It’s been said that the only difference between Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies is this: at the end of his tragedies, everyone dies, and at the end of his comedies, everyone gets married.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream could have been a creepy thriller about people tormented by supernatural beings who gradually pick them off. Eat your heart out, Stephen King!
Romeo & Juliet could have been a hilarious rom-com about two love-smitten teenagers who fake their own death, and then jump up at their joint memorial service, having punked their families into realizing only love matters! It could end with a joyous united wedding scene. Heck, in “modern” versions Mercutio and Tybalt would probably get married, too.
The point is, the only significant difference between comedy and drama is how the characters react to the situation. The best comedy actors understand this. They don’t try to “make it funny.” That’s the writer’s job. Instead, they focus on the underlying seriousness. If a character’s buddy slips on a banana peel, it’s horrible—he’s hurt! Or he’s slowing down their getaway from the mob hit-men!
The writer’s job is to start with a dramatic, even tragic situation. And then to find the funny. Not in the premise, but in how the characters respond. (In humorous memoirs, this means finding the funny in your own responses.)
I wrote an absurdly over-the-top screenplay for my movie Notzilla. And yet the underlying story is deadly serious: A huge monster is heading for the city. And a nuclear physicist, bent on destroying the creature, is building an experimental atomic ray that may cause even worse destruction. Funny? No!
But the characters’ responses are. The monster, basically a kid with scales, is only playing, after all—except that beer has altered his metabolism, making him 160’ tall. And the nuclear physicist? He’s a narcissistic idiot who’s oblivious to how his actions affect others. When he’s told his weapon will leave a radioactive cloud over the city for 50 years, he replies, “Sure, but after that you’ll never even know it was there.” And when everyone finally unites against him, he turns the weapon on them, insisting it’s “for your own good.” But instead, it strikes him. Resulting in his dramatic demise? No. Something far more suited to his ego. And considerably funnier.
And then everyone gets married.*
*Note: This is optional in modern humorous writing.