This was the gist of an almost throwaway comment made by a fellow screenwriter during a recent meeting to discuss further development of our clay-motion animated feature. And as with all substantive screenwriting maxims, it’s simple and true at the same time.
I saw a great illustration of this yesterday on Lead Balloon. To my mind the comedy in last night’s episode worked wonderfully because of the underlying drama.
Rick Spleen, desperate to break into mainstream TV, bumps into a high-ranking TV producer in the neighbourhood and hastily invites him and his wife to dinner. He tells him he’s got a (non-existing) project he wants to discuss with him. We then follow him desperately trying to think up a project and nervously preparing to host the important evening. He buys champagne and cigars and splashes out on all sorts of other unaffordable items meant to impress his visitor. He’s obviously not used to entertaining important guests and is desperate to make it look as if he is. He even rehearses the nonchalant lines he’s going to use. So when the guests finally arrive, we the audience are fully keyed up to the impending drama: Is he going to make an impression and land himself that all-important TV project?
What really happens, though, is that his wife recognizes their guest. He's not a TV mogul at all, he's the building contractor who repaired their roof four years ago. Rick is gutted and has to wrestle his way through the rest of the evening attempting to be polite while feeling like shit.
I found the comedy in Rick’s pain, embarrassment and self-loathing excruciatingly funny. It would certainly have been a far less intense experience if the build-up to the reversal hadn’t been as dramatic (and cleverly misleading!). The lengthy set-up, during which I unwittingly identified with Rick’s mixture of ambition and lack of self-confidence, made his deflation that much more entertaining.
The moral of the story? You have to show what’s at stake in the story in order to be able to make fun of the characters in an emotionally engaging way. If the audience identifies with the comedic character’s desires, then they will experience whatever happens to them far more intensively.