How Do You Make a Comedy That Matters?

How Do You Make a Comedy That Matters?

Aug 22, 2013

There's a reason Shaun of the Dead is one of your favorite movies. It's the same reason Ghostbusters is an all timer. It's the same reason Back to the Future is somewhere on your short list of great films. In fact, all of these films, despite being from wildly different filmmakers, all share one significant aspect at the DNA level: their stories matter.

Let's talk about what this means, why it's important and why most of the best comedies ever made have this in common.

Take a look at Ghostbusters, a movie that, over the past few decades, has stopped being a well-liked film and has started being an honest-to-Gozer classic. But why? Is it because it's funny? Sure, it's a hilarious movie featuring some of the funniest people of all time at the top of their game. The theme song doesn't hurt, either. But let's cut through the surface-level stuff -- Ghostbusters works just as well today as it did back in 1984 because the story, the characters and the stakes all hold up to closer scrutiny. If you strip Ghostbusters of its jokes, you're still left with a compelling sci-fi horror story where the stakes couldn't be higher. Sure, everyone remembers the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the end of the film, but that joke serves the climax. It's the form of an evil entity that's going to destroy the world. And that's a key reason why Ghostbusters still resonates so strongly: every joke serves a story that actually has weight and can be taken seriously. Everything our heroes does actually matters. Their lives are in danger. The world is in danger. The humor is there, front and center, but it never diminishes the threat at hand. Heck, Ghostbusters is even shot like a genuine horror film, foregoing typically flat studios comedy lighting for a dynamic and dramatic look.

While we're here in the '80s, let's talk about Back to the Future, which functions almost identically in execution. It would have been easy to take Back to the Future's (incredible) screenplay and delivered a simple, fish-out-of-water comedy full of topical jokes, but director Robert Zemeckis took it a step further. He grounded the comedy in a genuinely thrilling science fiction tale, building all of the laughs into a genuine adventure film. Once again, if you rip out the jokes and you're left with a really cool sci-fi story that stands on its own. This cannot be overstated: we genuinely care about Marty McFly getting back to 1985. 

But isn't that the point of movies? To tell a story that people care about? Yes, technically, but that's not always the case with comedies. As a genre, comedies tend to exist as a vehicle for jokes, with a story simply being an excuse to set up some laughs and string an audience along, leading to a lightweight and predictable ending. Some comedies, like Duck Soup, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Anchorman, relish their lack of storytelling responsibility, embrace anarchy and become classics for doing so. Most comedies, though, tend to build a light framework of story and hope the laughs will be enough. Sometimes they are... but those are the comedies we instantly forget. 

It's so much harder for a comedy to get us emotionally invested and truly interested in the ins and outs of a plot, but when a filmmaker pulls it off, the results can be joyous. No one has ever done this better than Edgar Wright, whose Shaun of the Dead deserves every seemingly hyperbolic accolade it's ever received. It does the impossible: it's as funny as any movie you'll ever see, but it also fits every criteria needed for a successful zombie horror film. Most horror comedies tend to lose their bite, with laughs taking the sharp edges off every moment of horror, but Shaun of the Dead is legitimately thrilling, terrifying and brutal when it needs to be. The laughs are organic, natural and derive from a serious-as-hell plot. The movie makes it clear early on that people (and main characters!) are actually dying, so while we're laughing, we're also thrilled. There's a weight to Wright's storytelling that makes all of those laughs so much more earned and satisfying. All of this also applies to his Hot Fuzz, a movie that appears to be a cop-movie parody but hides one of the biggest hearts you'll ever see. Advance buzz suggests that this applies to The World's End, which tells a touching midlife crisis amidst a robot invasion.

Think about your favorite comedies. Think about why they've lasted and why they sit so close to your heart.

You initially liked Groundhog Day because Bill Murray being snarky is always funny, but it's stayed with you because it's as deep and philosophically moving as anything else you'll ever see. 

When Harry Met Sally is one of the best romantic comedies of all time because it takes the rom-com template and injects it with an honesty and straightforwardness that is completely and utterly lacking in your average Kate Hudson project.

People don't love Galaxy Quest because it's a funny riff on the Star Trek universe, but because it has more soul than most actual Star Trek movies, with the humor serving a story that's as pulpy and satisfying as anything in the Trek canon.

All of these movies are built on a rock-solid foundation. They value storytelling first and let the laughs emerge because the characters allow it. The comedies that matter realize that a good joke is just a funny line, but a great joke is plucked from tragedy, fear or passion. The best comedies are those that acknowledge drama, but decide to face it with a smile instead of a grimace.

Categories: Features
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