The year 2020 was a roller coaster ride that has left future audiences craving a collective sigh of relief. What better way to provide what they’re seeking than a LOL comedy! There are different types of comedies, but they all have on thing in common, they make us laugh!
The biggest mistake a screenwriter can make is forgetting that at the heart of every comedy is tragedy. It’s the key to a compelling story worthy of becoming a motion picture.
FOLLOW TRAGEDY WITH HUMOR
Great comedies tend to border on tragedy. The trick is to give us the tragic (emotional) moments, while keeping the humor going. Often screenwriters make the mistake handing the tragedy by creating a dramatic scene that doesn’t end with humor. The result is an attempt at comedy that reads like a drama.
Here’s a simple rule to avoid this problem: Always follow a dramatic moment with a dialogue or visual punch-line. For example, in the movie While You Were Sleeping there’s a big emotional scene at the end where Bullock’s character confesses that she was never engaged to Peter. It’s a tear-jerker, but at the end of her confession she turns to Peter and says, “Oh, by the way, I’m sorry about your carpet.” This is the dialogue punch-line. It’s based on a setup where she accidentally dumped blue-tinted water on his white carpet. It allowed the screenwriter to give the character an emotional-tragic moment while maintaining the comedy genre via a punch-line.
In the movie Click, the tragedy scene involves the death of the hero. His family has gathered around him and it’s a tragic moment. Before his last breath, the hero gives his ex-wife’s new lover the middle finger. This provided a dash of visual humor that maintained the comedy genre while providing a tragedy.
Also, notice that the ‘dash of humor’ in tragedy scene comes at the very end of the scene. The writer should stick with the drama of the moment and DO NOT add any comedy until the very last second, then hit the audience with the punch-line or visual humor. The punch-line or visual humor acts like a reminder to the audience that while they’ve experienced a dramatic moment, they are still watching a comedy. Keep the comedy moment brief.
Secondly, the tragedy scene in comedy often acts as the hero’s arc scene. It’s the moment he changes. The writer can make another scene the arc scene, but it won’t hold as much punch as it would have if it had happened during the strongest emotional scene in the movie.
Another technique that separates comedy from other genres is the use of misinterpretation. This is where the hero (or another character) thinks one thing is happening based on a set of false assumptions, when in reality something else is happening. A quick way to study this technique is to watch television sitcoms. For example, a character might enter a room and only hear the end of a conversation and misinterpret the meaning, which leads to funny scenarios. Like two ladies at a table taking about their favorite soap opera character’s pregnancy at the same time a third lady enters the room and just hears ‘she’s pregnant.’ This can lead to all kinds of misinterpretations that can linger throughout the story until a payoff finally clarifies what really happened.
Contrast is another tool in the screenwriter’s comedy arsenal. If a hero’s an uptight Wall Street broker, then pair him with a Homeless guy. This creates conflict and endless possibilities for humor. Other types of pairings to create contrast is old and young, rich and poor, believer and a non-believer, educated and hillbilly that dropped out of high school, clean freak and a slob, nun and a prostitute, cowboy and a CEO, etc. It’s the opposites attract scenario, but rather than creating ‘love’, in comedy it creates conflict and humor.
Screenwriting 101 teaches writers to add reversals to every scene. This keeps the reader guessing, regardless of the genre. The same is true for comedy, but add more reversals to specific moments. Sitcom is a good study for this technique. Using the example under Misinterpretation in this article, the writer can use excessive reversals in the payoff scene. For example, the ‘pregnant’ scenario builds to a crescendo where each character thinks the other is pregnant, then in a barrage of reversals, each character points the finger at the other and it seems the situation is resolved when we learn one of the characters IS pregnant and a supporting character announces HE is pregnant too. He is? Yep, he is really a SHE! Multiple reversals in a single scene are the wheelhouse of sitcoms and can be used effectively in motion pictures comedy, but use sparingly for big payoff moments.
The handling of dialogue is vital to any comedy. Dialogue must go beyond informing, creating conflict and moving the story forward, in comedy it’s imperative the screenwriters learns how to use tie-in three lines, repeat lines and punch-lines to effectively create a consistent atmosphere of humor.
The tie-in three line is just as it sounds. One character says something ‘normal’, a second character reinforces it and a third adds a punch-line. An example from the iconic Golden Girls. Two golden girls replaced Blanch’s award-winning plate. One said, “We did it before she returned home”. A second one said, “I’m so glad, she loved that plate.” Blanch walks in the room, looks at the plate and said, “I always hated that thing,” and breaks it in a million pieces on the floor, leaving the other two gasping.
Repeat line is just like it sounds. The only key is when to repeat the line to make it funny. For example, a character might say a line at the beginning of the movie, like he hates his Uncle Joe, then repeats the line at the end to reveal he’s change and to add humor. The line might be something like, “I still hate Uncle Joe, but I love the way he can eat 15 s’mores in one gulp.”
The punch-line is the one most writers are familiar with and is used the most often in comedy. It works most effectively in the context of a mini-story within a scene that ends with a punch-line. Similar to how stand-up comedy handles jokes, only adapted slightly for motion picture.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Another technique a writer can use is what’s referred to as the fish-out-of-water. This creates conflict and comedy wrapped into one neat little package. For example, let’s say a nun accidentally breaks the law and judge throws the book at her by putting her in charge of a prison ward! She’s out of her familiar environment like a fish out of water. This scenario creates drama and comedy and the opportunity to challenge the hero to change.
The final technique a screenwriter can use to create comedy is subtext. Subtext is an underlying meaning behind the character’s words. The best way to learn subtext in dialogue is to listen for it in your everyday life. People always say one thing and we know they mean another. And we ‘get’ the underlying meaning behind their words. That’s subtext. Layering film dialogue with subtext creates an emotional connection with the audience when they ‘get it’ and can setup multiple opportunities for comedy.
Overall, the easiest way to learn comedy is to study television sitcoms. It’s a great way to learn techniques that can translate to motion picture scenes. Learning how to use tragedy, misinterpretation, contrast, reversals, subtext and comedic dialogue ups the chances of your comedy screenplay peeking the interest of Hollywood producers.