMPLE.

Lewd/Rude/Strong language does not automatically mean funny. I love lewd and rude humour and I love strong language, but I don’t love plain rude. I read a lot of scripts where all sorts of general flashing, sex-related events and swearing occur for no reason in the story. If you’re going to include this, make sure it plays an organic part in your story. Consider the above from Coming to America (hilarious!) or The Forty Year Old Virgin: that was funny and lewd, principally because of The Best Friend, he was a lewd character and performed a “whole” role function, he didn’t walk on and walk out. When he then talks to Steve Carrell about him “fucking a grandmother… You should fuck her then get her to write you a cheque for twelve dollars,” I was in stitches. Yet often lewd characters in the specs I read say random things unrelated to the story or other characters or worse still, randomly get their knobs or boobs out. Boring.

Stupid does not automatically mean funny. Characters in produced comedies often do stupid things: it’s like a “get out of jail free” card to act in a stupid way as “high jinks will ensue”. And very often, this works. The point to remember here is that your protagonist may DO something stupid, they’re not ACTUALLY stupid, full stop. If a character is stupid and thus has no logic of any kind, then we will lose interest in them very quickly: I read a lot of spec comedies where the character does something stupid for seemingly no reason. Even in a comedy like Dumb and Dumber, Lloyd has a (screwed-up) logic to his actions, so even when he goes all the way to Austin to return the briefcase, we can see why he does what he does – and why what happens next, happens. For the record, I wasn’t really very keen on this film, I thought it well, dumb, but I can see why others thought it was funny: instead of *just* poking fun at Lloyd and his companion, we are asked to empathise with them and their journey – not only to Austin, but in breaking open the conspiracy by accident (rather tacked on at the end I thought).

Insanity does not automatically mean funny. Sometimes a spec will insist that certain mental conditions or belief systems equal comedy. These are the least funny specs in my opinion, since they largely poke fun at people who are unfortunate or different. However, my personal dislike aside, these specs often fall into the “stupid” category where character motivation is very problematic: why do they do the things they do? Who cares! They’re crazy! It’s funny! It’s not. Another two Jim Carrey films come to mind here actually: The Cable Guy and Me, Myself & Irene. In The Cable Guy Carrey unusually is the antagonist and is pitted against Matthew Broderick’s character in a believable and creepy way, building up from first being his friend, then his enemy. I liked the progression here and the fact we are asked to empathise with the antagonist, so we actually feel sorry for Carrey when he races off to “kill the Babysitter” – the TV he’s spent his whole life in front of. With Me, Myself and Irene however, Carrey’s character is the protagonist AND the antagonist with a multiple personality disorder; in addition he’s a single father raising a whole load of cuckoos in the nest as his own children. I thought this was a step too far in the “insanity is funny” direction personally, though I know it was very popular. It’s because of this film I think I see so many of this notion in specs.

What are your fave comedies and why? Over to you as always…

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Science Fiction, as requested by the marvellous Rach.

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15 thoughts on “Genre or Die, Pt 4: Comedy”

  1. That’s a good point – whilst children’s comedy is often adapted, in comparison to lots of genre comedy DOES seem to be original works a lot… A bit like Horror, now you mention it. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, very interesting! Though I bet comedy is often original works ‘cos Producers come up with the successful franchises, right? You often see “From the Producers of…” above high grossing comedies.

  2. I HATED Me, Myself & Irene for the same reason Lucy. Mental illness just isn’t funny.

    Except in that comedy with Dudley Moore in where he is an advertising exec who gets sent to an institution when he starts telling the truth about his products… The one that sticks in my mind is the one for some super-car where the poster read:
    “The (supercar) for men who want hand jobs from gorgeous blonde girls”. And there’s that guy who says hello all the time and gives him a hello box. And Daryl Hannah obvioously since it was the 80s and small British guys always seemed to end up with Daryl Hannah or her equivalent.

    Proof I suppose there’s always exceptions to the rule!

  3. Loved this post! May I clip it ot add to my file of “Stuff to read before rewriting anything”? I have a comedy script (which will be sent to you in the fullness of time!) and reading this has made me wonder how many of your guidelines I have broken in that. Not the one about mental illness, fortunately, but the passive hero….? I dunno. It’ll certainly affect the two other screenplays bubbling under right now. You’ll have to wait even longer for those, though.
    Thanks again for this.

  4. Dim – please do! I don’t know if I’d call them “guidelines”, I AM just one reader and of course things change from person to person, especially comedy. But it is funny, as you read loads of unconnected scripts and you see the same *sort of* issues, how you form those interpretations… But I’m sure you know how that feels reading yourself.

    Anya – good grief, I remember that film, though I don’t remember its title either (and I’m too busy to scour IMDB). I recall watching it as a child and thinking it was funny, would be interesting to see if I find it funny now.

    Evil – good point, you do see “From The Producers of…” on the highest grossing ones, but then the HUGE franchise is something that has happened right from the 80s til now certainly (what with the likes of Police Academy: how many did that have??), maybe even before that too…

  5. I believe the film Anya is talking about is CRAZY PEOPLE. And yes, it was hilarious I thought. Less hilariously, Dudley Moore is dead! I didn’t know that. I thought he was retired or something.

  6. Great post, Luce.

    I was watching Little Shop of Horrors the other day and laughed out at loud at all of the scenes with Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist. And I love the opening sequence of Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged me where Dr Evil goes on Jerry Springer.

  7. Yes, I thought he died only two or so years ago Evil but apparently he died in 2002! Where has the time gone?? As for not knowing about it, wasn’t 02 the year you and Mike were on VSO?

    Elinor – Mike Myers gets on my nerves big style so I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Spy Who Shagged me but I LOVE the sadistic dentist. Here’s some trivia: did you know that in Germany (I think it was Germany, somwehere Eastern European anyway) Austin Powers 2 was called “The Spy who NAILED me”?? Dunno about you but that sounds much ruder than “shagged” to me!

  8. dgComedy. What is it? What indeed is it? What makes it funny? Why is it funny when it is not meant to be? And not funny when timing it should be? Hmm.

    Lucy I’m surprised, no dusty comedies? Anywhere? You have the loop of humour under one of those fingers, I swear.

    Great post, thanks.

  9. Oh for the love of god, will you children go away and watch some films that were made pre-1980.

    Shame on you missy for talking about screwball comedies without mentioning Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Go watch them. And Preston Sturges’ films, in particular The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve.

    Oh, and for a detective comedy, check out William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Then there’s the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera and all their other gems.

    And the films made by Lubitsch like Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner and To Be Or Not To Be.

    And how can you talk about comedy without one single mention of the genius that was Billy Wilder?

    ….bloody kids!!! 😉

    PS there’s no question mark in the title Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

  10. No, thanks.

    I know you’re a 1000 years old Good Dog so maybe haven’t noticed, but things DO change every, oh you know, generation or so. I’m sure there are “kids” reading this article thinking “Jim Carrey? Eddie Murphy? OLD!” That’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to work.

    And for the record, I HAVE watched several of the films you reference since I’ve had the misfortune of doing bloody Film and TV Studies. Whilst Billy Wilder might be hysterically funny to you, none of his films have made any impact at all to me.

    But even if I had never watched one, writing a comedy in the style of a Billy Wilder comedy is hardly going to cut it in today’s market, if for only the reason there won’t be a single dev exec who has watched one as you complain all the time. Obviously looking at ALL FILMS EVER MADE is clearly a good idea, there is only so many hours in a day, so looking at the last generation or so when thinking about scriptwriting NOW makes more sense to me when I have limited time in a day.

    Things CHANGE. We might despair about that (like I think how can “kids today” find Alien BORING?? They do though) but it is true and not necessarily a bad thing.

    So go back to stirring stuff up on your own blog, you bugger… And where have you been anyway? Been a while since you told us we were all too young over here… Blood pressure been giving you a hard time? ; )

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