Writing Great Characters for the Screen & Stage: Part Two – Comedy
By: Minda Burr
If you recall, in the last blog, 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, in your writing, 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 beautifully 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” solid 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.
Then there’s Alan… Doug’s lovable loser future-brother-in-law (brilliantly played by Zach Galifianakis). Alan is the oddball “fish out of water” character amongst the other “cooler” guys, so half the comedy is their reactions to things Alan says and does… For example, when he and Doug go to pick up teacher Phil at his school for their bachelor party to Vegas, Alan covers his head and says, “Do you have to park so close” When Doug replies, “Why?” Alan says, “Because I’m not allowed within 200 feet of a school. Or a Chucky Cheese.” Alan continues to say and do one odd thing after another, but all he wants is to BELONG – to love and be loved. That’s why he puts what he thinks is Ecstasy into all their drinks for the toast 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 the pairing of the obsessive neat freak Felix with the total slob Oscar as roommates in “The Odd Couple”.… But let’s get back to handsome con man Phil. The first time we meet him, he is collecting $90 from each of his students for a field trip to the Planetarium that most likely costs $10 a ticket and we see him stash the money into an envelope that says VEGAS. Phil also whines about how being married and having a kid has ruined his life, “I die just a little every day…”
Then there is Stu the dutiful dentist, played by the amazing 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 a 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!”
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. Remember that a humorous character is just a normal character that expresses his personality or quirks in an exaggerated way.
Ultimately, they all have to work together even harder to solve the mystery of Doug’s disappearance, which bonds them and forces them to grow as human beings (which is another important rule of comedy). 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, showering them with affection. 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.