On The Page: Pilar Alessandra and Ellen Sandler Breakdown the Comedic Hero

By Staff · September 29, 2017

By: Andrew L. Schwartz

On The Page is a weekly podcast hosted by Pilar Alessandra, a writing teacher and former story analyst for Dreamworks SKG. Her podcast focuses on breaking down and understanding the craft of screenwriting and features many prominent voices in the industry. 


Episode 523 titled, The Comic Hero’s Journey, features the Emmy nominated TV writer and producer, Ellen Sandler, known for being the Co-Executive Producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, and has worked on other shows such as, Coach, Taxi, Kate & Allie and is the author of the TV Writer’s Workbook. She is also the current President of the Entertainment Industry Association of Consultants and Educators. 

In addition to Ellen Sandler, Steve Kaplan, the industry expert on comedy writing and production for the past 20 years, is also a guest on the show. Steve is known for creating the HBO Workspace in Los Angeles, as well as the HBO New Writers Program. He has worked as a consultant for Dreamworks, Disney and HBO and has worked with producers and production companies around the world. His new book is titled, The Comic Hero’s Journey.

The Comic Hero’s Journey —

The Comic Hero discovers something that wasn’t there in the beginning of the story —  something the catalyst or inciting brings into his life — and he or she either has to step up to the plate or don’t. The Comic Hero is transformed, and develops a new goal different from the one they started out with.

In most genres, the hero’s journey is about a young man or woman who has greatness within them but doesn’t know it. Through a series of inciting incidents and through interaction with a mentor, they are able to access the greatness within and accomplish great things.

The comic hero’s journey does not have greatness within them. The hero is typically a jerk, or a dweeb (think Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day, or Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping) and they have no idea their life isn’t working for them; they think their life is fine. In the opening of the story, they may have a small, initial goal, but then a WTF moment occurs and everything in their life is changed.

From there, the comic hero is desperately trying to return to the life that we in the audience can know is not working for them, but they still want to go back — in Big, Tom Hanks’ character is desperately trying to become a kid again.

As the comic hero inadvertently enters into this adventure, they transform. Near the end of the second act, a DISCOVERED GOAL becomes apparent and the central character suddenly wants more in life. In Groundhog’s Day, Bill Murray’s character eventually wants to earn the love of a woman he doesn’t deserve; Steve Carrell in the 40-Year Old Virgin realizes that he no longer wants to play with his action figures and develop a relationship with a real woman.

The TV Life of The Comic Hero — 

A good feature is a problem that can be solved in 90 minutes to an hour, but a good series is a dilemma that can never be solved!

Even though characters evolve very slowly there is still some movement, but the overall dilemma can never be solved because there is no series at that point. We don’t want TV characters to change that much so we try to maintain a status quo — we mostly want to maintain the concept dilemma so that the conflict is repeatable — the nature of series.

Series vs. Features — 

A series is not a hero’s journey, it is a family. 

As a writer, you have to develop the ensemble cast and the world they inhabit, and then place the character in there instead of taking him on a journey that rises and falls and climaxes as a feature would.

All television is about family — whereas movies can be about groups, single people, bromances, romances, etc., but when watching a television show, you’re involved in the dysfunctional family that kind of reminds you of your family but you only have to see them once a week… maybe in Westeros. 

Character goals vs. Driving Force — 

In features, the goal suggests there is a finish line, whereas the driving force makes the character get up every day with something to do. This difference is most apparent in features versus series.

Comedy in Films vs Series Today —

Comedy is when someone has a very specific point of view and his the ability to express it originally.

Surprise is funny — if its already been done in one movie it wont be funny in another.

Humor is subjective — you cant focus on just the funny — you have to focus on the human; the comedy of character and what characters would actually do. As a writer, you have to create three-dimensional, yet archetypical characters that are going to go through this journey with you rather than simply thinking up the grossest, most hilarious thing you can because it worked in a different movie from 20 years earlier. 

Comedic films have been suffering lately because so much emphasis is on making international sales. The thought is that comedy doesn’t travel, but if you look at the highest grossing films in the world, they are animated comedies, so comedy can travel, but you need to find universal stories with universal themes and characters to make them travel. 

On Blending Genre with “Dramedy” — 

Writers should steer away from using the term “dramedy” because it signifies that he or she hasn’t landed on what their main story-telling priority is, thus making it harder to shape the material. 

Say it’s either a drama with comedy in it or a comedy with heart and/or serious elements in it — but make the choice for yourself as to where you’re going to prioritize the elements of your story.

Think Breaking Bad — a criminal drama with great dollops of irony and comedic beats — it paved the way for a breakout comedic role, which eventually became its own series: Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul.

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