There’s an Australian stop action film called “Mary and Max,” which is about a lonely 8-year old Australian girl named Mary who’s raised by an alcoholic mother and a distant father who spends all his time stuffing birds instead of caring for his daughter. Since Mary is lonely and gets teased a lot at school, she decides to find a friend by randomly writing to someone in New York. That’s how she manages to contact Max, an obese, mentally ill man who also has no friends and gets teased a lot by people who don’t understand him. Together, the two lonely characters form an unlikely friendship that involves death, depression, suicide, anxiety attacks, and abandonment. Yet, “Mary and Max” is also a comedy.
The key to any story, especially comedy, is to seek out extremes in emotions. Since comedies try to make people laugh, the best contrast to laughter is sadness. That’s why many comedies have elements of sadness and tragedy buried in them, often relying on physical death or emotional death.
“Harold and Maude” is a dark comedy about a man who’s so lonely that he amuses himself by pretending to commit suicide. “Mary and Max” is a comedy about two lonely people who discover that the best part of life are friendships. Yet before they can realize this, they both go through dramatic life reversals where Mary gets married but then her husband leaves her for a man and Max gets locked in an asylum for electro-shock treatment.
The horror and bleakness contrasts with the comedy and levity that the story creates. Of course, comedies don’t always need complete physical death or depression to contrast with laughter. In many comedies, the characters go through emotional death. In “The Wedding Crashers,” the hero loses his best friend and continues crashing weddings on his own. When he meets the man who started the wedding crashing trend, the hero suddenly realizes how empty his life is. There’s plenty of laughter in “The Wedding Crashers” but the times of emotional death contrast with the humor.
“The Hangover” is another comedy that doesn’t emphasize physical death as much as emotional death. One character gradually realizes that he needs to get away from his oppressive and uncaring girlfriend. Another character gave everyone the drugs that made them pass out for the night, but it’s because he has few friends and he wants to find friendship.
When you look at good comedies, you can often find a dark understory hidden (or blatantly obvious) in the main story. Comedies work best with contrast but all stories need dramatic contrasts as well because contrast makes the emotional moments more impactful.
In “Die Hard,” we only care about the hero defeating the villain in the end so he can save his wife. The actual battle between the hero and the villain in the end is trivial. Bad movies drag out battles between the hero and villain with more action, special effects, and explosions. Good movies know that the action isn’t as important as the emotional struggle that the hero must go through to overcome him or herself and a villain at the same time. Essentially, heroes must defeat their inner demons (themselves), which will allow them to defeat their outer demon (the villain).
There’s a reason why dramatic stories often have moments of comic relief. It’s to contrast the seriousness of the drama with moments of levity. The more you laugh in a drama, the more you’ll pay attention to the dramatic moments. “The Shape of Water” is mostly a dramatic movie, but there are moments of humor when the hero (a deaf woman) uses sign language to cuss at the villain without the villain knowing what she’s telling him.
No matter what type of story your’e writing, find ways to create contrast between your story’s emotions. Serious drama needs humor and humor needs serious drama. Stories that lack contrast are often dull and boring as a result.
Watch “Mary and Max” and you can see how a movie that focuses on mental illness, depression, bullying, and suicide can wind up being so uplifting and inspirational in the end. It’s precisely because the story focuses on the dark elements of life that it can highlight the brighter moments. It’s all about contrast and it’s necessary in every story.