Comedies Are Serious Stories in Disguise

When someone tries to be funny, they often fail miserably. However, when someone just acts naturally but irrationally, that often creates humor.

If you’re trying to write a comedy screenplay, start by creating a serious story first. Bad comedies (anything created by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer such as “Disaster Movie”) simply go for cheap laughs, often relying on outside cultural references. Yet even these bad comedies have a foundation in a serious story.

Every comedy is actually a serious story in disguise. “Ghostbusters” could have been a horror movie, but it was actually a comedy-horror story.

“Happy Death Day” could have been a horror movie about a girl trapped in a time loop who gets killed everyday and must find her killer before it’s too late. Yet this too is also a comedy-horror story.

“Sleepless in Seattle” could have been a simple love story, but it’s a romantic comedy.

If you’re writing a comedy, start with a serious story first. Once you have the serious story outlined, then you can tell that serious story using humor. The best comedies derive humor from the characters and the situation, not from outside cultural references.

Study every Pixar movie and you’ll see that they have a serious story hidden underneath. “Soul” could have been a serious story about a jazz musician who gets killed and tries to earn the right to live again, but it’s told in a humorous way with comedy that stems from the characters interacting with their unique situation (the jazz musician gets trapped in the body of a cat).

Comedies often start with one outrageous, intriguing idea, and then the story shows us what happens. In “Ghostbusters,” this outrageous idea is that people can capture ghosts like rodent exterminators.

In “Soul,” this outrageous idea is that the jazz musician’s soul could get trapped in a cat’s body while another soul gets trapped in his body.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the outrageous idea is that two people, living in completely different cities, can meet and fall in love at the top of the Empire State building.

If you’re writing a comedy, start with a serious story and then add a single, outrageous idea. Then go from there and tell us what happens based on this single outrageous idea, such as toys that are alive (“Toy Story”) or guys who pick up women at weddings (“The Wedding Crashers”).

One outrageous idea is enough because that will let us stay focused on seeing how this single, outrageous idea turns out in the end while telling a serious story behind the comedy.

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