Writing Comedy: More Than Just The Jokes
By Jacob Krueger
An old adage in the comedy world reminds comedy writers that “comedy is just tragedy without empathy.” And there’s a lot of truth in that statement. So often, when writers try to write comedies, they make the mistake of thinking that the funny comes from the jokes.
But if you look closely at the truly great comedies, you’ll see that the real source of great comedy is not the jokes at all, but the structure underneath them, that allows us to care about, root for, and laugh with and at the characters.
That means that finding the comedy in your script often means letting go of the need to “go for the joke” or make them laugh, and instead concentrating on getting your personal truth down on the page, in the way only you can see it, and building a solid structure for your character’s journey, just like you would in any other genre.
Acclaimed showrunner Jerome Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy classes, tells his students “if you want to make it funny, first make it true.” And following that advice, we’ve seen so many of his students transform what normally would be thought of as emotional, profoundly un-funny topics into hilarious and also surprisingly moving screenplays and teleplays.
This kind of truthful comedy marks a new (and very exciting) trend in Hollywood right now, both in TV writing and in screenwriting, for comedies that are not afraid to go for the jugular. We’ve seen it in TV shows like “Orange is The New Black” and “Louie,” and in big budget features like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie.
It’s not surprising that these kinds of truthful comedies are also the most successful commercially. Because these are the stories that everyone can relate to—the stories that speak to our shared emotional experience.
We may never have to defeat an evil Lego villain, but we all know what it’s like to feel creatively stifled by our desperate need for our parent’s approval.
We may never have to team up with an emotionally unbalanced raccoon to save the galaxy, but we all know what it’s like to deal with the loss of someone we love, and the fear after a loss like that of ever taking another person’s hand.
We may have never been a maladjusted standup comic, but we all know what it’s like to know what the right thing to do is, and still choose to do the wrong thing.
We may have no idea what it’s like to be one of the voiceless women trapped in America’s prison system, but we know what it’s like to feel like a fish out of water, and to be forced to recognize that we’re not so much different from all the other fish.
Comedy, just like tragedy and drama and romance and thrillers and horror and action movies, is just a very specific type of execution of a character’s journey. No matter how slapstick, how satirical, how tongue in cheek, how silly or how twisted, it springs from a truthful place in ourselves, and a truthfully written character who represents that part of us, who wants something desperately, and goes on a life changing journey to get it, just like a movie of any other genre.
In this month’s 7 Act Structure Seminar, I’m going to be speaking about one of the seminal examples in this kind of truthful comedy, the Coen Brothers’ classic Raising Arizona.
We’ll be breaking down the structure of Raising Arizona from the ground up, mining the deeply emotional material out of which all those ridiculous hijinks, wacky chase sequences and playful gags actually come from: the existential loneliness of a couple that just wants a child, and can’t manage to have one.
Using Raising Arizona as a model, you’ll learn how to get your personal truth on the page in any genre, and to organically build the structure you need to land your jokes, and make your audience laugh, and sometimes even cry for your characters.