Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: www.jonjamesmiller.com Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.
Recently, comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked what he thought the most important ingredient to comedy was, and he responded with one word: structure. And after writing several comedy scripts of my own I couldn’t agree more. This seems especially true of the high-concept comedy. That rare breed of screenplay that lives or dies by a writer’s ability to milk a comedic concept for 90 pages without running out of steam and completely flat-lining in the third act. And while comedic structure can be taught, it is my belief that comedy, to be successful, must have a very distinctive voice to deliver even the funniest concept. And that voice resides in your characters.
First, let’s tackle what is meant by high-concept comedy. High-concept is a comedic premise that can be explained in one sentence. A great example of this is LIAR, LIAR (1997) written by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur. The premise is as brilliant as it is simple:
The dejected son of a successful attorney makes a birthday wish that for one day his father cannot tell a lie.
You know the entire premise in 21 words. Even better, you can imagine the hijinx that ensues – especially when a comedic genius like Jim Carrey is cast in the leading role and let loose for the 86-minute running time. But not until you break down the premise into its structural parts do you begin to see why a great high-concept has all the necessary ingredients to make for a satisfying and therefore successful film.
Let’s look at the premise again and deconstruct it into its various parts: The first part concerns itself with the main characters, being the dejected son of a successful attorney. All you need to know about their relationship dynamic is right up front and sets the stage for the emotional stakes of the film. What comes next will not only create the film engine for the comedy but also resolve (one way or the other) the conflict between father and son. In this case, the son makes a birthday wish that his father will not be able to lie for an entire 24 hours. The stage, as they say, has been set for a finite amount of time for Dad to get his act together and realize what’s most important in life – being a good father and a role model for his son. In this regard the high-concept part (boy makes a wish so that his habitually lying father is forced to tell the truth) is literally the lie that seeks to tell the truth.
What the hell does that mean? Let me try and explain. When I first started out as a writer, I was told by my mentors that fiction always seeks to tell the truth. The same is true for comedy, in that the one big lie (or story conceit) you tell in the beginning is designed to illuminate the truth of the characters and the situation for the rest of the film journey. In the case of LIAR, LIAR, the son being able to magically-induce his father to tell only the truth for 24 hours not only sets up the comedic structure but also the underlying emotional truth of the father’s character arc. The more he struggles and tries to lie, the more the truth is revealed about who he is and what will become of him.
A few years ago I was hired to write a similar high-concept comedy to LIAR, LIAR. This one took a despicable character (in this case a chauvinistic ad-man) and put him in the path of a pro-feminist Wiccan. To teach him a lesson about how to treat women, the Witch turns his body into that of a gorgeous female but screws up the spell so he retains his own head. The sight-gag could have easily been a one-note gimmick (no one ever notices because they’re too busy staring at his boobs). My job as the screenwriter was to incorporate the gimmick into the emotional core of the character (i.e. by the end of the movie he’s a better man who earns his own body back after realizing all the shit women go through) while also giving him believable lines to say through an increasingly unbelievable set of circumstances. In the same way that LIAR, LIAR starts out with a big conceit, so did my script. But from that moment on, the comedy is derived from how the main characters truthfully deal with their circumstances, grow from their experience and find the strength to change.
I learned very quickly writing that first comedy script that if your high-concept comedic structure is solid enough, scenes will begin to write themselves. Ideas for escalating comedy will begin to (almost) spontaneously generate no matter where you are: in the shower, at the grocery store, or in the middle of a terribly serious and boring meeting. But if that is the joy of creating a high-concept comedy, then the tragedy is the incredibly hard work of getting those gifts from the comedy gods down on the page as funny as when they materialized out of thin air. That’s where the truth, love and understanding of your characters come in.
If you’re like me, you’ve found that your characters are the ones who will ultimately tell you if a scene works through their truthful reaction to even the most bizarre situations you put them through. If a scene is gratuitous, if it’s just there as a delivery-device for a joke but doesn’t move your character’s story forward – they will smell it a mile away and tell you off. And that’s when I know a script is really cooking and I’ve done my job well, when my characters have determined the events and the structure. That’s why you should always respect and love your characters, no matter how despicable they are in the beginning. They’re just trying to be understood. And that’s why I think writing comedy is so hard, because when done well, it tells the truth.
Don't miss Jon James Miller's new webinar:
Bring on the Funny: How to Write a High-Concept Comedy Script
At a Glance:
- This webinar is for writers who want to write smart, funny comedies that can make it in Hollywood.
- This webinar will show you what is necessary to write a fast paced, high-concept comedy.
- Screenwriters should attend this webinar to discover what makes a comedy script successful.