Comedy writers get so caught up in getting their jokes right, they often forget the most important ingredient in comedy writing. It’s not laughter. It’s not love. It’s pain.
One of my favorite quotes from Mel Brooks is, “Tragedy is when you cut your finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” As a screenwriter it is up to you to inflict pain on your characters. You must torture the shit out of them for the amusement of your audience. This is your duty.
How can torture be funny? For starters, I’m not talking about a Hostel-style torture scene where your character slowly removes the toenails from a hapless victim with pliers (I’m sure you could even make that funny with a few bad pedicure jokes). The torture I’m talking about involves a combination of deep-rooted physical and psychological pain that makes the audience laugh because they relate to it on a fundamental level. It’s a pain they’ve experienced, or it’s a pain so uncomfortable the only option is to laugh because the viewer is simply happy it didn't happen to them.
The more you put your characters into uncomfortable and painful situations, the funnier your scenes will become. Make your characters physically hurt, look stupid, embarrassed, humiliated and disgraced. Check out any successful comedy and you’ll find that some of the biggest laughs come from the characters being horribly tortured by their creator. Let’s take a quick look:
This entire comedic franchise is built on torture. The characters begin their journey with a painful hangover, their friend goes missing, their teeth are pulled out, they’re punched in the face by Mike Tyson… and it keeps getting worse, but it’s funny.
Yet another comedy franchise built on character torture. The main protagonist gets caught with his dick in a pie. It’s humiliating for him and it’s hysterical for the audience.
The title alone is uncomfortable and embarrassing for this poor character.
FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF
While Ferris is never tortured, he does an excellent job of torturing all those around him, especially Principal Rooney. If you aren’t torturing your lead character, then your lead character must be torturing someone else. Watch any Bugs Bunny cartoon to see how this works.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
Yes, even romantic comedies require acts of torture for laughs. In this film, it takes twelve years for Harry and Sally to start a romantic relationship. Twelve years is some seriously long torture, and don’t even get me started on that uncomfortable diner scene.
No matter what type of comedy you’re writing, always remember to turn pain into something that will help lighten the daily burden of your audience. Make your characters miserable so the rest of us can have a good laugh. Now go write like a sadistic bastard.
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