Comedies are often dismissed as less than serious stories, but if you look beyond the laughs, comedies typically contain serious stories. In “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” the hero is trying to lose his virginity as a 40-year old man. Despite most of the dialogue being improvised by the actors, they still followed a basic story structure that took the hero from realizing his flaw to having his friends try various bizarre schemes to get him laid, to finally him falling in love with someone and wanting love, not just sex. That’s a serious message that’s easily lost behind the humor.
In “Back to the Future,” the serious story is that you can change and accomplish anything you put your mind to. Read the “Back to the Future” script and you’ll notice that the phrase “If you put your mind to it, you could accomplish anything” occurs multiple times throughout the story. However it’s easy to overlook because of the humor.
In “Ghostbusters,” the seriousness involves trying to save the world from evil. That could be a plot in a horror movie, but it’s played for laughs. What separates comedies from serious movies is that comedies put ordinary people in absurd situations where they react in illogical ways.
In “Ghostbusters,” nothing is more inappropriate than having a giant marshmallow man threatening the city. The beginning scene of “Ghostbusters” promises horror when the librarian spots a ghost, but the next scene shows the hero deliberately shocking a boy so he can flirt with a pretty co-ed, which is highly inappropriate behavior for a professor conducting a test. Because of this inappropriateness that reveals the hero’s true motives, it’s funny.
The book “Writing the Comedy Blockbuster” explains how comedies rely on inappropriate goals, behavior, and dialogue make comedies funny. When the goal is to defeat a giant marshmallow man, that’s an inappropriate goal. When a man flees in terror from a giant dog created out of a statue and people in a restaurant ignore his terror, that’s inappropriate behavior. When characters sincerely say something stupid but don’t even realize it (“The next time somebody asks if you’re a god, you say yes!”), that’s inappropriate dialogue. Comedy occurs when our expectations don’t match with reality.
In comedies, that occurs when characters behave seriously in absurd situations. The characters in a comedy are trying to be as serious as possible, but they don’t realize they\’re actually being funny. When characters try to be funny in a serious situation, it often fails to be funny or believable.
In “The Lost World,” there’s a scene where a dinosaur nearly kills three people and they’re left clinging to a rope over a cliff. When the hero peeks over the cliff, the three characters act like they’re ordering from a fast food drive-thru window by requesting cheeseburgers. That type of scene is not funny because it’s people trying to be funny in a serious situation. “Back to the Future” is funny because the hero is trying to avoid getting seduced by his mom, which is an absurd situation.
Comedies are actually serious stories in disguise. To help understand “Back to the Future,” I’ve written a short e-book dissecting the mini-stories that move the story in “Back to the Future” scene by scene. By studying “Back to the Future” or any good movie, you can see how each mini-story sets up the future and the later scenes pay off those earlier set ups. When a movie doesn’t set up the future and fails to pay off earlier set ups, that’s when movies tend to drag and feel less interesting.
With comedies, the structure behind them are no different than ordinary dramatic stories. The only difference is that comedies rely on bizarre goals, actions, or dialogue to evoke laughter while dramas remain serious all the time. In that respect, comedies are actually harder to write than dramas, but get less credit.