Any film that’s made you laugh could easily have been a drama. Tootsie? Oh the yearning of breaking free from this prison Michael Dorsey has shackled himself in! Facing an impossible dilemma, Dorothy Michaels asks for her character to be written off, yet the executives won’t do it, so she kills herself on live television. The end. All the great comedies could have been made into straight, serious dramas were it not for the gifts and hard work of their makers.
So, at which point did the story change course? What makes the difference? Humor is tragedy plus time, they say. Or distance: because, as Charlie Chaplin said: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
So you start writing, and what have you got? A mess. You want to make the next big comedy hit, following The Hangover, Bridesmaids, or Ted? Let’s look at some of the highest-grossing comedies, and study the serious business of making comedy.
Step 1: The Hook
Comedy is about the unexpected. If you want to keep your narrative together (and that’s true for any story) you should be able to summarize the initial situation and the inciting incident in a very succinct, clear sentence suggesting that a lot is going to happen, in the next 90-120 minutes. If you can also suggest a tone, or a world in that sentence, that’s the dream.
- What Women Want ($374m) After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains the ability to hear what women are really thinking. You’ve got the main character and the driving conflict: you start imagining that it’s gonna cause some changes in the workplace, and hopefully he’s going to become a better man for it. Add to the mix that the executive is played Mel Gibson, and you’re know that it’s going to be interesting.
- Hitch ($368m) While helping his latest client woo the fine lady of his dreams, a professional “date doctor” finds that his game doesn’t quite work on the gossip columnist with whom he’s smitten. The premise may not be ultra elaborate, but if you insist more on the fact that the woman he’s after is truly exceptional than on the fact that he really can get them all, then you’ve got what you need. The difference with the previous example is that being chauvinistic, however wrong and unnerving, is more a habit than an identity. In the case of Hitch, sweeping women off their feet is what he does -better yet, that’s who he is. When the conflict hits so close to home, you know the character will go even further -thus providing more laughs.
- Shrek ($484m) After his swamp is filled with fairy tale creatures, an ogre agrees to rescue a princess for a villainous lord in order to get his land back. What? A fairy tale with an ogre as the hero? The movie does an expert job at taking your expectations of what a fairy tale is, and going the exact opposite way, and does so brilliantly. Prince Charming is so handsome but so dim-witted. The reviled ogre who relishes mud baths actually has a heart as gooey as the food he eats. (Awww) A fairy tale where characters have a life outside the beaten path of the worn-out stories and you root for the underdog? You’ve got the character, the conflict, the world. Where do I sign? For more subverted expectations, wait till Step 5.
With a clear and expansive tagline, you’ve got a world of possibilities, you’ve hooked your viewer, and if you’ve suggested a wide world of possibilities, you know you’ll be hired for sequels.
Step 2: Clash Of Civilizations
There’s no story without conflict. That’s the basis of writing. Usually, goals are conflicting. But let’s do broader: what if worlds collided? The phrase “clash of civilizations” is used often in our day and age (unfortunately). If you manage to coalesce that idea within a script: your story is going to write itself.
- Something’s Gotta Give ($266m) A swinger on the cusp of being a senior citizen with a taste for young women falls in love with an accomplished woman closer to his age. That’s going to be a riot (not just because Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson are playing virtual alter egos). Sparks are going to fly. He’s probably old, sexist and the absolute antithesis of what she stands for. Add the fact that, having reached a certain age, they’re probably both too set in their ways to see each other for who they really are. Or are they?
- Meet The Fockers ($516m) All hell breaks loose when the Byrnes family meets the Focker family for the first time. Ok, not the best premise line, dear IMDb. Let’s put it this way: a couple has their respective parents meet, and they couldn’t be more different: hers are rigorous and uptight, his are new-age, liberated hippies. Need I say more? Yes. Yes, I do, as said liberated hippies are played with immense glee by screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.
- When Harry met Sally ($92.8m) Harry and Sally have known each other for years, and are very good friends, but they fear sex would ruin the friendship. What’s more primal than the difference between men and women? It doesn’t matter than most of it is socially constructed: it still makes for starkly different worldview and hilarious misunderstandings.
Because comedy goes beyond just a wisecracking character and a few good one-liners: it’s about the collision of people and habits, hopeless situations which will push characters to go the extra mile and outside their comfort zone. Talking of which:
Step 3: Well-defined characters
As comedy is even more about expectations than drama. So if you’ve got characters that are well-defined from the very beginning of the story, and who will go beyond the expectations we’ve formed for them, or change in some way, that’s all the more possibilities for you to make your audience laugh -and care.
- The Woody Allen character in Virtually every Woody Allen movie: no one has ever made one movie a year for fifty years, so there’s really no other way of putting it. For any film buff, the Woody Allen character calls the same adjectives: “neurotic” and “wisecracking”. Over the course of an incredible career that’s only comparable to that of Charlie Chaplin and The Tramp in terms of creating a persona, we’ve become well acquainted with him and know what to expect when we see Woody (or one of his alter egos) on the screen.
- Melvin, in As Good As It Gets ($314m): in the first ten pages, we’ve established that (a) he’s a successful writer because we’ve seen him writing and patting himself on the back after he’s finished writing his umpteenth novel, (b) he’s neurotic as we’re shown how obsessive he is when he shuts his apartment and when he washes his hands, (c) nothing can make him change as he’s shown sending a cute poodle down the garbage chute instead of changing his ways. And, as the words in italic hinted, it’s also a good example of character introduction through showing and not telling. (Add Jack Nicholson’s genius and you’re good to go.)
- Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada ($326m): she walks into the building, comes out of the elevator and gives instructions to her first assistant. That could go many ways, but since she does so with such regal style, making everyone scatter before her, all in a cool demeanor and with terrific lines (“Details of your incompetence do not interest me”) delivered with over-the-top gusto by Meryl Streep, we’ve understood that she’s not someone anyone would want to mess with.
It’s paramount that characters be well-defined, so that we see clearly who’s interacting with whom. They don’t have to be people we like, but people we take an interest in. Remember that, in “The Devil Wears Prada”, our way into the story was Andrea, not Miranda, and it becomes growingly apparent that Miranda is not just nasty for the sake of being nasty, she’s just doing her job, and her job is demanding.
Step 4: Tone Consistency
In any story, tone consistency is crucial. Comedy is an even harder balance to find than drama, because drama that doesn’t fully work can kind of work, but comedy that falls flat is just painful to behold.
- Juno ($231m): the distinctive voice of the main character was well-established in the script, and Jason Reitman brought Juno’s idiosyncratic world onto the screen with the same disconcerting cockiness that the character displays throughout the film. By bringing the story through Juno’s eyes, we’ve got one of the most tender character voices in recent years.
- Amélie ($173m): talking about idiosyncratic… Always one to go the extra mile, and aim for distinctive visual style, he managed to put a character, her worldview, dreams and obsessions on the screen, while magnifying what Paris stands for in our collective unconsciousness (and hers specifically).
- Back To The Future ($970m): Robert Zemeckis is a singular filmmaker. Once Steven Spielberg’s protégé, he’s the one that came up with the scene in E.T. during which the mother goes into the room and E.T. hides among the stuffed animals. He’s also responsible for writing with Bob Gale”1941″, Spielberg’s 1979 bomb (and a personal favorite). They teamed up again for the “Back To The Future” trilogy. You only need to look at the Doc’s hairstyle to realize that the cast of characters who are hardly anything more than one-dimensional, either go beyond their own limitations if they’re good, or get what they deserve if they’re bad. (That’s a pulp film, y’all.) Yet you know that the humour is not meant to be subtle and -most importantly- the filmmakers know it too, which makes for hilarious, touching mainstream blockbuster entertainment.
Those three examples are definitely in the offbeat brand, and you may want to go for something more subdued. Subdued can be funny. Is your film a comedy of manners? Do the laughs from characters? Let the story decide.
Step 5: Subverting Expectations
If you let your story decide, that doesn’t mean you can’t shape it and whenever you can: go for the jugular. Go for the unexpected, or better yet, the opposite of what is expected. Take a look at these.
- Burn After Reading ($163m) George Clooney is just about as handsome as movie stars get, with a subtle Cary Grant demeanor and an immaculate, charming smile. You’d expect him to be smart and witty, and that he’d get the girl. That happens in a movie like Ocean’s Eleven. In a Coen Brothers comedy? He indeed is charming and has the immaculate smile in place, but he’s kind of dim-witted. That’s sort of meta-storytelling, as it plays with the audience’s expectations about the movie, and the promotion machine and not so much the character within the story. Does it work? Yes, and even more so when you see how much Clooney enjoys being in this character’s shoes.
- Bridesmaids ($288m): If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that this film is not your average “girl movie” and that’s precisely the point. A movie about bridesmaids? Cake, champagne, and rose petals are going to flow! Well… You only need to watch the raunchy (putting it mildly) wedding-gown shopping scene to realize that the boys from “The Hangover” don’t have a monopoly on gross, over-the-top humor.
- Ted ($549m) What happens to our teddy bears once we’ve grown up? More importantly, we were so busy imbuing them with a life of their own, they didn’t get to grow up. But what if they did? What if your teddy bear grew up too? What if it became a cursing, pot-smoking, perpetually horny teddy bear? We were warned that the movie was raunchy, and that it could be offensive. Is it? Depends on who you ask. I come from a country where Fifty Shades of Grey was deemed suitable for people above 12 years of age, so you may have a hunch what my answer will be. Is a frat-boy-type teddy bear novel? You bet, and it’s hilarious.
Funny is… what?
These are five major, inescapable steps that you will need to make a good comedy. Those comedies took in several hundred million dollars at the box office, and that could be you. They all followed those steps. The making of a funny film requires as much, if not more, discipline as you need for a drama. Again, watching someone trying to be funny and falling flat is painful. Don’t be that person. Study the market, watch what’s being done, see what’s not being done, and go for what tickles your funny bone. Chances are that you could have the next summer hit that’s not DC Comics or Marvel-related.