10 Styles of Comedy Screenwriters Can Master
What are the different styles of comedies that screenwriters can develop for their feature film scripts and series pilots?
Comedies have plots that are often light-hearted and are written solely to make audiences laugh. They exaggerate the situation, language, action, relationships, and characters. This is perhaps the broadest major genre of them all. Comedies have to be funny. They have to focus on those laughs. And screenwriters writing under the comedy banner need to master the genre to stand apart from the comedians and writers-for-hire that Hollywood usually goes to for comedy.
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In screenwriting, consistency is vital to the success of any screenplay.
When you're dealing with a genre like Comedy, there are many subgenres within that comedy-genre umbrella — each of which has their own type and style of comedy. While you can undoubtedly blend those styles and types, most screenwriters fail to do so engagingly and hilariously, leading to inconsistent scripts that read as if the writer doesn't know what the script should be.
Here we share ten different styles of comedies that screenwriters can choose from.
1. Anecdotal Comedies
This type of comedy usually refers to personal comic stories that are true or partly true but embellished. Stand-up comics typically use this type of comedy in their routines, but there's also a place for it in screenplays and teleplays as well.
The Goldbergs is an anecdotal comedy series based on the life and family experiences of the show's creator Adam Goldberg.
Lady Bird was based on much of writer/director Greta Gerwig's life.
If you have a real-life story to tell that's funny, it may be worthy of a feature screenplay or series pilot. Hollywood loves true stories and real characters. And you can easily enhance the truth and embellish moments, characters, and situations of hilarity to up the ante of the comedy.
2. Black Comedies
Black Comedies are those that find the humor in otherwise disturbing subjects like death, violence, crime, and war. They have an edge to them.
The difficulty with writing a black comedy is that the box office potential is more limited compared to lighter fare; thus Hollywood doesn't take as many risks with these types of scripts.
Movies like Bad Santa, American Psycho, Fargo, Heathers, Very Bad Things, and Death to Smoochy are hit or miss at the box office, but they often grow cult followings because the writers seek out the humor in dark subject matter.
Screenwriters looking to push the envelope a bit to get noticed can prosper in this comedy subgenre, but they should be aware of the risks involved as well.
3. Blended Genres
Genre blends are always compelling to Hollywood insiders, but only when that balance is handled well. And because that balance can be so difficult to maneuver, these types of comedy genre blends are often left to the masters. But that's doesn't mean you can't pull them off.
Romantic Comedies are equal parts romance and comedy. Guy/girl meets the guy/girl, guy/girl gets the guy/girl, guy/girl loses the guy/girl, guy/girl gets the guy/girl back — and every variation thereof. And during all of this, comedy ensues. This formula has drastically changed since the rom-com boom of the 1990s. Sometimes it’s the girl as the focus. Sometimes it's the guy. Sometimes the lead character doesn’t get their desired love interest in the end. Whatever the situation is, it has to be funny or otherwise, it’s just a love story.
Action Comedies offer equal parts action and comedy. Movies like Lethal Weapon, Rush Hour, 21 Jump Street, The Heat, and Bad Boys offer the typical formula and contain aspects of the Buddy Comedy as well (see below). And like the Buddy Comedy, they often explore the friendship of two or more lead characters.
Horror Comedies are perhaps the most difficult to tackle because you're asking the audience to experience two very different things — being scared and laughing. Movies like Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice managed to capture that humor and horror lightning in a bottle, but most other horror comedies work more like satire (see below), sending up the horror genre in funny ways.
Comedy can also be blended with fantasy, science fiction, and crime genres as well. And then there's the Dramedy, which has equal parts hiliarity and melodrama.
4. Dry Comedies
Dry comedies — also referred to as deadpan comedies — showcase humor that is delivered in an impassive, expressionless, matter-of-fact fashion.
Look no further than the kind of dry comedies, Wes Anderson — Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, etc.
These types of comedies are directed to audiences that are looking for a more sophisticated branch of humor — one that doesn't rely on hijinks, direct jokes, and physical humor.
Much like the Black Comedy, the Dry Comedy is sometimes a difficult sell because it requires a particular type of audience that is ready and willing to pay more attention and be more patient with a cinematic story's pacing.
5. Fish Out of Water Comedies
These comedies have the highest success rate by far. The concept is relatively simple. You take a character out of their usual surroundings and throw them into places that are unusual to them — and hilarity ensues. The comedy is driven by the conflicts the character faces as they acclimate (or don't) to their new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable surroundings.
Big (a child in an adult world), Tootsie (a man in a woman's world), Liar Liar (a lawyer who cannot lie), and Crocodile Dundee (an Australian bushman visiting New York) are perfect examples.
It's all about finding the perfect worlds to collide.
6. Mockumentary Comedies
Mockumentaries are usually told through a documentary-like narrative, sending up a particular character a world.
This Is Spinal Tap made fun of the rock documentary.
Borat sends up American culture.
The Office pokes fun at office culture.
Best in Show finds the strange humor in dog shows and their participants.
If you can find a world, subject, or character type that audiences recognize, writing the next great mockumentary might be the way for you to go. But the world, subject, or character type has to be widely known. Otherwise most won't be in on the joke.
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7. Slapstick Comedies
Physical humor always makes for an easy laugh, which is why this form of comedy has been so prevalent throughout the history of Hollywood thanks to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, and Jim Carrey, to name a few.
Slapstick comedies go for the easy laughs, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you're not an established master of comedy, it can prove to be difficult to sell such a script on spec because those types of hijinks get old on paper. It's one thing to see Jim Carrey do his thing and a whole different experience reading that type of humor on the page.
8. Satire Comedies
Satire comedies focus on making fun of aspects of society, often relying on headline news, current affairs, and politics.
The Simpsons is often a perfect example of satirical television, as it makes fun of how we view things as a society.
Movies like Vice, The Big Short, and W take serious social and political subjects and showcase how ridiculous they really, as far as those involved within them and the methodology that leads to the events portrayed in the films.
Veep showcases how a series can implement that same effect, while not directly handling real-life stories and politics.
Satire doesn't have to always go straight for the laughs, and the laughs alone. Vice and The Big Short and message films that pack an emotional, dramatic punch as well.
9. Sex Comedies
These types of comedies focus on sex, in terms of story situations and characters goals. To be simplistic, they are about getting "laid" and the hijinks that ensue in the pursuit of that goal.
American Pie reopened the genre back in 1999 after a long delay from the 1970s and 1980s.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin debuted a few years later, launching most of its cast to stardom.
While this subgenre has been blended with other forms of comedy, if you want to write the next great sex comedy romp, you have to find a new angle.
Blockers became a moderate hit by getting the parents involved.
Sex Education tackled the subject of teen sex and angst with a different type of spin as well.
But screenwriters need to remember that it's not about the sex. It's about the hilarious adventures the characters go on before, during, or after the sex that matters.
10. Spoof Comedies
Spoof comedies parody and satirize popular film genres, classic movies, and iconic television shows. These comedies utilize sarcasm, stereotyping, and mockery of those concepts, moments, and characters.
Airplane!, Hot Shots, Blazing Saddles, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs, Galaxy Quest, and Scary Movie are a few of the iconic spoofs.
The Wet Hot American Summer franchise managed to accomplish spoofing summer camp movies in both a feature film and a Netflix episodic series.
The Brady Bunch brand managed to spoof itself in two feature films after the iconic long-run comedy series (and TV movies).
The great thing about spoofs is that franchises, movies, and moments are open to parody without any rights issues, as long as the screenplay isn't overly derivative of the property it is spoofing (using direct character names, etc.).
Read ScreenCraft's How to Choose the Right Movie Genre for Your Concept!
What styles of comedy did we miss? What are your favorites?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies