Yes, comedies make us laugh, but often the best ones operate on a deeply emotional level.
This is because really amazing comedies use “death” as a strong narrative element.
In THE HERO’S JOURNEY, the notion of transformation for the main character usually plays out through a journey to the land of the “dead,” and back again. It’s clear what this means in a drama or action movie, where actual physical death can be part of the stakes created by the writer.
But how does this threat of death play out in films like THE DISASTER ARTIST, or THE HANGOVER, or GIRL’S TRIP?
“Death” is just as front and center in comedy, and part of the function of these funny stories is to help us process the fact that we’re all gonna die. And we pretty much face the threat of it every day, in all kinds of niggling, mundane and not so mundane ways.
Let’s take the THE DISASTER ARTIST. Are Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero going to actually die if their magnum opus film THE ROOM fails? No. But could they die inside (metaphorically,) if their artistic dream is crushed? Yes. The prospect of both Tommy and Greg being talentless hacks is used as a possible “emotional” death for them. The death of their identities, the death of hope, and the death of their friendship are the primary stakes that create the dramatic conflict in the film.
What about THE HANGOVER? Death plays out here in two ways. Doug’s groomsmen buddies are threatened with actual physical annihilation from various sources (Mr. Chow, anyone?) But what drives these guys to take so many risks? The fact that their buddy might miss his wedding to the right woman. Again, the “death” here is the threat of the end of a relationship or a dream. If they ruin Doug’s relationship, they will have killed something really important. This metaphorical death is so important, that they put their ACTUAL lives in danger.
GIRL’S TRIP I can’t think about this movie without reliving spewing Perrier water out of my nose, which is what I did when I watched one scene (hint: it involved zip lining above Bourbon Street.) Here too, the stakes involve the potential death of a marital relationship, and the possible demise of the longterm friendship of four college besties who travel to the Big Easy for a girl’s trip. Despite all the raunchy jokes and crazy shenanigans, the specter of important ‘deaths’ around friendship and connection loom. Without these stakes, we wouldn’t keep watching.
So think about it. Does your comedy have the threat of some kind of metaphorical “death” included in the stakes?
Take Action! Look at your comedy pages and ask, “Is there the threat of some kind of death (actual or metaphorical) in my story? And if not, how can I go back and re-think the stakes?” Most great comedies make us laugh and appreciate life. And the only way to do this is to have our characters face its opposite.
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