Tips for Writers: The Serious Business of Funny

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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.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Humor, Movies, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Tips for Writers: The Serious Business of Funny

  1. feistyfroggy says:

    Great post and interesting commentary on Shakespeare. I watched the trailer for Notzilla. Looks funny! I’ve requested for the Fulton County Public Library to buy a copy. You’ll soon be cataloged!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. henhouselady says:

    Interesting post. I agree how the characters react either make the story a drama or a comedy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When people would ask me about opera (because I saw a fair number of them), I would say, “Everybody dies at the end or, if it is a comedy, they get married.” And when I loved an opera and saw it multiple times, it did not matter that I knew the end. The same is true for Shakespeare’s plays. It is the process. Interesting idea to rewrite them with the alternative ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. pastorpete51 says:

    Sorry I may not sound like a literary expert but I stopped watching Shakespeare when I realized that if there were any characters that I liked he was sure to have them killed off before the end!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. practicejack says:

    I found this really helpful. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mitchteemley says:

    Delighted to hear that, Jack.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. practicejack says:

    I just tried to write a comedy blog piece. I don’t often write fiction and rarely comedy so it was quite challenging.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve often wondered if Hamlet could be rewritten as a comedy… yeah likely not.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I found a good story formula for an writer who had analyzed the components of many classic novels and screenplays. It goes like this:

    A character —- Has a problem —- Then meets a guide—- Who gives them a plan—- and calls them to action—- That causes a comedy or tragedy.

    This acronym from the book “Made to Stick” is also a good one: engaging ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and contained in a Story.

    Of course, as a great story teller, you obviously know these things. I just wanted to share.

    I like how you demonstrate that simply tweaking a story—one way or the other— can create the feeling in readers that you’re looking for.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Shelley says:

    👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

    Liked by 1 person

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