(Related article: Laughing at Pain - A Serious Guide to Comedy)
About a month ago, I was in the middle of a script conference with a writer over a spec script she had written. The script was a rather dull and conflict-free light comedy about a married couple who take a vacation on a cruise ship. I suggested to her that the script would have far better movement and dramatic focus if she would center the action of the script on the couple's failing marriage and the temptation each felt to cheat on each other while on this ship filled with beautiful young people. She liked this idea, but responded with a good question: how could she write a script about something as serious as marital infidelity, and still make it a comedy?
Charlie Chaplin often said something along the lines of "Life is a tragedy when shot in the close-up, a comedy in the wide." What he meant was that everything in life can be seen as comedy or tragedy, it just matters on how it is presented. Chaplin made some of the most beloved comedies of all time, and nearly every one centered around the abject poverty and misery of the Great Depression. In these films we see sickness, starvation, suicide, discrimination, an unjust legal system, a cruel and cold world. Yet despite all this, no one would ever label Chaplin's films as “serious.”
In most comedies, if not all, we see characters facing situations that would, in real life, be very serious and hold major consequences. Either their lives are in danger, or they face circumstances that could bring ruin their lives or the lives of those they love, or they must at least be confronted with constant embarrassment and humiliation. In short, we are always led to laugh at other people's troubles.
There is a specific psychological reason why audiences have been so drawn to comedic drama over the millennia. Every member of an audience bring with them to the theater secret fears and anxieties about life. Everyone continuously has worries nagging at them, and fears of life and death lurking just below the surface. However, when an audience watches a fictional character carrying out their own fears and anxieties in a ridiculous and exaggerated way, the audience feels an emotional release. Their fears have been made trivial and silly. They are relieved of their own fears and anxieties through laughter.
One way to convert the serious problems of real life into comedy is to take a situation and exaggerate it to a degree that it becomes almost absurd. Let's take a look at the spec script I was discussing with my writer client. There is nothing funny about a marriage in trouble. But how she chooses show her character's marriage is in trouble could be be very funny. The script opens with a rather benign and uneventful sequence in which we see the wife Tonya, and and the husband Joe, preparing to leave on the trip. This would be the perfect place to establish the disrepair of the couple's relationship and at the same time establish the light, comedic tone. Let's say that instead of making Joe as an average, boring guy, he instead has a major personality flaw. Maybe he is a person who is so overbearing about sticking to schedule that he follows Tonya around with a stopwatch, timing how long it takes to brush their teeth, to eat breakfast, and complaining whenever they are a minute or two late. We see that Tonya is annoyed by this. Her agitation grows and grows to such a degree that she eventually solves the problem by taking Joe's stopwatch and flushing it down the toilet (which creates another comedic complication by making the toilet overflow). Tonya's reaction towards Joe is one of anger and disgust, but it is so exaggerated that it becomes funny. Tonya, on the other hand, could treat Joe as if he can never do anything right. The audience could learn this when they see Tonya wait until Joe leaves the room, and then dump out the suitcase Joe packed so that she can re-pack it the "correct" way. There are limitless ways that one could create flaws and problems between the two in an exaggerated, over the top fashion.
The important thing is to establish a light, funny tone from the very beginning. Then, keep up with that tone throughout the story. The audience will forgive your characters for the things they do as long as they know that nothing is ever to be taken too seriously.
Keeping your characters likable even when they do bad things
It is so important to keep your protagonist likable. This is especially true in comedy. A writer should never have the protagonist do anything IN A WAY that the audience would outright condemn. Now, that is not to say that they should never do anything “bad.” This means that they should never commit an act in a way that the audience would label as “bad.”
A good way to do this is to first show in a number of situations that your character is in fact a good person. Deep down they are decent and likable and worthy of the audience's affection. Secondly, when that character does feel obligated to do something that could be labeled as "bad," they make a FOOL out of themselves while doing it. They're not good at being bad. They are good people who get carried away by temptation and now must suffer the embarrassment of the mistake.
Think of a movie about a man who decides to rob a bank. If he does it sharply and efficiently like he's robbed plenty of banks before, waves his gun around, threatens to hurt people, you would have a hard time making him into a sympathetic character. To the audience, he is "bad." But if this robber is instead a well-meaning guy who concocts a hair-brained scheme to raise money for a selfless cause by robbing this bank with a plastic gun, and bungles the job so badly that he actually ends up apologizing to everyone in the bank for his ineptitude, he remains funny and endearing.
Why is this? It goes back to what I previously mentioned about comedy's psychological effect on the audience. Everyone in the world fantasizes about doing something bad from time to time. But most people are stopped from doing so by either the guilt of being seen as a "bad person," or by the fear of all that could go wrong. A character who is "bad at being bad" remains endearing to the audience because the audience can identify themselves with this misguided fool. Here is a decent likable person like themselves who carries out that temptation. Through the character, the audience can live out their fantasies of doing something bad. But at the same time, the character makes a fool out of him/herself. The audience laughs both because they feel sympathetic embarrassment FOR the character they identify with, and at the same time they feel relieved that it is someone else, not them, who must suffer the humiliation and failure that they fear.
Think of all the ways that people routinely humiliate themselves whenever they are suddenly sexually attracted to a new person. They babble, say stupid things, suddenly become clumsy, become distracted and walk into walls, come on too strong and embarrass themselves. Flirting and can go awry in so many ways. If we see Tonya and Joe going about their possible illicit romantic pursuits in such innocently misguided ways, they would remain endearing to the audience and the story would still be funny.
The important thing is to pull your characters back and have them realize their mistakes before they go too far. "Comedy", since the days of the Ancient Greek playwrights, has always implied a story that praises the positive, uplifting qualities of humanity. This is commonly done by first presenting a negative, destructive quality, and then have it defeated by its opposite, positive quality. In our spec script, it would be best, and most dramatic, to get Tonya as close as she can to the edge, as close as she can get to actually cheating on her husband, and then pull her back in a big, dramatic, funny way. Here's an example: Tonya has had a fight with Joe. She goes to the cabin of her new Romeo, who, in the time they have spent together up until now, has seemed so new and exciting. But now in his cabin for the first time, right on the brink of cheating, she discovers what a pathetic LOSER this other guy is. Maybe he is not a Romeo, but a big dork with a hairy back that still lives in his mother's house, or anything like that. She is suddenly overwhelmed with the embarrassment of what a fool she has been. She drops the other man like a hot potato, and through the experience learns to appreciate better what she has with her husband.
It is also worth mentioning that this “being bad at being bad” applies not only to the protagonist, but also to comedic villains. Rarely will you find in a broad comedy an antagonist that is truly intimidating, intelligent, or sometimes even competent. Rather than being scary and nefarious, they are usually portrayed as buffoons. Even the most capable opponent is usually struggling to hide the fact that deep down he/she is either a clown or a small, petty jerk.
There are two simple reasons for this. The first goes back again to the psychological release created by comedy. The buffoon villain once again leads the audience to laugh at what they should fear the most. The second reason is for the mere plausibility of the story's resolution and thematic message at the end. If our simple, bumbling everyman protagonist were pitted against an opponent who was truly worthy of the audience's fear and respect, the protagonist wouldn't seem to stand a chance. The antagonist may be more skilled in a certain area than the protagonist at the beginning of the film, but it is a skill that can be gained by the protagonist with the help of others in order to overcome the antagonist at the end. The protagonist may gain skill through the story, but usually the protagonist's true root of success comes not because he or she is so much more smart, brave, or skilled than the antagonist, but because the protagonist possesses, or has gained throughout the story, humanistic character traits that the antagonist lacks, such as compassion, humility, perseverance, or integrity. Once again we see the pattern of a negative quality of humanity conquered by one which is positive.