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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How to Cultivate Great Story Ideas

By: Minda Burr

How do you develop an idea? Where do you even begin if you don’t know what you want to write next? So, I am going to ask you SIX KEY questions, and I want you to answer them from your from your heart and soul – from your gut – instead of from your conscious mind, because that is where you have access to your own unique ‘authentic voice’.

  1. The most obvious question – What do you feel passionate about? What is genuinely interesting to you? And if you’re writing a screenplay, novel or stage play — what characters would you like to dive into, live inside, talk like and behave like for awhile? You are going on an adventure and a personal journey with these characters, so you might as well enjoy yourself. What we are emotionally connected to, we are much more committed to. Obviously Nora Ephron was intrigued by the dance of Love between charming, intelligent and witty characters for example, in “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” – while the Cohen Brothers preferred to swim in dark waters with deviant characters in “Fargo” and No Country for Old Men”. What water do YOU want to swim in??
  2. Are you a great observer of life and the “human condition”? Does it fascinate you to the point that you start conjuring up scenarios about where Life might be going? Suzanne Collins did a brilliant job of that in the “Hunger Games.” She took two somewhat disturbing trends in our society today and exaggerated them in the future in a fascinating way: First, she takes the ever widening gap in our society of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and catapults us into a future where the rich are now living outrageously opulent and SELF-indulgent lives in separate cities! They now live far, FAR AWAY from the deprived poor who live in concentration camps and are forced to hunt for their own food to survive. In the second current trend, she highlights our society’s obsession with ‘reality shows’ and takes us into a future where the most popular entertainment for the rich is watching the poor people stalk and kill each other. Then the victors become media sensations just like the Kardashians are today! Fascinating.

    QUESTION: Is there something that YOU see in the future that could be the natural outcome of what the way we are living now?

  3. Are you FUNNY? Do people think you are witty and they laugh a lot when they are your presence? If you can do it in person, you can put it on paper. If you are funny that is GOLD – do not squander your talent. And you have SO many arenas in which to cultivate it.
  4. Are you able to laugh at the ironies of life and how incredibly idiotic we are sometimes as members of the human race? Nobody does that better than Larry David did with “Seinfeld” and now “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. He has such a UNIQUE and interesting slant on everyday reality and he writes such flawed characters in mundane and sometimes ridiculous circumstances, that he allows us to laugh at ourselves for being human. If you have that gift, SHARE it.
  5. What knowledge or EXPERTISE do you have that is worth entertaining other people with? Look at what a Law career did for John Grisham and his series of best-selling books that became big movies, like “The Firm” and “A Time to Kill?” What expertise do you have that could be the foundation for a great idea?? It doesn’t matter if you’re a former bronco bull rider or a reformed sex addict – there could be ‘Gold in them there hills.’
  6. “Seemingly” OUT OF NOWHERE GEMS. What ideas have popped into your head out of nowhere and made you think, “This would be a great story or topic!” Pay attention to those! Those ideas out of nowhere are your heart and soul talking to you. They can also come from the Collective UN-conscious. Which means, that if you don’t write about, it someone else WILL. When those moments of inspiration happen – write them down immediately or call yourself and leave a detailed message. Or get one of those recording devices. Don’t assume you’re going to remember it because you most likely won’t. Inspiration comes in a FLASH – and is often gone like a puff of smoke if you don’t record it.