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Comedy: Funny Is What Funny Does

By Michael Schilf · July 14, 2010

The 2006 comedy Little Miss Sunshine isn’t funny because it is full of funny characters. Academy Award Winning screenwriter Michael Ardnt didn’t toss characters in a room and force them to make us laugh. The entire family, in fact, is a tragic mess: Grandpa is a foul-mouthed horny heroin addict, Frank is a gay academic with an inferiority complex and a suicide attempt survivor, Dwayne is an apathetic teen trying to evade his family through a Nietzschean vow of silence, Richard is a self-involved father pushing his quixotic nine step system on “How to be a Winner” onto everybody, and Sheryl is a pissed-off enabling wife a breath away from filing divorce papers. The only seemingly “normal” one of the bunch is Olive, the seven-year-old daughter who dreams of someday transforming herself into a child-sized Aphrodite and winning The Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant.

Addiction. Suicide. Denial. Selfishness. Divorce. Idolization. These subjects don’t necessarily seem like ideal themes to explore in a comedy. However, the best comedies really come from tragedies. But the funny stuff in Little Miss Sunshine is never “funny” characters trying to be funny. What’s funny is the action of the situation: a dysfunctional family takes a cross-country trip in their VW bus to get their seven-year-old daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant. Action reveals character. Therefore, it’s never necessarily what a character says that should make us laugh; it’s what a character does that brings home the comedy.