COMEDY WRITING: Comedy Loves Bad Decisions

Comedy guru Evan Smith explains how bad decisions can become a writer’s best friend.
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Comedy guru Evan Smith explains how bad decisions can become a writer’s best friend.

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Comedy guru Evan Smith explains how bad decisions can become a writer’s best friend.

Ben Stiller and Teri Polo in MEET THE PARENTS. Photo © Universal Pictures 2000

Horror stories and comedies have at least one thing in common. In horror, if the sheriff or a local psychic or that creepy old guy who lives down by the river says, don’t go in that haunted house, you know the protagonist will head straight there. With five of her best friends, unarmed and not too bright, and they’ll decide to split up the second they’re in the door. Not the best decisions; they usually result in encounters with sharp blades or bloodthirsty demons, leaving just enough survivors to warrant a sequel.

But those bad decisions spawn great opportunities for creating drama, suspense, action, mayhem—music to a horror writer’s ears.

And in comedy? Same thing. Have a character tell one little lie or do something they know they shouldn’t but can’t resist, and that opens up all sorts of great story options. Conflict that leads to bigger conflict, mistakes guaranteed to backfire, and most important for comedy writers, numerous opportunities for funny plot turns, scenes, and jokes.

LESS BLOOD, MORE LAUGHS

Some inexperienced writers—and producers and execs—think that if a script needs more comedy, it can always be wedged into dialogue later. That’s why they invented rewrites, right? But that approach often results in a lot of forced humor (i.e., added jokes that don’t flow naturally from the characters and story) and a kind-of-funny but still bad script. And no sale.

Winning comedies sound funny when you describe or pitch their basic story. And written outlines and treatments for comedies, especially those descriptions that don’t include individual jokes, must read funny on their own. And that comes from humor that’s built into the story premise.

Which makes sense. Because just as our favorite drama writers explore all opportunities to build dramatic tension into their scripts, the best comedy writers instinctively weave comedic tension into all levels of their work. They start with a premise that is funny in its own right, independent of individual jokes. Then they create sequences and scenes that draw from and build on the humor in the premise. By the time they get to writing dialogue, the comedy woven into the story automatically produces plenty of funny bits and lines. And most important, the resulting humor is organic and seamless because it is driven by the story premise.

Sounds great. So, how does one build comedy into a story premise?

Funny Character Arcs Follow a Different Path

HERE’S WHERE BAD DECISIONS CAN HELP

In many comedies, the lead character is their own worst enemy. They get themselves into hot water by lying, scheming, cheating, faking, misleading, or acting in some other inappropriate fashion. Their first bad decision—often the inciting incident in the plot—might be very small and seemingly harmless. Such as when Greg of MEET THE PARENTS forgets and accidentally flushes a toilet he’s been warned against using… and floods his host family’s yard with sewage, the same yard where a wedding is scheduled to take place.

 Zack Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, and Ed Helms in THE HANGOVER. Photo © Warner Bros 2009

Zack Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, and Ed Helms in THE HANGOVER. Photo © Warner Bros 2009

Or, the bad decision might quickly cause trouble on a very large scale, as when socially-inept Alan of THE HANGOVER slips the guys roofies to spice up their bachelor party, and suddenly the groom is missing.

What makes bad decisions funny? They cause predicaments. Problems that create their own opportunities for comedy and that demand some kind of resolution. Whether it’s a case of mistaken identity (DATE NIGHT, KEANU, THE BIG LEBOWSKI), or getting stuck with a dead body (SWISS ARMY MAN, ROUGH NIGHT, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), or any of a million other dilemmas, a predicament generates comedic tension that keeps viewers hooked as they wait for a funny payoff.

Just as plot developments should become more dramatic as a story progresses, comedic predicaments should compound and multiply as you go. A bad decision leads to a predicament, which leads to more bad decisions and bigger predicaments, which ultimately lead to high dramatic stakes and a major dilemma at story’s end. In PARENTS, Greg compounds his mistake with the toilet by lying about it, and gets caught; then he breaks more of his host’s rules, resulting in a special wedding alter burning down and a much-loved cat running away; he lies again to cover up and even brings in a ringer for the lost cat, and almost gets away with that; but then he’s found out and cast out, his life apparently ruined by the bad decisions he’s made.

To put it another way…

JUST WISHING THEY WERE DEAD

In a horror film, bad decisions and predicaments often lead to characters meeting some horrible death. In comedy, characters often end up just wishing they were dead.

Because in comedy, many stories follow the PARENTS path: A protagonist takes inappropriate action due to some character flaw or psychological weakness; that action leads to a predicament and more bad decisions, causing more predicaments; those actions backfire with major consequences and the protagonist learns an important lesson; chastened, the protagonist selflessly (and often publicly) atones for their bad decisions, and is rewarded with a happy ending. As when, at the end of PARENTS, Greg has so humiliated himself that he decides to abandon the woman he loves to avoid embarrassing her further. But this selfless act and the newfound courage he exhibits in finally standing up to his girlfriend’s father (the final stage of Greg’s character growth) earn him the acceptance he’s sought throughout the story.

Using Suspense to Boost a Story’s Humor

GOTTA LOVE PREDICAMENTS

While a funny predicament confined to one scene will generate humor for a few pages, a sustained predicament built into an overall story premise can produce humor in scene after scene, until that predicament is resolved. Comedic tension builds and builds, producing funny lines and moments until the truth finally comes out.

What’s the best type of predicament? Self-inflicted. While some stories throw a dilemma at a well-behaved, entirely innocent character to get things going (think THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME, GET HARD, IDENTITY THIEF), having the protagonist cause their own problems produces additional benefits. Character growth, such as Greg’s, is one example. Why does the protagonist make a bad decision? Perhaps because they have a psychological flaw they need to correct, so they can become a better person? Great, what better way to illustrate the starting point of their character arc than to show a bad decision that directly results from their flawed thinking.

Plus, since we usually care more about the protagonist than any other character, dramatic stakes are higher when that character is the one who made the story’s bad decisions, because they’ll be the one facing the worst consequences at story’s end.

Comedy guru Evan Smith explains how bad decisions can become a writer’s best friend.

Tina Fey and Steve Carell in DATE NIGHT. Photo © Twentieth Century Fox 2010

And, given that a protagonist almost always should be the character who keeps a story moving by making decisions and taking action, having them be the ones who make the (bad) decisions and take (inappropriate) action keeps them firmly in the driver’s seat.

BAD, NOT STUPID

Of course, “bad” doesn’t mean stupid and nonsensical. Even when a story is fantastic, wacky, or silly (think NIGHT SCHOOL and DUMB AND DUMBER), your characters should operate per the rules you’ve created for their story universe. They can make idiotic decisions if that’s their nature, and even do mean and selfish things, but their story still should develop in a believable or at least logical fashion. Audiences don’t appreciate random, inexplicable plot twists.

When writing more subtle humor (such as CRAZY RICH ASIANS and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER), or when dealing with characters who are quirky (like those in a Coen brothers film) rather than outright funny, the writer is developing comedy on a smaller scale. Instead of compounding problems en route to a hilarious climax, the comedy comes from exploring funny moments and exchanges that develop because of ongoing tension between the characters—competing agendas, secret attraction, fear of intimacy, withholding information, etc. Conflict and dramatic stakes should still increase as the story builds, but nobody’s running from the mob or trying to hide newfound superpowers.

 Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. Photo © Fox Searchlight 2009

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER. Photo © Fox Searchlight 2009

NEXT STEPS

You want to weave more comedy into that story you’re working on? Some of your characters must be making bad choices, maybe even disastrous ones. Why not have your protagonist be the one who makes those decisions?

Or, just dig into your plot and see what you find. Your protagonist is running from Point A to Point B? Which aspect of their nature (their character flaw) might cause them to pick the wrong route? Or transport? Or traveling companions? Leading to new problems and more bad decisions.

Almost any choice between right and wrong can be used as a source of humor. Of course, bad decisions and escalating predicaments aren’t the only ways to build comedy into a story premise. [For more ideas on how to do this, see my book, WRITING TELEVISION SITCOMS.] But, they’re easy to dream up and they can help illustrate character growth—and since when is “good” funnier than “bad”?

More articles by Evan Smith

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