What makes a comedy successful is what makes any movie successful: making sympathetic characters that you want to win.
The next time you’re in a public place such as an airport terminal, restaurant, or shopping mall, look for two people who are laughing. Chances are good that no matter how hard these two people are laughing, you won’t have any idea what they’re laughing about. As a result, you can’t share in their laughter.
What happens if you and a friend start laughing? Now both of you can share in the moment because you know what’s happening and more importantly, you’re laughing with someone you know and like. That secret alone is the key to successful movies, not just comedies.
Think about any comedy like “Ghostbusters,” “Back to the Future,” or “The Hangover.” What makes comedies fun isn’t just the jokes, but our relationship with the characters. We want to see these characters win and laughter helps us share that moment. How do you get people to relate to your characters? Easy, it’s the same method that you can use to get peopel interested in you anywhere.
The next time you’re at a party or social gathering, you probably find it hard to talk to strangers because you have nothing in common, or at least don’t think you have anything in common. However, if you can find something in common, suddenly you can relate to that person, whether it’s the fact that you like the same foods, sports, or hobbies. The moment you find something in common with someone, you can relate to them because you can see yourself in that other person.
That’s what makes successful comedies, getting audiences to relate to the hero, but that’s also what every successful story needs as well. How does your audience relate to your hero?
In “Star Wars,” everyone can relate to Luke’s desire to get off his dead-end life on his uncle’s farm. We may never have been stuck on a farm ourselves, but we can relate to the feeling of frustration of being stuck in a situation that we felt we couldn’t change.
In “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Hurt Locker,” we may never have been in a war ourselves, but we can relate to the fear and uncertainty that war can create. In any war, the overriding goal is survival, and that’s something we can all relate to and understand.
In your own screenplay, ask yourself what overriding emotion can an audience relate to in your hero? If you can’t answer this question immediately, stop writing and start thinking. Until you can create that emotional bond between your hero and your audience, your story will never connect to the audience.
If you can make us want to laugh with a character, you’ve created that bond. Now you can also make us want to cry for that character, and if you succeed, you’ll really have created an emotional bond.
The next time you watch a comedy, don’t ask yourself whether it’s funny or not, but ask yourself if you bonded emotionally to the hero. If it’s a comedy you liked, chances are good that the answer will be yes. If it’s a comedy that you didn’t like, such as “All About Steve,” then chances are good that you couldn’t bond emotionally to the hero (in this case, Sandra Bullock) so the comedy falls flat on its face and the story fails as well.
Make your audience care about your hero. That’s rule number one in any story. If you can succeed in that, the result will be a stronger story.