Comedy has always taken a supporting role to the more serious Hollywood genres. During this awards season, it's easy to recognize the year's great dramas and epics; however, 2003 was a good year for well-written comedy and romantic comedy. And the one upstart film that defied critics, warmed audience hearts, and filled distributor coffers was a comedy about a big fat Greek wedding. If anything, its success proves that during this time of economic uncertainty and global tensions, we need a well-told tale that makes us feel good about ourselves.
But is comedy's sole purpose to entertain the audience? And is that why it's hard to respect comedy as a 'serious' genre?
~ Why Laughter?
The power of comedy is the effect. How do we know comedy is working? The audience is laughing. But we laugh for many reasons, not solely because we are being entertained. And understanding why we laugh and why we need laughter can help the writer decide what type of comedy to write.
Comedy is not solely entertainment, but it offers a needed escape from the stress and restrictions of our everyday routines. This workaday world often dehumanizes us, forcing us to kowtow to totalitarian bosses and time-crunching gadgets. And through comedy we can laugh at others struggling through that same world. We recognize that we are not alone in this rat race, and thus learn to laugh at ourselves and our situation.
Comedy can give us a needed shot of self-esteem. By laughing at the comic foibles of others, we feel a bit better about ourselves and our own mundane problems. Also, comedy allows us to make light of serious issues that we may be struggling with such as the angst of adolescence or hardship of romance, so that we aren't the only ones feeling this pain and awkwardness.
Comedy represents the trickster archetype of Hollywood genre. Like the court jester who gets away with criticizing the king and his kingdom, comedy is an effective way to question our society, its institutions, and beliefs. By putting a comic spin on serious issues from war to HMOs, comedy reveals the madness of our world. Comedy makes us think and perhaps sways change.
Comedy can diffuse a difficult situation. An opening joke can ease the tension between speaker and audience. Quick wit and snappy retorts can effectively knock a playground bully down a few inches.
Comedy is a celebration of what it means to be human. It celebrates our everyday joys in life. Traditional theatrical comedy often ended in marriage and celebration, with an invitation to the audience to join the fun and continue the festivities beyond the world of the stage and screen.
Comedy heals us, not just by making us look at the problems of our society. Laughter makes us feel better. A daily dose of guffaws is great for the cardiovascular system. Have you attended a laughter health club lately? No joke, they are out there.
Comedy is pretty powerful for a mere entertainer. But the process of writing comedy deserves respect as well.
~ Laughter In The Writing
The comedy film is often seen as two hours packed with funny gags, right? (You may blow a raspberry now, please.) This perception makes writing/ creating/ making the comic film seem easy, effortless -- and with comedy built around a favorite comedy actor, aren't most of those funny moments coming from the actor's improvisation? (Sure, but who's giving them the situation to inspire their comic wizardry?) Another popular misconception is the notion that 'comedy writing cannot be taught.'
Comic writers are blessed with their unique comic perspective (i.e., comic goggles through which they see the world). You're either blessed with the talent or damned without it (some comedy writers would reverse that!) Yes, talent is a big factor. But the fundamentals of making comedy work in feature format can be taught. Much of that foundation is needed for all well-told tales. By opening your eyes to see how comedy works, and nurturing your original comic perspective, soon you're donning your personalized comic goggles. This may sound easy, but writing comedy is hard, serious writing. These topics would fill a book (yes, shameless plug for my book, I know), but to get you started, let's focus on one important need that comedy serves our audience: wish fulfillment. Let's see how wish fulfillment can help us build our comic world.
In this exploration, I'll use examples from successful comedies nominated for both Oscars and WGA awards for screenwriting: My Big Fat Greek Wedding (nominated for original screenplay), and About a Boy (nominated for best adapted screenplay).
My Big Fat Spoiler Notice: for these analyses I have to reveal some key moments. Both titles are available on DVD/Video, so you may want to watch the movies before reading on.
~ Wish Fulfillment And Worst Fear
Comedy serves an audience's need for wish fulfillment. It offers journeys of a trickster breaking rules, usurping the establishment, spouting witty comebacks, and often pursuing a reckless course of personal gratification. It can be enjoyed vicariously through the ultimate heroic sacrifice, whether it's Buster Keaton overcoming fear, fate and everything that our mechanized world can throw in his path to save his train and the girl in The General, or Adam Sandler's Water Boy becoming a collegiate football star. The comic journey can serve the more gratifying wish-fulfillment needs of getting well-deserved revenge (Nine to Five, or Oceans Eleven, for example).
Successful children's films continually tap into the target audience's greatest wishes. Home Alone gave us every kid's dream at some point in their lives -- to have the house all to oneself! The only rules are no rules. In Jimmy Neutron, the parents have left town (wish fulfillment: let's party all night), but they've been abducted by aliens (worst fear: yikes, we're going to have to save them!).
Why is wish fulfillment so important? It helps feed the audience's vicarious need for empathy and identification. Watching a character fight for what is most dear to them and struggling against their greatest fears, allows us to better root for them. To dish out laughter, many of comedy's most deliciously funny moments are seeing how a character is able to get out of a moment of collision between the pursuit of greatest desire and avoidance of worst fear.
But isn't the pursuit of wish fulfillment simply the character's goal? And to counter that, wouldn't the worst fear be the character's failure to succeed? This pursuit/avoidance dynamic goes deeper than that. In successful comedy, where outlandish, uncomfortable and unexpected situations arise, the hero's worst fear may not be recognized until pursuit of our greatest wish is tackled. And as goals may change for our characters during the course of the movie, so do their greatest desires. As our story's hero gets deeper and deeper involved in the story, and the situation becomes more complicated, our worst fear may be well beyond what was initially imagined. Often, our heroes simply need to enter the story's special world before they realize what is truly their greatest wish -- and their worst fear.
The pursuit of love or happiness in life can enrich our most identifying comedic premises -- these are central goals in both My Big Fat Greek Wedding and About a Boy. In MBFGW, Toula Portokalos is conscious of this goal from the outset, and it's what she will win in the end (and some). In About a Boy, Will's worst fear of commitment to family becomes his greatest wish by the end of the film, and grants him true happiness.
Let's see how the collision of wish fulfillment and worst fear plays out in key moments of these contrasting comedies.
~ The Pursuit Of The Greatest Wish Can Structure The Entire Story
Suffocated by her Greek heritage and her overbearing father, Toula wants to be happier, prettier, braver. This pursuit structures her entire journey. Her greatest fear is that she'll live a frumpy eternity working her father's Greek restaurant.
An encounter at the restaurant with non-Greek Ian gives Toula the courage to ask her father if she can go back to school. With her mother's help, Gus agrees. Committing to this threshold helps Toula transform herself. She is prettier, more confident, and a deeper wish is also uncovered. Her success at her new job at the travel agency opens the door for love.
But if Toula pursues a relationship with Ian, she'll need to deal with her greatest fear: Gus' rejection. His daughter must marry a Greek man, and have Greek babies. So to avoid that worst fear, she keeps her relationship with Ian secret, an impossible task when you have 27 first cousins in your family.
But this relationship is worth fighting for, and Ian confesses his love for Toula. Despite her father's rejection, they agree to get married. Ian proves his love for Toula, and respect for her father, by agreeing to be baptized in a Greek Orthodox Church.
Indeed the journey ends in marriage, a celebration of Ian and Toula's love. The fulfillment of their greatest wish brings together their two families in acceptance and happiness. And Toula gains the unexpected gift of her acceptance of her own big, loud Greek family.
~ A Character's Worst Fear May Become His Greatest Desire By The Journey's End
In About a Boy, Will (Hugh Grant) consciously pursues a world of childish self-satisfaction in his pursuit of guilt-free passionate flings with single mothers. His greatest fear is long-term commitment in a relationship and its byproduct, children.
He discovers a gold mine of single mothers, the support group SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together. To pursue this greatest wish, Will attends the meetings pretending that he's a single father of a two-year-old boy. Now his greatest fear is discovery of his deception.
At a SPAT picnic, Will befriends 12-year-old Marcus. In contrast to Will, Marcus' greatest desire is family, and his worst fear is being alone. When Marcus' mother attempts suicide (a worst fear never imagined by the boy), Marcus realizes he needs a family of three and pursues Will as a prospective match for Mom. This greatest wish collides head-on with Will's 'man is an island' philosophy.
Marcus discovers that Will was lying about having a son and blackmails Will into being a friend. When Marcus' mother discovers this ongoing relationship, she makes Marcus the responsibility of Will.
Will agrees to face his worst fear and spend Christmas with Marcus and his family. Overcoming this ordeal, Will earns his reward. At a New Year's party, Will meets another single mother, Rachel, and he's smitten (wish fulfillment). But Rachel believes that Marcus is Will's son. His relationship with Marcus has taught Will to be honest. He confesses his mistake hoping Rachel understands (wish fulfillment), but he loses her (worst fear).
Meanwhile, Marcus has made a friend in school, a girlfriend at that (wish fulfillment). But he finds his mom in tears and fears that she may try to kill herself again. He wants to sing a song for her at the school concert, and asks for Will's help. Suffering the pain of his break-up, Will refuses Marcus. Will confesses an unimaginable worst fear -- I'm nobody. Their friendship is destroyed (an additional worst fear unimagined).
Marcus is determined to sing anyway (wish fulfillment), without anyone's help, even if it is social suicide (worst fear). Will realizes how much Marcus needs him, he races to the concert to stop him (worst fear). Will wants Marcus to bow out, but Marcus defends his gift for his mother and goes on stage alone. Marcus' (and Will's) worst fear is realized, the audience hates him. But Will offers back-up, and a resurrection of their greatest wish, friendship.
By overcoming their worst fear, Will and Marcus earn more than they could ever have desired. By next Christmas, they have family, friends, and their respective romances.
Awareness of your character's greatest desires and worst fears is only one consideration when building your comedy story. Don't just give your character a goal, think bigger. Ask what is their greatest desire, and what will they go through to get it. Do they want it enough to face their greatest fear? Maybe their greatest fear is what they really needed all along. Make it difficult for your character, and you'll be surprised by the comic results. Comedy ain't easy. Hey, comedy shouldn't be.
By the way, what is comedy's greatest wish?