Along with horror, comedy is one of the cheapest types of movies to film because most of the time, the settings are contemporary with few special effects, car crashes, or gunfire. However, writing comedy is not easy because humor is subjective. When writing a comedy, remember that comedies are always about a serious story underneath.
Take away the comedy in “Ghostbusters” and you have a horror story. Take away the comedy from any romantic comedy like “While You’re Sleeping” or “The Proposal” and you wind up with a serious romance drama. The first rule of comedy is that you need a serious story to serve as a foundation. Then you tell that serious story using humor.
Comedies need to define a certain type of humor right from the start and maintain that type of humor. A raunchy R-rated comedy can get away with profanity and cussing while profanity and gross out scenes would look out of place in a comedy like “Ghostbusters.” If you’re going to write an R-rated comedy, then make sure you keep delivering the raunchy humor viewers expect from the start. “The Hangover” and “Girls Trip” promises raunchy humor and it delivers consistently on that promise.
On the other hand, a comedy like “Little Miss Sunshine” promises odd interactions between characters so there’s no gross out humor involving urine or nudity like a raunchy comedy like “Blockers.” Define the type of humor your story will deliver and stick with that type of humor from beginning to end.
Most importantly, your characters are never trying to be funny. In fact, they’re deadly serious, which is what makes them even funnier. In “Ghostbusters,” the characters aren’t trying to joke with each other by trading colorful insults like a bad TV sitcom. Instead, the characters are earnestly striving to achieve a goal and their serious behavior towards that goal is what creates the humor. One scene in “Ghostbusters” occurs when the villain asks Dan Akroyd, “Are you a god?” Confused, Dan Akroyd says no, at which point the villain nearly pushes the ghostbusters off the top of the skyscraper.
When they climb back on the roof, one character yells at Dan Akroyd and says, “The next time someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes!” The character delivering that line isn’t trying to be funny. He’s actually mad but his line comes across as funny. So besides using a serious story as its foundation, comedy also relies on characters acting seriously while the audience laughs at their seriousness that makes no sense.
In “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World,” a group of people race across the country to be the first one to a buried treasure. All the characters are deadly serious about getting the treasure first, but the way they do so is funny. They nearly kill each other trying to get to the treasure (a serious story) and they behave quite logically in their own minds, but their interaction is funny to an outsider (the audience).
Although comedy is often used to tell a horror, romance, or dramatic story, comedy also has its own unique pattern that fits divides a story into four main acts:
- Act I – The hero’s humorous antics don’t work in the current world
- Act IIa – The hero has to enter a new world where his or her humorous antics do work
- Act IIb – The hero’s humorous antics create more trouble and no longer work any more
- Act III – The hero’s humorous antics help him or her achieve a happy ending
In “Harold and Maude,” Harold (the hero) uses his fake suicides to annoy his mother, but he’s stuck in a lonely, dead end life. Then Harold falls in love with Maude and to avoid the dates his mother sets up for him, Harold stages fake suicides to drive his dates away. Just when Harold wants to marry Maude, she commits suicide and he’s despondent. Finally in the end, he uses his fake suicide skills to show us how much he really has changed and embraced life.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a dysfunctional family fights each other. When they agree to help the hero (a young girl named Olive) drive to a beauty pageant, the family starts getting along with their shared goal of getting to the beauty pageant. Then when the grandfather dies and getting to the beauty pageant seems in doubt, none of the family’s humorous antics can help. Finally int he end, the family’s humorous antics help the little girl achieve her dream of competing in the beauty pageant.
Comedy is structured just like any other story, but it has its own four-part story structure. By following the structure of a serious story such as a romance or horror story, then following the structure of a comedy, you can write any type of comedy you want such as a romance comedy, a raunchy comedy, or a horror comedy like “Ghostbusters.”