Yes, comedies make us laugh, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately– 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 is part of the stakes created by the writer.
But how does this threat of death play out in films like THE 4O YEAR OLD VIRGIN, or THE HANGOVER, or THE HEAT?
“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 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. Is Steve Carell going to physically die if he doesn’t sleep with Catherine Keener? No. But can someone metaphorically “die” if they lack connection and intimacy in their life? Yes. The prospect of never finding love is a kind of “death” in our human experience. The threat of this is just as emotionally serious as the threat of being thrown off a cliff.
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.
THE HEAT. Yeah, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock play cops. And yeah, they deal with bad guys. But even more important in the movie is the connection between these two women—one who has no friends due to the fact she’s not a team player, and the other, because of her over-the-top disregard for other people’s feelings. When these two women bond, the stakes are huge. Going back to being alone, for each of them, is impossible. In this case, the threat of splitting apart their “team” is the death moment. They will lose their connection, and suffer a terrible loss.
So think about it. Does your comedy have the threat of “death” (metaphorical or actual) included in the stakes?
In THE HERO’S JOURNEY, the hero faces death two times. Once, at the end of ACT II (called The Ordeal) and again in the climax (called Resurrection.) In comedies, the Ordeal usually involves the main character blowing up his/her relationship or making a mistake that causes them to fail at achieving their goal. This is then followed by scenes of them sitting around in their underwear in a pizza box littered apartment, crying. Or walking sadly in the rain. They have lost their friendship or relationship or dream.
Then they “Seize the Sword”—they get an idea of how to pursue their loved one or dream in a new way, and they go for it in ACT III.
In “Resurrection” (the climax,) they must face this same “death” once more, but this time use the lessons they learned from The Ordeal. They act differently in this moment, they must change and grow, in order to be resurrected and “live.”
Take Action! Look at your comedy, 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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