Jul 28, 2009

The Hangover

Comedy is the most under-estimated of all genres. Most writers think they can write a good movie comedy if they’re funny. They think all you have to do is string together a lot of jokes and gags and you’ll have a successful comedy script. How wrong they are.

It’s not just amateurs who make this mistake. Many of the top comedy screenwriters in the business write “front-loaded” scripts, meaning they try to pack as many jokes in the first ten minutes as they can. That seems like a good idea; once you get the audience laughing they’re bound to keep laughing. In reality, these scripts hit “the wall” about ten to fifteen minutes in and miraculously they’re not funny anymore. The writers don’t realize that they’ve made the classic mistake of starting with the small – the joke – and trying to go big. Instead they should have started with the big – the right comic story structure – and the jokes would have come naturally, from the character.

The Hangover is a textbook example of how to write a comedy script the right way. This is the story of four guys who go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and end up in a nightmare. The normal approach to writing this story is to follow them throughout the night as they make one mistake after another.

To see why writers Jon Lucas & Scott Moore didn’t use this approach, take a close look at the photos of this horrible experience that play over the end credits. What you see are four drunk guys doing outrageous things. The fountain. The tiger. The baby. The wrong guy. Ha ha ha, right? Wrong. First of all, drunk people aren’t funny, at least not for longer than ten seconds. It’s similar to the old actor’s rule: if the actor cries, the audience won’t. If the actor laughs, the audience won’t. A drunk making a fool of himself may be hilarious to him, but not to the sober people watching.

But there’s a bigger reason this wouldn’t have worked…

It’s all the same story beat. Those outrageous events may seem different on the surface, but comically and structurally, they’re all the same thing: drunk guys doing stupid things. And that means that there would have been no narrative drive and no plot. The script would have hit the wall after fifteen minutes and all we would see is actors trying to top what just happened in an increasingly desperate attempt to generate laughs.

Notice also that that story strategy would have broken another key comedy rule: comedy should come from character. Once four individuals become mindlessly drunk, they turn into a single character: the drunk idiot. So not only would we have no plot, we’d have no character.

So let’s look at the comic story structure these screenwriters did use. Amazingly enough, this is a detective story told with a storyteller frame. The desire line: to find out what happened to Doug, the groom.

It’s rare for a comedy to use this structure (Fletch and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are two). But it’s a very good idea. The detective story has one of the strongest narrative drives of any genre. Which means you can hang a ton of jokes on it without being afraid of collapsing the storyline. And because the story tracks the three friends while they are sober, all of the jokes can come from character, from the unique flaws and personalities of the three guys.

The detective structure gives this script another huge advantage that most other movie comedies lack: a plot. The detective form is the most reveal-heavy of all genres, and reveals are one of the keys to plot. Where the normal approach to a raunchy comedy would have provided almost no plot, the detective form told with a storyteller frame gives the heroes, and the audience, an almost unlimited supply of surprises as they slowly piece together what really happened the night before.

In the Comedy Class, I talk extensively about the 11 key story beats for comedy, the beats for the seven major comic story structures – action comedy, traveling angel, buddy picture, romantic comedy, farce, black comedy and satire – setting up and paying off jokes, and the many ways you can make the comedy come from character. This script uses a lot of those techniques. The Hangover is not perfect. Even with the detective structure, the story and the comedy both flag for a while. But this script does show clearly how choosing the right comic structure at the beginning makes all the difference between a blockbuster comedy and the thousands of other comedy scripts that never even make it to the screen.