Screenwriting 101: Taking Comedy Characters to the Extreme

By October 24, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Matt van Onselen

What makes for good comedic writing? Is it all situational, i.e. the circumstances the character finds themselves in at a particular point in the script? Or, is it the very nature of the characters themselves that drives comedic plots?

The truth is that very often the two rely on one another. However, some of our favorite comedy movies have characters who are so extreme in nature that we can’t help but laugh. They aren’t merely inclined to act a certain way, it’s more like they simply cannot escape a certain extreme characteristic.

With that in mind, let’s look at five iconic comedy characters and see why their ridiculous qualities lend themselves to more laughs.

Borat – Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

What is his extreme characteristic?

Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) has a profound sense of innocence about him. He doesn’t know how to greet people properly, he doesn’t know how to drive, and he doesn’t know basic table etiquette. Borat wanders the earth like a child, looking to understand more about the world. And he has a lot to learn.

Why is it a good comedic device?

Innocent characters often act as a blank canvas on which to paint vulgarity and offensiveness. Sure, he doesn’t know basic etiquette, and that’s why it’s so funny when he presents his feces to his dinner host. He’s not being malicious. It’s also why his obnoxious, offensive anti-Semitism can be laughed at (the perfect tool for satirizing people with such pernicious beliefs). It’s why even his plan to kidnap Pamela Anderson is, in some twisted way, touching. If his character wasn’t quite as extreme, and was more aware of his environment, it would prove too disturbing, and therefore unfunny.

Detective Frank Drebin – The Naked Gun series

What is his extreme characteristic?

Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) serves an important function in The Naked Gun universe – he adds extreme seriousness wherever he goes. Whether he accidentally knocks a group of men in the balls, blows up his own car thinking it’s driven by a villain, or dines on fertilizer and urine, you can rely of Frank to be uncompromising, unsmiling and unintimidated. He has a mission to carry out, and that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

Why is it a good comedic device?

We’ve all heard of the straight-man/funny-man dynamic in double acts. In The Naked Gun, the entire universe is the funny man. So, when the bizarre world around them starts acting out, Frank needs to be “real”, humorless and unimpressed. This allows the viewer to tolerate extremely absurd situations. If Frank wasn’t so serious, the events would be merely annoying.

Regina George – Mean Girls

What is her extreme characteristic?

Unsurprisingly, it’s meanness. Regina (Rachel McAdams) is a bully with zero sense of loyalty and an unceasing desire to manipulate others. She will get what she wants by any means, such as driving her friends apart through jealousy, gossiping, spreading false rumors, changing the “rules” of her little club on a whim, and even controlling what her friends wear. At any one time, her popularity takes precedence over everything else in the world.

Why is it a good comedic device?

The comedy in Mean Girls comes when the protagonist, Cady (Lindsay Lohan), starts taking advantage of the mean girl. Regina is such a vile character that we get a tremendous sense of joy in watching her eat loads of candy cars thinking they’ll help her lose weight, or have her deepest secrets divulged. This is pure schadenfreude – and it goes to extreme levels. Apparently, in some theaters, the audience applauded when Regina was knocked over and killed by the bus. Now that’s a tribute to extremity.

Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

What is his extreme characteristic?

Being a smartass, a clever pants, a little rascal. Bueller (Matthew Broderick) has the key to all the prison doors life throws in front of him. He knows how to talk to his parents to stay at home, his teachers to get out of school, all kinds of officials to have a good time, and even to his best friend who refuses to give him his father’s car. And he gets what he wants, through a sharp wit and clever manipulation. No one will stand in his way.

Why is it a good comedic device?

Bueller represents freedom from all the things we don’t feel like doing. We want him to break all the rules, even if it blurs the lines of morality. Why? Because it’s funny to see him stick it to the people who are pinning him down. He even manipulates the viewer by breaking the fourth wall and saying things like: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” He acts as our freedom fighter, and we relish it.

Chance the gardener – Being There

What is his extreme characteristic?

Pure idiocy. In Being There, the only knowledge the protagonist seems to have revolves around the art of gardening. Chance (aka “Chauncey Gardiner” in a brilliant portrayal by Peter Sellers) barely understands what is going on around him at any given time. He becomes a pawn in a political game, winning supporters and gaining enemies. Unlike Borat, he’s not just an innocent face lost in a sea of new information; he’s too dumb to gain new information.

Why is it a good comedic device?

The whole premise of Being There is that this extreme simpleton has all his utterances wildly misinterpreted by his high-powered friends. But this only works if the character is so stupid he doesn’t realize he’s been misunderstood, otherwise he’ll comprehend what’s happening to him and where he’s being led. There’s a crunching satisfaction to have someone be so entirely unaware as to what’s happening, while the rest of the characters are extremely serious and dedicated to achieving their goals.


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