The Seriousness of Comedy

Even the Academy Awards dismiss comedies as frivolous entertainment, yet the best comedies often have an important point to make. In “American Pie,” the story focuses on four high school seniors trying to lose their virginity. While this may seem like just another raunchy sex comedy, the main point is what one couples discovers in the end, that you can’t plan for a perfect life and you just have to adapt to whatever happens. For a movie about a kid having sex with an apple pie, you can see that “American Pie” is actually more than just about getting laid but about learning to grow up.

“Tootsie” might seem like a comedy about a man in drag, but it’s really about how men treat women and how the hero learns to become a better man by seeing the world from a woman\’s point of view. “Mrs. Doubtfire” might seem like another comedy about a man in drag, but it’s really about a father willing to do anything to be with his kids. “Legally Blonde” might seem like another silly comedy, but it also has an important message that a smart woman doesn’t need a man to succeed in life.

Look at comedies that lack an important message and they often fall flat. “1941” was about the Japanese invasion of the United States and its comedy consists mostly of slapstick and pratfalls. If there’s an important message buried in the story, it was easily overlooked. When comedies try too hard to be funny, they often fail. When comedies try to use humor as a way to deliver an important message, they often succeed because the hidden message unifies the story elements and allows the comedy to feel even stronger.

“Dr. Strangelove” might seem like an odd comedy, but it\’s about the foolishness of nuclear war. You can’t get a more important message than that. “Network” is another dark comedy about a newscaster who goes on the air to say he’s going to commit suicide on live TV as a way to boost the ratings for his show. “Network” is basically a satire on reality TV long before reality TV even existed.

“Anchorman 2” is another comedy that has a hidden serious message about how the news has become a form of entertainment rather than a source for information. Behind the comedy is still an important message.

If you’re writing a comedy, you have to do more than just go for the laughs. If you try to do nothing but go for the laughs, you’ll wind up with characters saying and doing things just for a laugh, but which won’t support your story. Comedies aren’t just about humor but about telling an important story using laughter as a way to get that story’s theme into our minds. In a sense, comedies are harder to write because you not only need a good story, but you also need to keep the audience laughing at all times while still telling a great story. Fail to tell a great story and you wind up with a mess like “Grown Ups 2.”

If you’re writing a comedy, think serious first, then think about being funny. The best comedies have a serious tone underneath, so use that serious tone to keep your story focused.

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