Many people think that comedy involves characters saying jokes to each other. In most cases, that’s exactly what comedy is NOT. Instead, comedy comes from two sources. First, comedy derives from the unique perspective of the characters. Second, comedy comes from adding something normal combined with something unusual.
In the war comedy “Kelly’s Heroes,” a group of American soldiers are searching for hidden gold during World War Two while fighting the Nazis. That’s the ordinary situation. The comedy stems from an unusual tank commander nicknamed Oddball, who behaves like a hippie from the 1960s.
In one scene during the middle of a battle, Oddball’s tank breaks down. With German soldiers around, Oddball decides to relax in a chair, drinking wine and eating cheese while soaking up the sun. This behavior is definitely NOT what you expect a soldier to do during World War Two, but juxtaposing Oddball’s 1960s hippie vibe in the serious situation of World War Two creates humor.
Another example of juxtaposition of something normal with something unusual occurs in “Finding Nemo” when Marlin and Dory (two fish) meet Bruce the shark. This is the normal situation, but then it turns out that Bruce the shark is in a program to break his addiction to eating fish. By taking a shark, known to kill and eat things, and making the shark friendly and not willing to eat fish, “Finding Nemo” creates a humorous scene.
Often times when writers try to create a funny story, they resort to characters trading witty barbed insults at each other, which is basically the hallmark of a bad situation comedy. Humor often derives from seemingly normal situations juxtaposed with something unusual.
Think of any comedy and you can find this odd combination. In “Ghostbusters,” men are dressed and running a business like a pest control business, except they’re hunting ghosts. In “Legally Blonde,” a ditzy blonde is striving to become a lawyer.
When a story fails to juxtapose a normal situation with an off the wall item, that’s when comedy fails to work effectively. Think of “Stuber,” which simply pairs a cop with an Uber driver. A cop without a car is unusual, but not strange enough. A cop afraid of guns and violence would be a far more effective and unusual situation, which would have created a stronger foundation for humor.
In “The Wedding Crashers,” the idea of attending a wedding is normal, but the idea of attending a wedding specifically to pick up women is not, hence the humor.
If you’re writing a comedy, apply this litmus test. Are you pairing a seemingly normal situation with an unusual one? If not, your story may not have enough comedic potential.