During the 80’s, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Pat Proft wrote a series of movies spoofs including “Airplane!” “The Naked Gun,” and “Hot Shots.” All of these comedies always had a target. In “The Naked Gun,” the comedy centered around skewering police cliches such as the good cop bribing a witness. In “The Naked Gun,” this cliche gets turned on its head when the cop bribes a witness and when the witness starts asking the cop questions, the witness has to bribe the cop to get an answer.
If you look at bad sitcoms, you’ll see that they toss jokes out there that don’t have a focus. Such jokes are often insults about other characters that are so generic that they could have come from the mouth of any character in any sitcom and be applied to just as many different characters. Comedy is always focused on a specific target with a specific tone.
In “The Naked Gun,” the comedy focuses around making fun of police movies with a silly tone. Comedy comes from exaggeration, reversals, and surprise. In an early scene in “The Naked Gun,” O.J. Simpson (as a cop) tries to kick in a door to arrest a bunch of bad guys. Instead, we get a surprise when his foot goes through the door, alerting the bad guys to his presence. When O.J. Simpson finally gets through the door, all the bad guys point a gun at him so he’s heavily outnumbered. Despite this, O.J. Simpson orders everyone to top their guns and one bad guy actually does so. That’s a reversal. When they all shoot O.J. Simpson, he dies in a comical way by hitting his head, burning his hand on a stove, smashing his face in a cake, and then stepping in a bear trap before finally falling overboard. That’s exaggeration.
Comedy heavily relies on characters to make the humor work. In “American Pie,” the focus revolves around sex so the hero gets surprised when a dorky girl who’s always talking about band camp surprises him (and us) with her revelation for how she used her flute one day to sexually satisfy herself. This surprise makes us laugh because the movie set up the fact that she seemed so dorky the whole time. The humor from this joke comes solely from the character’s personality that was set up as a nerdy girl who can’t stop talking about band camp. Strip away her personality and the joke isn’t as funny any more.
In “The Naked Gun,” the hero is a bumbling cop who tries to do the right thing despite being clumsy, which creates humor specifically for him. Notice that the hero never breaks from his character as a bumbling, serious cop. That’s focus. Comedy needs a focus, strong characterization, and a target. When you see bad comedies, they often lack one or more of these elements.
In “Ghostbusters 2,” the focus is still there (heroes trying to stop supernatural beings), the characterization is sort of still there, but mostly as remnants from the original movie, but the target is gone. In the original “Ghostbusters,” the target stemmed from the strong story structure of the heroes trying to stop a supernatural threat. Strip away the humor and the plot of “Ghostbusters” could have been a serious horror movie.
Yet in “Ghostbusters 2,” the story is much weaker because it relies too much on repeating elements from the first movie including a giant monster at the end. Repetition removes surprise, which removes comedy. “Ghostbusters 2” doesn’t show us anything new that we haven’t seen before, so there’s no surprise. With no surprise, there’s also no comedy.
To write a comedy, you need a strong story. Then you need strong characters with distinct personalities. Finally, this all has to seem fresh and new to us and not just a tired retread of an existing movie. The comedy “Sex Tape” seems to be failing because it doesn’t seem to go far enough in making fun of sex (like “American Pie” did) and the story structure is weak as well. Yet comedies like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are much stronger because the story structure is stronger, the characters are more distinct, and the storyline offers plenty of surprises.
Comedy isn’t easy to write since everyone has their own idea of what’s funny. However, you can improve a comedic screenplay by making sure you have a strong story without the comedy. Then make sure you have strong characters. Then make sure the comedy comes form the characters and stays focused in tone and a target. Comedy isn’t easy, but when it works, it can create the most amazing movie experience.