As I delve deeper into the screenwriting process, I often find myself stressing to elevate the comedy in my scenes. What I have noticed is that the funniest on-screen moments do not come from one-liners and quirky quotes. No. The funniest moments, moments that result in a sort of silent laugh followed by uncontrollable teary eyes, all originate from character. My experiences that resulted from taking improvisational comedy classes have heightened my ability to recognize the elevation of humor between one-liners and character-based comedy. Similarly, as I have analyzed the processes between improv and screenwriting, I found little to no difference in their overall developmental structure.
Now, I am not saying one-liners aren’t funny. They surely have their time and place, AND if you are writing sketch comedy then this article isn’t for you. But in terms of comedy that adds to dramatic action, providing both comedic relief and plot, character-based comedy is the way to go. The most effective way to add character-based comedy to a scene is to apply long form improvisational comedy to your scene arc. This method’s effectiveness is rooted in their similar structure and character centric basis. To illustrate how to do this I will break down the structure of a scene arc as well as long form improv game and use a real example.
Traditional Scene Arcs:
Traditional scene arcs, and the larger story arcs, are broken down as followed.
Improv Comedy and Game Arc:
Improvisational Comedy (long form) is founded on the technique of “Finding Game” and making “Game Moves.” In essence, “Game” is finding interesting or unique patterns seen in characters reactions or the circumstance and heightening them to create humor. The breakdown or arc of Game in Improv is as follows:
Establishing the base reality
Finding the game
Ending the scene on heightened game moves.
Applied Improv and Scene Arc:
Combining the techniques of improv to scene arcs results in a parallel of action within a scene. Ultimately, as demonstrated below, the two concepts combined line up nicely to create comedy that adds to the plot instead of “comedy for the sake of comedy.”
- Exposition – Establishing Base Reality
- Rising action - Finding Game
- Climax - Adding Game Moves (This is where the big laughs come in)
- Falling Action - More Game Moves
- Resolution - Ending the scene on heightened game moves.
Example: The Improvised Airplane Scene in Bridesmaids (2011)
(with Melissa McCarthy as Megan Price and Ben Falcone as Air Marshall Jon)
The context behind the scene, or establishing the base reality comes from the previous scenes and the overall set design.
• Melissa’s character is on a plane, she is an extremely confident somewhat nosey character, and she is sitting next to a stranger.
Finding the game comes right after Melissa McCarthy points out that Ben Falcone’s character is an Air Marshall.
• The humor isn’t her “discovery,” rather that she wants to participate in his duties with him in a romantic way. While it is normal to ask about the duties of an Air Marshall, it is strange/unique to want to participate in them, and even more so to try to hit on one.
Climax, or adding game moves, occurs when McCarthy raises the tension between the two and tries to involve herself even more with Falcone’s character.
• She adds a game move by hitting on him even more and wanting to be his partner/backup. McCarthy’s behavior is unusual and the uncomfortable reaction from Falcone’s character adds to this game move.
Falling action, or more game moves. Because McCarthy and Falcone’s interactions aren’t the central focus of the scene. More game moves don’t necessarily exist beyond the minute of dialogue that happens in the aisle of the airplane.
• However, by adding another short scene of the two of them sitting at their seats after the aisle encounter would be considered another game move.
Resolution occurs when Kristen Wig’s character needs to be contained by the Air Marshall.
• McCarthy celebrates her verified “discovery” about Falcone’s character and follows behind him for back up. The high point of the scene is when McCarthy tackles her own friend so that she can honor her duties as self-proclaimed back-up. This is where Falcone and McCarthy’s interactions stop, and their improvised scene ends. Choosing to go out on the highest point of laughter is the end to the most successful long-form improv scenes.
At first glance, this scene between Falcone and McCarthy seems to be a series of one-liners, but as we step back and look at it from an improvisational lens, we can see it is ALL ABOUT CHARACTER. It would be unreasonable for Kristen Wig’s character to roam free (hence why the writers added an Air Marshall), and although McCarthy isn’t a lead character, her interaction with Wig’s character is essential towards the end of the film. In terms of advancing Megan Price’s character arc, we later find out that she works in the Pentagon, hence her constant curiosity and detective skills, but her job has made her not have many close people in her life, which explains her hitting on so many men in the film. Utilizing the characters back stories and unique behavior is what creates the humor in this scene.
Making this happen:
So how would you as a writer go about using this technique? First set-up your scene: location, characters involved, and intention behind the scene (what part of the plot the scene is going to explore). Once you have a starting point and a goal for the dramatic arc of your scene you can let your characters take over. Get one of your friends to act it out with you! Point out character flaws, point out unique behavior, and “yes and” your scene partner. Run through your scene starting with a fixed line and improv the rest. I guarantee that if you do this you will find the comedy of your characters and won’t even have to force one-liners into your scripts. When in doubt, lean into character!