One of the most influential and talented actresses in the 20th Century, Vivien Leigh, was once quoted as saying comedy is a genuine acting challenge as it is much easier to make audiences cry than it is to make them laugh. While pondering this truth, I realized that the foundation of the statement speaks directly to the foundations of most humans. Dramatic scenarios are universal; however, humor is very specific. What makes you laugh may bring on nothing but a confused look within another person. When writing a comedic screenplay, you must remember that comedy is nothing more than drama with laughter.
As you realize comedy is nothing more than light-hearted drama it’s easier to create scenes that are rich with depth while still maintaining the comedic timing and foundation of your story.
Construct Comedy Scripts with Dramatic Undertones
In the ridiculous slap-stick comedy “Smiley Face,” the primary character causes a chain reaction that in her world is detrimental. This brings me to my first point, while the audience perceives the situation as pure comedy, in the characters world their situation is dire. For example, in the above film, the character accidentally consumes a special snack her roommate made just for himself. Upon consuming the entire plate of brownies, she realizes what she has done.
While the audience is carried along in a humorous tale, she is living in a real nightmare. Her reactions and encounters are not out of a place of humor but out of a place of drama. Therefore, the screenwriter must suspend his own belief during the writing process. Although they wrote according to the film genre, the dialogue and internal subtext of the primary character was in complete seriousness.
Writing Seriously…But Not Really
The most important rule when writing comedy screenplays, in my opinion, is splitting your brain in two; half writing a serious dramatic piece and the other half creating a side-splitting comedy. It’s only when you’re able to write each line of dialogue and every piece of narrative with the conviction and weight of a serious drama, but without forgetting that this is actually a comedy that you’ll finally experience true comedic writing.
Remember, as a screenwriter you have a responsibility of creating a world that is correct for the character while still writing from a place to meet the requirements of the comedy screenplay.