Who makes us laugh in real life? Typically, there are two kinds of people. The first is the outrageous friend or family member who exaggerates everything, talks at a high volume, acts out their stories and does extravagant impressions. And we laugh at them until we cry, and beg them to stop. On the other hand, there is the quiet, reserved type who strategically drops brilliant one-liners, cutting remarks and devastating insights. They make it seem effortless, and we’re all left on the floor.
When writing a comedy, it’s important to be aware of contrast, and while we can focus on a difference like the one above, between a performer and a commentator, there are broader comparisons to be made. Specifically, we must consider the world the story takes place in, and the individual who negotiates that world. Here we find opportunities to go digging for comedy gold.
One such contrast is when we throw a normal character into an outrageous world. What does it mean to be “normal” in this context? It means that the character speaks for us, the audience. He or she responds to events in the way we would: with disgust to something disgusting, with wonder to something completely out of the ordinary, or with fear in the face of intimidation. What is an “outrageous” world? It’s a world in which we don’t recognize the behavior of people (or sometimes objects) because they are so heavily skewed for comedic effect.
Consider the following scene from Shaun of the Dead. Take note of the normal characters and what constitutes the outrageous world.
The outrageous world comprises a mass of brain-hungry zombies terrorizing the neighborhood. They can’t be reasoned with, and prefer gurgling and groaning to civil conversation. In contrast, the two heroes of the scenes aren’t heroes in a traditional sense; they’re normal. The don’t have flamethrowers or machine guns or big muscles. They have toasters, tea containers and cookie jars. Plus, they’re terrible at throwing, even when it comes to their middle-class treasure chest of limited edition LPs. This is no The Walking Dead reunion; the humor arises from the ordinary clashing with the extraordinary.
Now let us examine something completely different – a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Nobody does outrageous better than Monty Python. Here they throw this poor, innocent woman into the middle of an irrational, ravenous crowd, hungry for burning. The group follows some ridiculous logic to guide their actions, and one man believes he was turned into a newt. The only character who speaks for us is the victim, who isn’t allowed to say much. She is bewildered and dismayed by what is happening to her. Without this victim in the scene, the angry mob would lose its potency because everyone would be nuts.
We can benefit from exploring the opposite dynamic, i.e. an outrageous character in a normal world. Here we can inspect exhibit A: Borat Sagdiyev, the protagonist from Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Notice the character’s outrageousness slapped down in the middle of suburban America.
Our protagonist kisses the unwitting driving instructor and spews out chaotic nonsense at him as they drive around. The comedy comes from just how normal the world is around the wild Borat. He talks about gypsies pleasuring him, following a woman home to have sex with her, and starts drinking and driving. All the while, the driving instructor needs to deflect and contain his rude and bizarre utterances lest the “normal” world be broken in two.
Finally, it is possible to have an outrageous character thrown into an outrageous world. This is a formula for chaos. Enjoy this clip from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy as a prime example:
Ron Burgundy shouts and blabbers his way through life, a completely unbelievable protagonist with no regard for reasonableness. But just look at the world of news anchors in which he finds himself. Nobody in this scene shows any interest in trying to see the situation as the audience does. It’s a huge meeting of mad minds, people desperate for blood and glory, only not due to king and country, but rather to petty news network territory trouble. All in all, this extreme approach to comedy works, but it’s a difficult move to pull off.
Contrasting the outrageous with the ordinary gives us as writers the ability to emphasize comedic attitudes in different ways. It’s a little like playing the guitar, where you have the option to use chords at one point and picking at another, or shifting between both. Something to be aware of as we weave together our worlds of laughter on the page and beyond.
Looking to put those comedy writing skills to use? Our friends over at ScreenCraft have launched their 2018 Comedy Screenwriting Contest!
Matt van Onselen is a South African screenwriter living in Los Angeles and a graduate of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program. He focuses on comedy writing, but will do anything for money.