February 5, 2015 by Alexander Christenson
Comedy and Drama: A Pissing Contest
Comedy is harder to write than drama.
This is a saying I’ve heard kicked around a lot – unsurprisingly – from comedians. I can’t recall having heard a dramatic writer claim the opposite.
This isn’t something I pondered too much before I started hearing it pointed out. It gets me wondering… is this true? Is this even a fair comparison to make, or is it an apples and oranges thing? And ultimately, who cares?
After thinking about it for 15 seconds, it occurs that this could stem from a kind of insecurity about the validity of comedy writing. The Academy Awards, famously, rarely nominates comedies for the prestige awards. Best Picture, screenplay, actor, actress… shit, well, best anything really.
This is not a decision I agree with. A film like Office Space, says, in my opinion, infinitely more about our species – in a much more original way – than something like American Sniper. True comedy writing requires a level of insight into the human psyche that is on par with that required of any great dramatist. I mean hell, Shakespeare is one of the funniest writers ever. And I would argue that a film like American Beauty, is, in addition to other things, a comedy.
So maybe it’s more about how our culture decides to classify comedy. Because lets be honest: American comedy is not in good shape. There are torchbearers such as Louie C.K., Mike Judge, and Bobcat Goldthwait… but on the whole, it’s dull and devoid of any self-awareness. But look, you’ve gone and got me all riled up.
Mostly, I write drama… so one could fairly say that I’m biased. Relatively speaking, I know very little about writing comedy. In fact, I consider it a great challenge whenever I say to myself, “this needs to be funnier.” That isn’t because I don’t know how to write a joke, but because the tone of dramatic writing is often such a well-defined thing (it’s serious) that working in comedy, organically, is very difficult.
So maybe that’s another response. Writing straight drama (like, Jane Eyre) or straight comedy (like, Pineapple Express) is more difficult than writing a hybrid like American Beauty or any episode of Louie. Louie is, now that I mention it, one of the only examples I can think of that is in fact, a hybrid, but would be considered a comedy. This is probably because Louie C.K. is already understood to be a comedian, and the show is so idiosyncratically his own. But the traditional way to classify a hybrid, would be as a drama.
Again, a topic for another discussion, but I find the very genre “drama” to be something of a bullshit classification. Any well written story is dramatic. Therefore everything is a drama. Drama is the least exciting answer to give someone when you’re asked “what’s your genre?” It is my hope, that some day, the general populous would be less obsessed with genre and its alleged relation to quality storytelling.
Sorry! Sorry! Ok, comedy. As I sift through the one comedy script I have written, I remember running into the exact antithesis of my problem stated above – that is that once you’ve establish a “comedic tone” its incredibly difficult to shift into a “dramatic tone.” Once you’ve provided the audience the expectation that every word coming out of the characters’ mouths will be funny – you’re setting them up for disappointment when they try to communicate real emotions to each other. Off the top of my head I know this to be a real issue with many comedies. It feels like the sincere moments were stapled on afterwards, in an attempt to give this thing a “real heartbeat.”
One of the arguments I’ve heard in favor of comedy being more difficult is that timing is so crucial when it comes to joke delivery. Brevity is the soul of wit. We all know.
However I would make the argument that the same is true of drama. Generating emotion, whether the kind which makes you laugh, or the kind that makes you cry, is a process that has to be executed with precision. It’s all about setting up the elements and then delivering a punch-line. The thing is that in drama, it’s never called a punch-line. It’s simply… a line. It’s a piece of news. Your father is dead. We’ve lost the trial. The concept of building to a climax is the same. The importance of the sequence of information, and how it’s delivered to an audience, is the same.
I think the conclusion we came to above, that creating the hybrid, is the most difficult of all. Writing a standard issue comedy or drama are probably both equally challenging. Weaving together comedic and dramatic tones is, perhaps, the most challenging of all.