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Story Design Tips: Writing Comedy, Part VII: What Is Comedy?

Defining comedy helps us write it better.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

September 22, 2011

5 Min Read

When I ask ‘what is comedy’, I don’t mean what makes things funny. We covered the five basic elements of comedy in the previous articles. What I mean is that comedy, just like any other genre in any medium, must necessarily have some kind of structure. If we understand that structure, we’ll be able to build better stories in the funny games we design, that will make them even funnier.


What Is Comedy?


Here is the definition for a story in any medium (film, theater, prose, games) that can truly be called comedy. The climax scene must have an element which is either impossible or completely illogical and, at the same time, that element in the climax scene must be arrived at in a completely logical fashion.


In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, one of the two climax scenes has Kate, the shrew, coming up to a bearded man and telling him what a beautiful and lovely woman he is. If that’s all you know about the scene, then it is both: a) not logical in the least; and b) not funny. However, if you have seen the entire play, you will see how Kate is in a position where she has to agree with everything her husband says. If he says the moon is the sun, then she will say the moon is the sun. If he says an old, mustached, wrinkled man is a beautiful young woman, she will go to the man and say how pretty she is and how young and beautiful, and maybe ask her for makeup tips (okay, not that one). The audience knows the logic behind the scene, and so it is one of the funniest scenes in the play.


Think Jack Tripper and Mr. Roper waking up in the same bed after having drunk too much, with neither remembering how they got there.


Think The Hangover, which takes this structure and does it upside-down. Rather than achieving the crazy at the end, the crazy is showed in the beginning. No one knows how it got to be that crazy, but there must be a logical explanation behind it (or it wouldn’t be funny). The logic is then discovered step by step. Everything crazy that is discovered on the way (and is logical) is funny.


The best way to study how to arrive at crazy endings is to study the master of farce (a genre in comedy). His name is Georges Feydeau. His plays were in French. But there are some wonderful translations by John Mortimer that you can probably find at a university near you.


Here’s the rule put simply: the crazier and more illogical your ending, the funnier it will be as long as you achieve it in a way that is completely logical.


Logic and Comedy


Here’s the thing. What works on the macro level, in the structure of the entire story, works in the micro level, in the structure of small things that are funny (like jokes, punch-lines, comic elements, and more).


Remember George in Seinfeld? A dialogue we analyzed two articles ago, had George talking about a girl he likes but thinks is too good for him. He’s planning a Wednesday call. He says, “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.” Elaine: “All she’ll think is that you like her!” George: “That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid!” 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!” -- You see that George is being completely illogical, right? However, as illogical as he is, he has his own logic, as a flawed human being, a logic that we all understand. Without it, the dialogue would never have been funny. The crazy doesn’t have to be mathematically logical, it has to be humanly logical.


In the British series Men Behaving Badly, a couple of men and the girlfriend of one are watching a Star Trek episode (the original series). Upon hearing the line ‘Space: the final frontier’ etc. one of the men says suddenly something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be funny if space wasn’t the final frontier? What if it was just space-space-space-space-space-space-space-space, and then… milk! Then it would be “Milk: the final frontier”.’ Now, you see that ‘Milk: the final frontier’ is a result that’s absolutely crazy and illogical, but one arrived at logically. The logic in this case, is the logic of a stupid person. But the audience understands his logic and that’s why they laugh.


In Conclusion


We’ve gone through quite a lot of theory regarding comedy over the last few weeks. We’ve gone over the evolutionary reason for comedy and the purpose it serves, the five basic elements of comedy, a shortcut to writing comedy, and now the very nature of comedy (which you can use as another shortcut to make things funny).


On this page you’ll find links to all the articles about comedy.


I’ll take this opportunity to remind you one last time that comedy isn’t about zingers or one-liners or about being humorous. Comedy is about the process of comedy elements within scenes and within the bigger story. If you do it right, lines that aren’t funny will get laughs. If you do it right, then from a certain point in your game, everything will become funny. That’s comedy.


Next week, we’ll go back to writing ‘normal’ story design tips.


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