The Three I’s of Comedy

The book “Writing the Comedy Blockbuster” lists three I’s that are important in a comedy. The first I is Inappropriate Goals. When your hero starts out with an outlandish goal, it helps set the stage for humor. In “The Wedding Crashers,” the hero’s whole goal is to crash weddings and get laid. In “American Pie,” the whole goal is to lose their virginity by prom night. In “Miss Congeniality” the goal is to stop a bomb threat by turning a tomboy FBI agent into a beauty contestant. In “Back to the Future,” the goal is to get the mother and father to meet so the hero can be born in the future.

Inappropriate goals lay the foundation for the rest of the story. Once you have an inappropriate goal for the hero, focus on Inappropriate Behavior. In “Shaun of the Dead,” the hero simply ignores the zombies walking around his neighborhood as he shuffles back home looking like a zombie himself. In “Network,” the hero threatens to kill himself on the air to boost his show’s ratings. In “Dr. Strangelove,” one military commander is obsessed with fluoride in the water. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the little girl performs her beauty pageant talent show by doing a strip tease. In “Ghostbusters,” one character presses his terrified face against the glass of a fancy restaurant while everyone stares at him. As soon as he drops from sight, they all go back to their normal conversations again.

The third I is Inappropriate Dialogue. In the original “Arthur,” the hero is a drunk millionaire who asks prostitutes what are they doing after work. In “Ghostbusters,” the villain has nearly thrown the Ghostbusters off the skyscraper and one character berates another by screaming, “The next time somebody asks if you’re a god, you say yes!”

Now combine all three I’s and you have the basic foundation for comedy. Start with an inappropriate goal for the hero. In “The School of Rock,” the hero wants to turn his prep school class into a band so he can compete in the Battle of the Bands. Once you have a silly goal, layer on the inappropriate behavior by taking a normal situation and make it ridiculous. In “The School of Rock,” the hero teaches his students how to play rock and sneak out of school.

Finally once you have an inappropriate goal and inappropriate behavior, toss in inappropriate dialogue. In “The Incredibles,” the villain has nearly killed the mother and her two kids, and the mother screams at the kids that if they don’t behave, they’ll be grounded for a week. In “Ghostbusters,” one character describes the actions of the EPA official as “Dickless here shut off the power.” When the mayor asks if that’s true, another character responds, “Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.”

Comedy is about the ridiculous so take a normal story and look for ways to make it inappropriate. Underneath every comedy is a serious story, but the seriousness is presented through an inappropriate goal, behavior, and dialogue.

  • Inappropriate goals
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Inappropriate dialogue

The next time you see a comedy that you like, look for ways that the characters behave in unexpected and inappropriate ways that most people would never have the guts to do, and that’s where comedy can come from.

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