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Story Design Tips: Writing Comedy, Part V: Problem-Solving in Comedy

Explaining the five basic elements of comedy. This is the fourth.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

September 1, 2011

8 Min Read

Writing comedy is different than writing anything else. To write comedy well you have to change a few basic approaches you have towards writing, and perhaps towards life. In this series of short articles I’m trying to do more than simply show you the five basic elements of comedy. I’m trying to change the way you see comedy, which will allow you to write it better.

Last week we talked about how comedy isn’t about one-liners and punches to jokes. It’s about comic elements. The funniest scenes are scenes written without a joke or a one-liner, but one in which the comic element keeps growing and growing.

Today we’re going to talk about another major difference between the drama (and its various genres) and comedy (and its various genres): characters in comedy are different from characters in dramas. We already talked about their comic distress and how it’s different from dramatic characters’ dramatic distress. Replace the latter with the former, and almost anything becomes funny.

Today we’re going to look at the way these characters see their problems, as they arise, and how they decide to solve them.

The Fourth Element of Comedy: The Comic Solution

Here’s how a normal person would solve a problem, any kind of problem, in an effective way: he would look at the problem, try to see it from the outside, and go for the simplest solution.

That’s not how characters in comedies solve problems. Already distressed at the wrong thing in the wrong way, they seek out a roundabout solution to the problem. When that doesn’t work, they seek an even more roundabout solution. And when that doesn’t work… Well, you can guess the rest.

Here are a few examples. As always, this medium is not the best way to convey visual and spoken comedy. You’re going to also have to do research on your own.

Example #1: In Murphy Brown, Murphy, a reporter, has been shunned by every administration for the last fifteen years. When she finally gets a chance to redeem herself and is invited to a White House dinner, she goes, sucks up to everyone, and returns feeling good. The problem is that the first couple’s cat, Socks, hitched a ride in her car, and she only finds out about it a few hours later. That’s the problem. A regular, well-adjusted person would suck it up, give the cat back, explain the whole thing, and hope for the best. However, that is not how a character in a comedy deals with things.

First of all, she tries to convince her colleague, Corky, that the missing cat was found in her car and that Murphy’s key magically opened Corky’s car when Murphy saw the cat there. When that fails, she tries to enlist Frank, another colleague. When that fails, she plans to drive to the White House, and fling the cat over the fence. When that doesn’t work… etc. Before you know it, a week has passed, the cat is all over the news, and Murphy still has no solution. At each step of the process, she realizes that she should have just brought the cat back, even yesterday, but that now it’s too late, because she had it for too long a time. The longer she waits, the more impossible it is to return the cat and explain. The longer she waits, the more convoluted her solutions have to be. The longer she waits, the greater her comic distress.

In this case, the audience laughs not only at the jokes, but at the: a) solutions, as each materializes; b) at each absurd step of the solution as it is taken; c) every time the solution fails and Murphy still refuses to do the right thing; and d) whenever the craziness of her attitude is pointed out to her.

For one comic element, you get many points of laughter without one joke needing to be written.

 Example #2: There are many different kinds of problems that need comic solution. A classic Dudley Moore sketch has Dudley playing a one-legged man trying to audition for the role of Tarzan. The director, rather than being blunt with the actor, finds more and more roundabout ways to say what he means without insulting him. And so, at the end of the sketch, it has come down to this, “Your right leg, I like,” he assures him. “It’s a lovely leg for the role.” “I see.” “The second I saw it coming, I said, ‘Hello! What a lovely leg for the role!’ I’ve got nothing against your right leg.” “Ah!” “The trouble is, neither have you.” (Yes, this is a joke, and a good one. There is no aversion to jokes in comedy, it’s simply that comedy isn’t all jokes. This sketch has many more laughs than it does jokes because of the comic element, which continues thus,) The director: “Mind you, you score over a man with no legs at all. If a legless man came in here demanding the role, I’d have no hesitation in saying: ‘Go away! Hop off!’” Dudley is inspired by this, “So there’s still hope?” “Yes, there is still hope. If we get no two-legged artistes in here within, say, the next eighteen months, there is every chance that you, a uni-dexter, are the very type of artiste we shall be attempting to contact at this agency.”

Example #3: Let’s do something complicated here. Let’s take a complex scene with comic problem-solving and analyze it according to the comic elements we have learned so far.

Remember Seinfeld? George, a bona fide comic character, had a date with a woman he likes. When she invited him up for coffee, he refused, saying he doesn’t drink coffee late at night, it keeps him up. The next day, he’s in comic distress. And he has a problem (what do I do now to get her to like me?). He will of course find justification to solve it in as roundabout a way as possible. Elaine, in this scene, is the voice of reason (bounce the comic character with the comic solution against the voice of reason, and it’ll be funny).

Let’s analyze the dialogue.

Elaine (the voice of reason): “It’s all in your head. All she knows is she had a good time. I think you should call her.” (This is the solution that’s a straight line between two dots. No comic character will go for it. ) George: “I can’t call her, it’s too soon. I’m planning a Wednesday call.” Elaine: “Why? I love it when guys call me the next day.” (Voice of reason.) George: “Of course you do. But you’re imagining a guy you like. Not a guy that goes ‘No, I don’t drink coffee late at night.’” (Everything George does, from his reaction, to the way he sees things, to the way he expresses himself, to the way he expresses himself, is exaggerated (comedy element #1)). He continues, “If I call her now she’s going to think I’m too needy. Women don’t want to see need. They want a take-charge guy, a colonel, a Kaiser, a czar.” (Exaggeration in performance, phrasing, and attitude. Keeping him the voice of unreason.) Elaine: “All she’ll think is that you like her!” (Voice of reason. As she grows more and more exasperated with George, the writers and actors make sure that the comic element advances.) George: “That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid!” (A roundabout solution, see? That’s comedy element #4. Also, needless to say, he gives an exaggerated response.) Elaine: “She wants you to like her!” George: “Yes, she wants me to like her. If she likes me. But she doesn’t like me.” (First of all, the phrasing exaggerates the absurd in the way he sees things. Secondly, the way he sees things is so convoluted that it leaves him no choice but to find roundabout ways to solve problems. Lastly, his distress and the way he sees things, is real. We know it from our lives, and, at the same time, it is completely illogical. This is where the purpose of comedy comes in: to teach us how to act more intelligently. If there wasn’t a seed of truth there, it wouldn’t have been as funny.) Elaine: “I don’t know what your parents did to you.” (This is a comic distress line (comedy element #3), much like ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’. She witnesses a human tragedy, a tortured soul, and this is how she solves her own distress, on the wrong thing. These kinds of zingers in response to something real is one way to spot comic distress.)  

In Conclusion

Comic problem-solving, like many things in comedy, is a concept you have to get used to. You have to learn how to think in a roundabout way regarding every problem that arises. You have to watch dozens and dozens of hours of comedy and see whenever each of the comic elements we discuss crops up. And you have to then learn and do original comic problem-solving by yourselves.

There’s still one more basic element of comedy that we haven’t covered. We’re going to talk about it next week.

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