Writing a screenplay that makes you laugh is difficult. A great comedic screenplay will help create amusing television or film. Not only this though, but many other forms of content also require a great screenplay or script to work, including corporate videos, advertising, and more.
Writing a Screenplay for You
Note that I’ve titled this article “Writing a Screenplay That Makes You Laugh” instead of “Writing a Screenplay That Makes People Laugh”. This is deliberate. I firmly believe that the first audience is the writer and/or content creator.
Some writers try to guess what their audience will like. They’ll attempt to craft a screenplay second-guessing what people will find amusing. This is problematic for several reasons.
First of all, I think that a screenplay, and the content that it serves to create, is primarily an experience. If we give a screenplay to a reader or even if we show clips or a full piece of content (film, television show) to a focus group, we’re bound to come away with many opinions. In these situations, there’s a tendency to nit-pick and analyze the work piecemeal. The truth, however, is that a finished film or television show is more of an experience, a ride if you will. Some stories don’t seem to work until they’ve been fully created and can be experienced as a whole by their audience.
For this reason, it’s best if screenplays are written to satisfy their creator first. In any case, it’s always possible to fine-tune the screenplay later.
Writing a Screenplay with Structure
The first thing we need to realize is that a comedic screenplay is, first and foremost, a screenplay. This means that it should work as a screenplay before we can make it funny. Structure is a first requirement.
We’ve mentioned before that a three-act structure is a useful way to organize a screenplay. This is part of what writing coach Robert McKee calls “classical design” in his book ‘Story’. There are other elements though. Let’s try to understand the main ones.
Some of the basic elements of a classical design screenplay include: causality, closed ending, linear time, external conflict, a single active protagonist, consistent reality. These are useful elements to take into account when writing a screenplay, even a comedic screenplay.
Now then, this doesn’t mean that this is a straitjacket for a writer. There are comedic screenplays that don’t follow these principles. They may very well rely on elements such as open endings and multi-protagonists or passive main characters. They may also use coincidence extensively and nonlinear time with inconsistent realities. Some great films immediately come to mind, such as Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’ or Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’.
The truth, however, is that ‘classical design’ is helpful for several reasons. It’s recognizable by audiences immediately. A writer would be well served if they master classical design first and then move on to other forms of writing like minimalism or anti-structure. At the end of the day though, it really is a matter of making a choice.
If a writer, content creator or producer makes the choice of using classical design, then there are some things to remember.
Writing a Screenplay with Genre
When writing a funny screenplay, our first intuition is that the genre will simply be ‘Comedy’. This only partly would describe such a screenplay. There are many comedy subgenres that would more accurately describe a screenplay such as parody, satire, screwball, farce, black comedy and more.
What’s most interesting though, is that comedy is often paired with other genres. As such, a comedy film may also delve in the love genre. The ‘romantic comedy’ is a staple of entertainment which does just that: Think of a classic romantic comedy such as ‘When Harry Met Sally’.
Horror is also mixed with comedy sometimes. Remember a film such as ‘Shaun of the Dead’, for example. Mockumentaries are always a great vehicle for comedies too. ‘This is Spinal Tap’ is of course the perfect example.
The point to remember here is that writing a screenplay usually means mixing genres. This is also the case when writing a comedy screenplay.
Genre Changes Structure!
Genre is therefore vital to a screenplay. It’s not merely the way we’ll describe the film or television work, or a marketing tool. It really is an integral part of the writing process itself, because if dictates structure and the story itself.
Consider a film such a ‘The Hangover’. If we look closely, we’ll realize that it mixes genres and can’t be only described as a ‘comedy film’. It certainly has clear elements of what some call a ‘road movie’ or a ‘buddy film’. Although I think that the film didn’t break new comedic ground, it definitely was a box office hit, drawing in many people.
What about the more cerebral ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’? Although very much a black comedy it uses the crime genre to give structure and clear desire lines to the characters.
To understand what writing a screenplay in one particular genre instead of another one means, imagine the characters in other situations. Suppose that instead of going to Las Vegas the four friends stay in their own city. More importantly, instead of the disappearance of their friend, they decide to open an art gallery. As you can see, the film becomes something completely different, because genres have changed and therefore desire lines are completely changed as well.
Suppose that we take Robert Downey Jr’s character in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and place him in a different situation. Instead of solving a crime mystery he enters a bobsledding competition. Evidently, the movie is completely different because the comedy won’t come as a result of a crime investigation but instead, it’ll come about as a result of entanglement in another arena, namely a sports competition.
Comedy and Arenas
While we’re on the subject we really should try to talk about arenas and comedy. What I mean here is basically creating the situation for comedy. We’ve just seen how genre dictates structure and therefore the comedy.
Having said that, there’s an element which is seldom mentioned. When writing a screenplay to make you laugh, we need to create the opportunity for comedy itself. We’ll give this the name of an arena. Let’s try to explain the concept.
For starters, plot is an obvious source of comedy. There are, evidently, genres that lend themselves to tighter plots, which may be funny in and of themselves. A lot of comedy comes from having a tight premise for a plot-heavy film. ‘The Hangover’ has such a strong logline: Four friends travel to Vegas, lose the groom and must recover him in time for the wedding.
Evidently, when writing a screenplay of this sort, comedy will come about directly as a result of the plot. This will come in the form of encounters with strange characters, fish-out-of-water strange situations, general conflict with antagonists, etc.
This type of humor will usually occur at the turning points of the acts in the film. Also, this sort of comedic plot tends to build towards the execution of comedic sequences and, most notably, comedic set pieces. A sequence is usually made up of several scenes, that are related one to the other. As such, a sequence will therefore be rather long, like say 6 minutes long. We have all seen sequences in comedy: chases, fights etc. A set-piece is in many ways a refinement and continuation of this concept. As such, a set piece is very much a sequence but one which requires a lot more effort to pull off. Think of Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston in ‘Along Came Polly’ and the sequence after the Moroccan restaurant, in her bathroom with the loofah, the ferret, Stiller’s indigestion etc. That’s a set-piece.
As we can quickly glean, a lot of this comedy can take the form of physical humor. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this sort of comedic plot translates well into other cultures and languages. There are some challenges with writing a screenplay like this though. The most obvious problem is that this type of comedic writing is high energy and must be approached with a certain rhythm. Too much sequences, set pieces etc and the film will seem too much, with little character development. The question of course, is what to do in the meantime, between each ‘eruption’ of comedy. Here we have to study simpler arenas for comedy.
Comedy need not come about only as a result of physical actions and ‘explosions’ between antagonists and protagonists. In many comedic works, it comes about as a result of two characters talking in a particular place.
Think of the films by Noah Baumbach or even Wes Anderson or television shows such as The Office (UK) or even Seinfeld (although this is a curious case, which we’ll analyze). These works bring comedy by having strong characters, certainly at odds with each other, but jousting only through words.
This sort of jousting may take up most of the script. It may even mean that the film or television show will forego extreme plots and instead use simple plots and simple arenas where characters can interact. This is certainly the case in The Office (UK). Seinfeld is an interesting case because there certainly are moments where the characters interact in a more meandering conversation (hence the idea that it was a show about ‘nothing’). As the show went on though, plots became tighter. Each character would have a story and at the end the plotlines all interacted with each other. After Larry David’s departure from the show after season 7, this sort of plot-heavy humor became more apparent.
When writing a screenplay remember that you are its first audience. Whether you are the writer or the producer and content creator trying to create a screenplay, just know that the work must first satisfy you.
Remember that structure and genre are vital building blocks of a screenplay. You’ll find out very fast that they can define the type of comedy and its sheer potency more than you’d have expected.
Finally, be sure to create the opportunities for comedy. This is done by creating strong and well-formed characters and then throwing them into plot-heavy scenarios and/or simpler character-driven arenas where they can interact.
The Bunny Studio Way!
Bunny Studio has a roster of first-rate writers who can write a screenplay. They can certainly make the work funny or work within any other genre needed.
Most importantly though, Bunny Studio writers can tackle a wide array of writing content. They can craft television or film screenplays but can also create scripts for ads, corporate videos, and much more. Fortunately, the principles for writing a screenplay that works carry over across different types of content.