The Essence of Comedy is Normal Behavior in Outrageous Situations (or Vice Versa)

When most people think about comedy, they think of jokes. But if you write a screenplay based on witty and clever sayings from all the characters, you wind up with nothing more than a bunch of characters saying funny things to each other.

That’s not a story.

A story is about a hero pursuing a goal. In a comedy, the hero might be pursuing a seemingly trivial goal but acting outlandishly to get it. In “Bridesmaids,” the hero’s physical goal is to be her best friend’s bridesmaid at her wedding. But this seemingly simple task is challenged when the hero’s best friend meets another woman who threatens to overshadow the hero’s relationship with her best friend.

Now to become her best friend’s bridesmaid, the hero gets drunk on an airplane and causes it to land. Then she starts knocking things over at her best friend’s party. Although the hero acts outrageously, she’s in pursuit of a trivial goal.

Another way comedy works is by starting with an outrageous goal and then have characters act normally. In “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” the outrageous goal is for the hero to lose his virginity. To do this, he acts normally but gets himself in outrageous situations.

So comedy either starts with an outrageous goal or outrageous behavior. Yet at its heart, every comedy is nothing more than a story. Strip away the humor and you’re left with a drama.

In “Bridesmaids,” the hero simply wants to change her life. In “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” the hero simply wants to find love.

For an example of a comedy that relies on an outrageous premise, watch “Slaxx,” which is a horror-comedy about a possessed pair of blue jeans that goes around killing people in a clothing store.

A possessed pair of blue jeans running around killing people is definitely an outrageous idea. Since the idea is so outlandish, the characters have to treat the silly premise seriously and that creates the humor. Strip away the comedy from “Slaxx” and you’re left with a horror story about a company that relies on child labor and lies to its customers.

The bottom line is that comedy is nothing more than a drama. You can either generate comedy from an outrageous goal or premise (“Slaxx” or “The 40-Year Old Virgin”) or from outrageous behavior in pursuit of a normal goal (“Bridesmaids”).

Comedy is not about trying to be funny. Comedy is about pursuing a serious goal with outlandish behavior, or seriously pursuing a ridiculous goal. “Dr. Strangelove” is a serious story but told with outlandish behavior.

If you’re writing a comedy, start with a serious story. Then add an outlandish goal or behavior. Every comedy is funny not because of jokes but because of the seriousness of the characters pursuing their goals.

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