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Writing Great Characters for the Stage and Screen: Part 2 – COMEDY

If you recall, in the last video, we talked about how your main characters need to have a strong “want” and then they are forced to deal with all of the obstacles in the way of achieving their goal. We also talked about how every compelling character has distinct personality traits – a combination of strengths, weaknesses and quirks that are often in conflict with other characters.

This is also true of comedy – only more exaggerated — especially the “conflict” part of it. Basically, there are three arenas of conflict that can add more humor to your story.

  • The first is the character’s conflict with his circumstances or the world of the story.
  • The second is his conflict with the other characters.
  • And the third is the character’s conflict with himself.

One movie that illustrates all three arenas superbly is “THE HANGOVER” (the first one)… Not only was it brilliantly written and uniquely structured by John Lucas and Scott Moore, but the characters were all so well defined with strengths, weakness and quirks, that combined with the outrageous circumstances they had to deal with, we are taken on one FUNNY ride!

So, let’s break down the characters:

Doug (the groom) played by Justin Bartha is the only “normal” guy in the bunch, surrounded by his pals who embody varying degrees of dysfunction. So of course, Doug is the one who gets lost so the more flawed characters can band together in their big “want” to FIND him before the wedding.

The most extreme character is Alan…Doug’s lovable loser future brother-in-law (brilliantly played by Zach Galifianakis). Alan is the oddball “fish out of water” character, amongst these other “cooler” guys, so half the comedy is their reactions to things Alan says and does… All Alan wants is to BELONG – “to love and be loved”. That’s why he puts what he thinks is Ecstasy into their drinks for the toast on the roof that fateful night so they can all bond. And it turns out to be ruffies instead, which creates major havoc that it takes the entire movie to resolve.

Then we have the cool, handsome, bad boy teacher Phil, embodied to perfection by Bradley Cooper – who is of course the total opposite of Alan. Big tip: Pairing opposites is always a terrific opportunity for comedic tension. One of the greatest examples was the pairing of the obsessive compulsive neat freak Felix, with the total slob Oscar as roommates in “The Odd Couple”.

Then there is Stu, the dutiful dentist, played superbly by Ed Helms… Stu has NO self esteem left after living with his ball-busting bitch of a girlfriend Melissa for three years. She is one of the all time great movie nemesis – Another tip: there always needs to be at least one great nemesis in comedy..

THE HANGOVER has several. The very first words that come out of Melissa’s mouth while he’s packing for Vegas is, “Don’t forget your Rogaine. And don’t forget to USE it.” Stu has to call her five times a day and he is forced to tell one lie on top of another so that she won’t know they’re in Vegas.

So in their ruffie induced night of debauchery, when Stu ends up marrying a stripper/hooker (Heather Graham) at a Vegas wedding Chapel, he is more afraid of Melissa killing him than the fact that he pulled out his own tooth to prove he’s a good dentist. Another great tip: Doing things that are totally out of character and that we don’t expect is also a great comedy booster..

One of my favorite characters is Syd, Doug’s future father-in-law played by Jeffry Tambor. As he hands Doug the keys to his prized Mercedes for the trip, he says with a wink, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – except Herpes – that shit comes home with you.” Another tip: Humor can be enhanced by taking old phrases or euphemisms, or even societal standards and adding an “odd or off color twist” to it.

It was so brilliant how they cut from their toast on the roof before their night on the town – to the next morning, and they all have horrible hangovers, with their $4,000 suite in shambles. Stu’s front tooth is missing, there is a huge tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, Doug’s mattress is missing, along with Doug and they can’t remember how any of this happened.

So we have the pleasure of watching them follow one clue after another, which creates one OBSTACLE after another for them to overcome — which also introduces one more outrageous character or nemesis to interact with.

Another tip: A humorous character is just a normal character that expresses his personality or quirks in an exaggerated way.

In THE HANGOVER, we meet the sleazy but enthusiastic minister at the wedding chapel, the masochistic policeman who has kids on a field trip at the police station torture each guy by tazor gun for stealing his police car. We have the sexy stripper Stu marries and mother of the mystery baby, (played with enormous likeability by Heather Graham). Then there’s Mike Tyson who will beat the crap out of them if they don’t bring his Tiger back.

Just watching them get the tiger back is hilarious. Another tip: Creating predicaments that look impossible to solve and then coming up with some hair-brain solution that does or doesn’t work is funny to watch.

So in this case, they drug the tiger with 5 ruffies in a steak, cover him with a bed sheet and take him down on a baggage trolley. Of course the tiger wakes up in the car on the way back to Mike and they almost all get mauled. So they have to push the car with the tiger inside eating the seats!

Always look for ways to make an embarrassing scene more cringe-worthy, unique or bizarre. There are several in the movie. One is where we have the effeminate but psychotic Mr. Chow… He got locked in the trunk of the Mercedes naked, then leaps out and beats them all with a tire iron with nothing on but his socks. Then runs away bare-assed, only to hunt then down later to get his $80,000 back that they stole – “Or you don’t get Doug back”. This gives loser Alan a chance to become the HERO when he makes over $80,000 counting cards in blackjack.

Here lies another comedic TWIST – They think they’re getting their friend Doug back with the ransom and it turns out to be the ruffie drug dealer Doug. Bizarre twists are always good for comedy.

Ultimately, they all have to work together even harder to solve the mystery, which bonds them and forces them to grow as human beings. Stu grows some balls and breaks up with Melissa at the wedding, “You’re just a bad person.” And the audience cheers! Marriage-phobe Phil is thrilled to see his wife and daughter. And Alan gets to sing a happy song to his new pals, “You’re the three best friends that anyone could have, You’re the three best friends that anyone could have.” … And we believe it!

Because…Comedies always have a happy ending!

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