For the non-writer there seems to be a world of difference between drama and comedy, but the truth is that both derive from the same source. Drama need not be tragedy, yet it implies a more serious purpose than mere comedy. But for a successful comedy the essential elements of drama must also be present. The most vital of these is conflict. The hero must have a goal he wishes to achieve and obstacles which stand in his way. It is this journey which makes a story that readers can log on to and enjoy.
If the comedic writer ignores this he is in danger of writing a sequence of gags for a stand-up comedian. The world of the stage play throws this into even sharper focus. With a half hour TV sitcom, for instance, the characters are already established and the plot can proceed immediately. This should have a funny premise, but off-plot gags which reveal character or develop relationships are permissible.
With a stage play the audience are entering cold and must be introduced to characters and situations before the plot can develop. The novice will have this prologue sticking out like a sore thumb, whereas the more experienced writer knows that he can effectively begin his plot from the moment the curtain rises and introduce his characters, relationships and situations within the body of the plot. The modern audience is wise enough to catch on very quickly and this can be exploited by having the comedy rolling from the first line of dialogue.
Within a three act structure which will probably run in excess of 90 minutes it is absolutely essential to have a strong story or you will lose your audience. That story is drama, and must have a goal for the protagonist, with obstacles and reversals, to maintain the audience’s interest. This shouldn’t be regarded as a negative but as a positive. The writer should allow the comedy to develop from the character’s personalities and from their relationships. If the humour wanes, the story should be strong enough to keep the audience hooked.
Drama can certainly exist without comedy but the reverse is not true. We do not laugh at people we don’t know or situations we are unfamiliar with. This is the power of the spoof or pastiche, which might take a genre such as romance or horror and turn it on its head with the introduction of comedy. It is a good place for the new comedy writer to start as there is bound to be some genre he is familiar with. Don’t write the story and then try to inject humour. Make the comedy develop as the plot does. Have your characters play ping pong with their dialogue, swapping outrageous lines and trying to top each other.
If it’s not funny, it’s not funny, so just leave it and don’t try to force it. There’s nothing wrong with being a dramatist, it’s just less fun than being a comedy writer.
Gurmeet Mattu is an award-winning writer with a track record in print, stage, radio, TV and screen. He currently publishes and edits the comedy magazine, Amock, which you can find at [http://amock.net].