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Writing Comedy, Part IV: The Fine Line between Comedy and Drama

There’s a surprisingly thin line between drama and comedy. Here’s how you change the former to the latter.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

August 25, 2011

7 Min Read

Everyone in the gaming business knows that learning how to program takes time and expertise. Learning how to draw art or create music takes a lot of time and expertise. But the craft of writing gets the shaft, and most people think they can do it fairly well, certainly in a game. Just as world-building takes expertise, dialogue is a craft, comedy, too, is something a lot more complicated than it seems. You need more than talent and an ability to make people laugh. It’s also a craft you can learn, a craft that hones your talent.

A Different Approach to Comedy 

As we get deeper into this series about writing comedy, I’ve realized that when we talk about comedy, we don’t always mean the same thing. Comedy in American television today is based mostly on jokes and one-liners (including visual one-liners), starting from The Simpsons, on to Family Guy, Modern Family, and much more. Add the growing popularity of stand-up and stand-up artists, and you’ve got an entire generation of writers who think that comedy is based on jokes and one-liners.

The truth is that although jokes and one-liners are comedy, an equal part (and, historically, a greater part) of comedy is based on situations. In comedy based on situations (let’s not call it ‘situation comedy’, which is a specific genre in comedy) what is happening is funny, whereas the text isn’t. The writer writes a situation with a comic element. The more the situation progresses, the more extreme the comic element. The truth is that in this kind of situation, hardly any line is actually funny, although the audience rolls in the aisles laughing.

As always with these articles, giving examples in prose about things that were well-executed by actors is hardly representative of the comedy in the example. So you’re going to have to actually watch at home the examples I quote here. Take Much Ado about Nothing, written by Shakespeare, directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) are two sworn bachelors who constantly denounce having the idea of marriage and children. And they really hate each other. They snipe at each other constantly. Their friends decide to play a dirty trick. They confide in Benedick that they have heard that Beatrice has confessed her love for Benedick.

Suddenly Benedick finds that he actually doesn’t like bachelorhood, that he likes Beatrice and that clearly the way she’s been behaving shows that she loves him.

Immediately afterwards, Beatrice comes storming out. While she is sniping, Benedick is suddenly like a tamed dog, nodding at everything she says, smiling at her bites, and seeing the positive in everything. I’ll narrate it to you as I saw it in the theater, showing where people laughed.  

Beatrice storms out of the castle angrily, coming towards Benedick. (Audience already laughs, expecting trouble, and also seeing how angry she is they know it is the opposite of what Benedick expects.)

“Against my will,” Beatrice begins angrily, “I bid you come in to dinner.” (Audience laughs.)

Benedick is all smiles and ingratiating, “Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.” (Audience laughs. He has read in her mood something that completely wasn’t there and therefore behaves the opposite of the way he has behaved until now.)

Beatrice responds, “I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me: if it had been painful, I would not have come.” (Audience laughs. Same comic element as before.)

Benedick gives a little laugh, as if he’s just been given a compliment. (Audience laughs.) He then proceeds to find the positive in her statement, “You take pleasure, then, in the message?” (Audience laughs. Same comic element.)

Beatrice, just as angry, but now confused as well, scoffs, “Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point and choke a daw withal.” (Audience laughs.) “You have no stomach, signior: fare you well.” – And she storms off.

Benedick remains behind for a minute and thinks about it. Then he says, “There’s double meaning in that.” (Audience laughs.)

There are actually no jokes here and no one-liners. No line is actually funny. But the situation, if done well by actors (as it was done here), is hilarious and written as such. As was clearly evident, if you watched it in the theater, with an audience who doesn’t understand Shakespeare’s language very well, but still laughed its ass off.

Don’t Write Funny, Write Humorous

Here’s the point: You can’t actually count on your jokes or on your situation being funny enough to crate laughter. Laughter is a harsh mistress and you shouldn’t chase it. The more people watch a funny thing, the more they laugh. The less people, the less they laugh. Games are played, usually, when a person is alone in the room, which means that even if something is hilarious, that person is not likely to actually laugh.

When writing comedy, write like those who write comedic situations: Make sure that what you do is humorous, that your comic element in the scene follows the rule of being more and more extreme and more and more comic as the scene advances, that your scene structure follows the rule of the comic element itself of each scene (as the story progresses) become more and more extreme (just like in thrillers, the story becomes more and more ‘thrilling’ as the story advances). In the good comedies, what happens to the audience when the writer structures his piece according to these rules, is that from a certain point the audience begins to laugh at almost anything that happens. That’s comedy. This audience reaction does not happen when you write jokes. When you write jokes, the audience only laughs at the jokes.

The Third Element of Comedy: Comic Distress

We’re slowly covering the five elements of comedy. We’ve covered the first two: over-exaggeration and under-exaggeration. Now we get to the comic distress.

Distress is something you find in almost any story. In your game, you’ve got a conflict (otherwise, there’s no story and no reason to play), probably in every scene. That conflict must lead to some form of distress in most of the characters.

There are two forms of distress: Dramatic distress and comic distress. You can take any dramatic scene, replace the dramatic distress with comic distress, and you’ll have a funny scene. You can take the funniest scene in the world, replace the characters’ mood with dramatic distress, and you’ll have a dramatic and not-at-all-funny scene.

Dramatic distress is the distress you know from life. Comic distress is distress taken out on the wrong thing.

This is a very strange definition, so take your time to imagine different ways to take your distress and aim it at different places, where it doesn’t deserve to be aimed. Panic, for example, could be very dramatic (What’s that explosion? Is it a terrorist attack?). But panic could be the funniest thing in the world, if the character, from the inside lets the pressure out in the wrong way and/or on the wrong thing.

Once again, I’ll give you examples, and you’re going to have to go and watch the movie and TV shows. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hugh Grant’s distress, which appears in almost every scene in the movie, is comic distress. That’s actually what makes most of the movie funny. The comic situations are not enough – it’s the comic distress that glues the scenes together. It’s special comedy glue.

Another master of comic distress that you can learn a lot from is John Cleese in his series Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers episodes are masterfully-built comedy episodes, possessing so much comedy that, in fact, the actors underplay most of the funny bits, so that you’ll have strength to laugh at the big things. Throughout, Fawlty, played by John Cleese, is in constant comic distress that only grows and grows and grows (blending it with the first element of comedy, exaggeration).

Don’t rely on your memory, go and see Four Weddings and all episodes of Fawlty Towers. Comic distress is one of the hardest things to learn, and you’ll need to grok it to write it well.  

Next week, we’re going to cover the fourth element of comedy: the comic solution.

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