Comedy is one of the most malleable genres in film and television. Comedy can brighten a scene, tell us a lot about a character's mood, and even help sustain long expository explanations and speeches.
Still, there are lots of tropes and characteristics of comedies that people expect when they're reading your screenplay or pilot. Comedy might be the hardest thing to pull off, and it's certainly one of the riskiest things to pitch or develop. A comedy that doesn't work is super cringe-y.
But take the risk! Because we NEED more comedy! When the world around us gets shrouded in hate and darkness, comedy is the bright light that shows us the way back to joy. Back to our humanity.
If you ever need proof of the POWER of the comedy, consider Cinema's first great artist and one of the world's first true global celebrities. Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin didn't just make people laugh, he made them laugh and cry in the very next beat. Some might even say he's never been matched.
So let's get into the weeds of the comedy genre. We'll go over what audiences expect out of it, how you can be effective writing it, and we'll look at some of the finest examples movie and tv history have to offer.
Comedy genre definition
The comedy genre covers any work in film or television whose general purpose is to create humor and intentional laughs for the audience. It has its origins in ancient Greek plays and oral tradition.
Way back when it was just Comedy or Tragedy. There was no in-between! If everyone didn't die at the end it was a comedy!
The definitions these days have become a bit finer. Let's talk about specifics.
Comedy Characteristics and Tropes
Comedies usually feature pratfalls, wordplay, uncomfortable situations, and sometimes lean the opposite way of realism. Their stakes are usually personal and violence is almost always done for laughs and not serious consequences.
Here is a nice compilation of various examples:
Types of comedy in Film and TV shows
So this is where comedy sort of breaks apart into uber-specific subgenres. These types of comedy help narrow down the tone and tenor of the joke as well as the story within the screenplay. Let's examine them.
Movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and TV shows like You're the Worst live in the dirty comedy space. They love jokes about sex, relationships, and gross-out humor.
Part of how it works is that it makes us uncomfortable. Part of how it works is that bodily functions and desires are a great equalizer. The Farrelly brothers are masters of this type of thing, in this case combining sex and gross-out humor into one timeless gag.
Black or Dark Comedy
Let's talk about death. And violence. And horrible situations. Dark comedy makes light of things you'd usually see in drama films and television. Movies like Death at a Funeral and tv shows like Bored to Death make light of the things we can't bear to face.
Check out this classic (but pretty gross) scene from The Coen Brothers Fargo:
This is a scene where a criminal is putting his partner's body into a woodchipper. But it's funny. Why?
Well, look at how it's shot and framed. At a distance, allowing for some of the weirdness and absurdity of it all to play out. You've surely heard the cliche (that isn't entirely true but whatever) Tragedy + Distance = Comedy? Well, that is kind of what happens here.
How else is Dark Comedy pulled off?
Well instead of hearing the police-woman yelling at him, the criminal keeps going about his gross business. And it's also a little challenging for him. He needs a piece of wood to get a foot with a sock on it into the wood chipper. Those odd details make it feel human. And silly.
He hears her and he stares dumbfounded. In case he doesn't understand, she gestures to the badge on her hat. Then he clumsily tosses the piece of wood at her, and runs.
It's a silly sequence. With a really gross dark thing going on.
Schadenfreude is the German word for taking pleasure in other people's pain. One of my favorite iterations of cringe comedy is The Office. How fun is it to watch as Michael puts his foot in his mouth again and again? In features, you've got Bridesmaids, Meet the Parents, and King of Comedy as well.
The cringe comedy also comes from something called dramatic irony. This is just where you might know what is going on with the character while they try to hide it. It's also germane to situational comedy (which is where we get the idea of the sitcom).
Watch this classic scene from The Simpsons:
The scene is a play on the old sitcom trope of the boss coming over for dinner, and all things go haywire. We know what Skinner is trying to project, and we watch it breaking down as he fails.
Deadpan humor often delivers us some of the funniest lines. Since this is more a style than anything else, think about Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec or even the movie Airplane! All the lines are delivered with sincerity but all of them are funny.
Check out this clip from Airplane!
Leslie Nielsen wasn't a comedic talent. At least, not for most of his life. He was an actor who starred in dramas. So were many in the Airplane! cast.
What does this have to do with deadpan comedy?
Just that by using actors who played every moment "straight" the silliness of what was happening in the script or onscreen was immediately contrasted by them. And hilarious.
Very quickly Nielsen became known for being hilarious. But his deadpan is what made it work.
The idea of deadpan also comes from the concept of a 'straight man' in a comedic duo. Go farther back to teams like Abbot and Costello, who started on the stage as a vaudeville act like so many great comedic talents.
Lou Costello provided the over-the-top silliness. Bud Abbot was the 'straight man'. This is core to most comedy. Why?
Because contrast and context are critical. If you make a movie where EVERYTHING onscreen is ridiculously silly, it's hard for the audience to ride the wave, to find the peaks and valleys. Plus ultimately they'll just get fatigued.
It would be like watching an action movie where there was never a break in the fight scene.
What are your favorite comedies ever? I bet if you look back you'll note that your favorite moments had some variance, some grounding, and probably a straight man (or woman).
Nothing like a little mockumentary to poke fun at the seriousness of most documentaries. Maybe the all-time great mockumentary is This is Spinal Tap. On TV, shows like Modern Family and What We do in the Shadows use mockumentary stylings to lampoon everyday life.
But it does leave you wondering who is making the documentaries in some of these mockumentary style shows.
In some sense it feels kind of like 'cheating' that the characters get a personal aside with the audience. On the other hand, it gets us closer to the 'family' of the series.
It allows you and the characters to share a knowing glance. It connects audiences to characters in a powerful way. Maybe that's why millennials can't stop watching The Office on loop.
There's a reason Shakespeare was so popular for comedy as well as tragedy. Wit and wordplay have always made audiences appreciate the complexities of language. Groucho Marx was an early cinema genius when it comes to puns. As do movies like Juno, O' Brother Where Art Thou, and The Big Lebowski.
Now that you get different kinds of comedy. let's look at a few examples of comedic movies and TV shows.
Examples of Comedy Genre Movies
Since we've discussed why comedy is so hard to define in singular terms, I thought we'd look at a few titles that definitely stick out as comedy first movies. Stuff like Caddyshack, Kentucky Fried Movie, Spaceballs, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail all put jokes forward.
Still, comedy can be more nuanced than Monty Python style comedy.
There are movies like Chasing Amy, Swiss Army Man, and Lady Bird that finagle their way between drama and comedy but still get called comedies.
We'll get into other mashups later, but the real way to get labeled a comedy first is to have the stakes be low and personal.
Examples of Comedy Genre TV Shows
On television, there are lots of different comedy options. From late night comedy like Kimmel and Cordon to news-driven comedy like Samantha Bee. When I say "TV comedy" your mind probably travels immediately to modern sitcoms like Superstore and The Goldbergs.
The thing is, TV isn't always on network TV anymore. Cable and streaming love the comedy space as well and let you flex your skills in different types of comedy as well.
Look at shows like Dead to Me, Big Little Lies, and Baskets. They all blur the lines between comedy and another genre as well as deliver laughs.
As TV expands past the airwaves so will our access to different parts of humor.
Comedy Genre Mash-up potential
Comedy is a great genre because it can meld into any other genre out there. Levity can provide an interesting twist into anything. From the jokes and laughs in Rear Window to the horror-humor encapsulated in Shaun of the Dead.
Action comedies traditionally do extremely well at the box office. take movies like Central Intelligence and Spy, they both were able to integrate comedy into their set pieces and were hits.
On television, comedy is the backbone of sitcoms, but as TV expands its horizons, look at the successes of dark comedy like Barry, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Fleabag, and End of the F*cking World to make you excited to pitch your next pilot.
The word "dramedy" has also been used a lot. Shows like Casual and movies like Tully still emphasize dramatic and realistic life events while couching them in humor to make the bitter pill taste sweeter.
Hopefully, by now you can see that writing in the comedy space for TV and movies can allow you to access every genre across the board. Just make sure you nail the tone and the theme and everything will work out.
What's next? Learn all the film and tv genres!
Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.
Click the link to learn more!