Thursday, November 25, 2010

Laughing at Pain: a serious guide to comedy

(Related article: Comedy Behaving Badly)

When it comes to writing for film and television, there are dramatic writers, and there are comedy writers. Execs like to categorize writers as either one or the other under the impression that it is impossible for a single writer to do both. If an established dramatic writer pitches his new pant-wetting comedy, the exec tends to look at him with the same absurdity as a fish trying to fly.

However, writing comedy and writing drama turn out to be shockingly close to the same thing.

Drama and comedy are both forms of story, so they both obey the same dramatic rules of storytelling.
They are both cinematic narratives, so both must follow the same guidelines of structure, of character, of communication with the audience. Both are powered by conflict. Both center around a human being dealing with a problem, pursuing a goal in order to overcome that problem.

The real difference between comedy and drama turns out to be so whisper-thin that it comes down to a single element. Any tear-jerker can be turned hilarious, and any hijink-filled comedy turned serious with the simple addition or removal of the element that splits these genres in two.

This element is EXAGGERATION.

Comedy is nothing more than real life exaggerated. What we find funny in movies and TV is nothing more than the worries, annoyances, confusions, fears, and anxieties we see and experience every day, exaggerated to a point where they become absurd, and therefore laughable. Audiences laugh at characters in situations that they themselves would dread to be in. Characters face danger, embarrassment, degradation. Played without exaggeration, the audience would feel fear, pity, or discomfort for the characters. But with the exaggeration, the same audience feels free to point their fingers and laugh.

Human society invented comedy for a psychological reason. Comedy takes what we dread and fear, what makes us angry and frustrated, and lets us to release that pent-up anxiety by allowing us to mock the very things that cause it. This is comedy's social function. We need it to stay sane. Dramas sympathize with an audience's problems by giving them characters to which they can relate. Comedy helps and audience forget about their problems by belittling them into insignificance.

This is why it is said that the best jokes are wrapped around a grain of truth. Comedy IS truth. It has just been inflated to grotesque proportions. Look at the television mega-hit “The Office.” The show instantly connected with an audience because anyone who has ever worked in an office could identify their own work life reflected in characters of the show. They have all experienced incompetent superiors, annoying coworkers, days of drudgery, and the constant urge do anything other then work. It is funny because it is true. However, I will bet my life not a single viewer has a work life that reaches the level of absurdity as the one found on television. The program gets its humor from reality, but reality exaggerated. While not so humorous in their own lives, exaggeration allows the audience to receive the pleasure of mocking the things that bother them day in and day out.

This may be a simple concept, but you would be surprised to find how many burgeoning screenwriters are ignorant of it. I have read so many spec screenplays that are supposed to be comedies, but are NOT FUNNY - all because the writers fail to exaggerate their situations to a sufficient degree. They half-step their humor, deliver dull underserved situations, and are afraid to PUSH IT to the absurd. As a result, these scripts only get a smiles when they should get laughs, a chuckle when it the audience should be rolling on the floor. These scripts fail to be comedies. The best they manage to be is weak drama.

One general, and somewhat ironic rule about narrative comedy, is that most humor comes from viewing situations that are extremely unhumorous to the characters experiencing it. This phenomena can be explained with two principles.


What a coincidence! Drama also comes from conflict. Conflict is what makes a story interesting. Nothing is more boring than two people getting along perfectly. And nothing is less funny.

Characters are rarely having a good time in comedy. They are quite often miserable. This is because unlike the work of stand-up comedians, and literary humorists who write in a style that speaks directly to the audience, narrative comedy on film and television is not “first person” comedy, but it is rather “third person.”

In first person comedy, Person A is intentionally trying to make Person B laugh. However in film and television, neither Person A nor Person B (the characters on screen) find their interaction to be amusing. They are usually angry, confused, upset, aggravated, even frightened with each other. But, to a third person watching their interaction (the audience), their interaction can be very funny. Most comedy comes from an audience observing characters react to FRUSTRATION. And the only way to create this frustration is through conflict.

However, the type of conflict that causes the humor in a scene is different than the dramatic conflict that powers the action of the story. Comedies, like any other genre, still follow the same rules of storytelling. Every scene moves forward through characters with contradictory goals who inevitably come into conflict with each other. This is the dramatic conflict that keeps the story moving forward. However, in comedies, there tends to be a second side-conflict at play in a scene whose sole purpose is to create the humor.

The most common of these comedic side-conflicts is Conflict of Personalities. This formula for humor has been a writer's staple for centuries. Simply take two or more characters with greatly incompatible personalities and then put them into a situation where they are forced to interact. Then, watch as they drive each other nuts. The classic formula is the straight man/funny man routine. Or the smart guy/dumb guy. Or the snob & the slob. But really, any slight discrepancy between two personalities can be exploited for comedy. Take a look at the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David portrays someone with a personality so bizarre that he can't help but conflict with every single person he meets. No matter what type of person he encounters, he invariably ends up in some sort of comedic argument.

Again, the difference between this and the normal character conflict found within non-comedic movies is the level of exaggeration in the behavior between the two parties. The divide is usually so wide between these two personalities they seem to be on different planets. In drama, the conflict would simple feel frustrating. In comedy, this other person is so unreasonable, it makes the character want to tear their hair out.

Another person-to-person conflict is Conflict of Understanding. Two characters are interacting, but they clearly do not understand each other. Abbot & Costello's “Who's on First?” is a perfect example. “Wacky misunderstandings” have been a staple of sitcoms since television's invention. The comedic frustration come from one character is certain they understand what's going on, only to have the situation contradict that certainty in a confusing manner.

Another common type is Conflict between Expectation & Result, which is commonly known as situational irony. A wife answers the door naked, expecting to surprise her husband. Only she herself is surprised to find her mother-in-law on the other side. The disparity between character's expectation and the result is a common way to advance a story's plot, but when used comically it can create a great amount of comic frustration when the result is of such exaggerated difference that it results in humiliation or unbelievable failure on the part of the character.

Conflict with Environment is the source of most physical comedy. Slipping on banana peels, falling down stairs, the suitcase that won't close, the bird that poops on your head. The character is merely trying to make his or her way through their environment without incident, but finds frustration when something in that environment refuses to cooperate. The more exaggerated the resistance, the more comedic it can be.

More sophistication forms of conflict-based comedy come not from conflicts between characters and other things within the story, but from a conflict between the elements of the story and the audience- namely, the audience's own knowledge and understanding. This creates a state of irony.

Sometimes this conflict comes from information the storyteller has given the audience to which a character is oblivious. For example, the character Inspector Clouseau is an idiot. The audience knows that he is an idiot, but Clouseau mistakenly believes he's a genius, causing him to say and do stupid things the audience knows could have been avoided. The audience knows that John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Tranes, & Automobiles are going the wrong way on the interstate, but they don't know that, putting both the characters and audience on a collision course for wackiness.

Satire is the most difficult and advanced method of comedy because it is based on a somewhat abstract conflict created by a disparity between the knowledge and ideas about reality that the audience has brought with them to the story, and those of the warped story world they see on screen. Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove is a comedy about nuclear war. Based on their preexisting knowledge, the audience knows that nuclear war is something that should be taken seriously, but the comedic irony comes when they find the characters reacting to it like buffoons. Terry Gilliam's Brazil presents a world with rules, ideas, and values that the audience, with their preexisting knowledge of reality, should clearly find absurd. However, instead of agreeing with the audience, the characters behave as if this absurdity is not only normal, but completely rational. What the audience finds silly, the characters take seriously. Conversely, in Strangelove, what the audience finds serious, the characters treat as silly.


“Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.”

(Well, maybe not die, so to speak. But, we will get to that.)

So, most comedy is the result of the audience laughing at characters in a state of frustration. But that is far from the worst of our comedic cruelty. How many thousands of times have we watched characters flee for their lives, hang off the edge of buildings, get bludgeoned with frying pans, get humiliated in front of a roomful of people, or have their soul crushed by the person they love- only to find ourselves laughing at their misfortune?

Is it sick of us? Not really. It all depends on how the action is presented. The difference between comedic and tragic is a matter of personal perspective.

Have you ever fallen on your face in front of a group of friends and get laughed at? It wasn't very funny for you, was it? But from their perspective it was (as long as you weren't too hurt.)

Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy in the close-up, a comedy in the wide.” Take a look at some comedies on film and TV and try to find any with a style that depends heavily on tight close-ups. Most comedies have a shooting style dominated by long takes of wide master shots, rarely going in tighter that a shoulders-up shot of a face. Tight close-ups are a tool of dramatic filmmakers. Dramatic filmmakers want an audience to empathize with characters. They want the audience to feel the emotions the characters feel. So, they design an intimate experience, where the audience sees the story from as close to the character's own eyes as possible. A comedic shooting style, on the other hand, has been intentionally developed to distance the audience emotionally from the action. Comedic audiences are placed in a withdrawn perspective that in result subconsciously gives the audience permission to laugh.

Try to remember an unfortunate incident in your past that hurt very much at the time you experienced it (because you were close to it and the pain still very fresh), but now, you can look back on it and laugh. You can laugh because you now have distance from the pain. We can find humor in misfortune as long as we are not currently close enough to it to experience the pain ourselves. Comedy in film & television can work in very much the same way.

Imagine a scene of a young man who is about to reveal to the girl he has had a crush on for years that he loves her. Only he screws it up monumentally. He ends up humiliated, disgraced, and seems to have ruined any future chance with the girl. At this moment, the character on screen in miserable. This is worst moment of his life. Now, if an audience member has recently suffered a similar situation, he or she would NOT find this scene funny, because it relates to pain that the audience member is still very close to. However, the rest of the audience can find the humor in the character's misery, because every one of us have suffered a similar humiliation in our lives, an incident that we now have enough distance from that we can now laugh at it. Likewise, if a character is in a state of fear and does something incredibly stupid out of panic, while it is no joking matter for the character, we can all laugh because we can all relate to a time when we did something very stupid out of panic.

It is not callous to laugh at characters suffering misfortune. It is actually another form of audience sympathy that helps us draw closer to the characters. We laugh at their misfortune because we can look back on our own lives and relate our own experiences to it. The characters are just like us. From our distanced perspective we remember how we survived own misfortune, so it is okay laugh since we can be certain the character will end up alright as well.

The only rule to follow is that “Nobody really gets hurt.” Whatever misfortune occurs on screen, it should be presented in a way that makes clear that the character will eventually get over it. Even if a character falls down a manhole and ends up in a body cast, it should be obvious that the character is not in any real pain, and the character will eventually heal and return to normal. Imagine how gruesome the Three Stooges would be if Larry, Moe, and Curly were not so immune to pain!

When this rule is not followed, when the pain becomes too real, it removes the distance the audience has from the material. The pain is now right in their laps and they are forced to acknowledge it- they are once again too close to it and will not be able to find it funny.


Since the invention of dramatic storytelling, people have tended to separate stories into two distinct groups: those that make us laugh, and those that make us cry. But when it comes to storytellers and their craft, comedy and drama are merely two sides of the same coin. Both follow the basic rules of storytelling. Both are fueled by conflict. They both seek to create a world relateable to our own, populated by characters who face problems that threaten them with danger, heartbreak, and misfortune. The only difference comes from the level of exaggeration which the storyteller presents that world, and from what perspective the storyteller chooses to present it to the audience. There is a thin line between laughter and tears. One that a master storyteller can manipulate at will.