The best comedy writing starts with characters

Anna Chlumsky and Julia Louise-Dreyfus in "Veep."
Anna Chlumsky does her best to manage Julia Louise-Dreyfus in “Veep.”

Given the many flavors of comedy and personal taste, is it even possible to create something that is universally funny?

The Writers Guild of America’s list of the 101 funniest scripts ever written may be more definitive for some than others, but, if nothing else, the list reflects how broad comic appeal can be.

While the top five films appear to have little in common, at the heart of each lie shared elements of incongruity, blind obsession, and characters who struggle to deal with the consequences of their oft-questionable decisions:

  1. Annie Hall
  2. Some Like It Hot
  3. Groundhog Day
  4. Airplane!
  5. Tootsie

Like any genre, comedic situations stem from characters, relationships, and their decisions. Some of my recent favorite examples of comedy excel on these critical dramatic pillars of character and story: “Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” and “Younger.”

Character relationships are key

Character development is challenging, but focusing on dramatic function and relationships can help ease the pain. While Joseph Campbell’s archetype approach obviously applies to any genre, I highly recommend Steve Kaplan’s book on comedy writing. Like Campbell, Kaplan uses the history of situation comedy as basis for contemporary character and story development.

Another helpful tool is a character grid. Developed in Ellen Sandler’s sitcom development workshop, the grid will help you define how characters relate to one another, which, in turn, will help you define their dramatic function in relation to the story, whether sit-com, feature-length comedy, or short comedy sketch. Again, this is a tool not specific to one genre, but it certainly will help you create comic situations.

Silicon Valley

Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr elevate supporting characters to A-list time on screen in "Silicon Valley."
Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr elevate supporting characters to A-list time on screen in “Silicon Valley.”

Entering its fourth season, “Silicon Valley” regularly is in the awards mix because of the characters and relationships. Created by John Altschuler, Mike Judge, Dave Krinsky, the story of a struggling Silicon Valley startup, like any story, is merely the canvas on which the character interactions collide.

Consider the two lead characters: Thomas Middleditch is a genius — and introverted — coder, Richard Hendricks, whose algorithm is certain to transform computing. And how different he is from his key investor, the eccentric Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller). Those conflicting traits alone are ripe for comedy, without even getting into the traits of the strong supporting cast.


Matt Walsh's portrayal of an incompetent press secretary in "Veep" brings unplanned timely weight to the art-imitates-life argument.
Matt Walsh’s portrayal of an incompetent press secretary in “Veep” brings unplanned timely weight to the art-imitates-life argument.

Another show, “Veep,” is regularly in the awards mix for similar reasons. Created by Armando Iannucci, the characters surrounding narcissistic Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) often find themselves thrust into damage control, and often excelling in incompetence.


In "Younger," Sutton Foster balances truth and exageration in her relationship with Nico Tortorella.
In “Younger,” Sutton Foster balances truth with exaggeration in her relationship with Nico Tortorella.

Renewed for a fourth season, “Younger” follows 40-something Liza Miller (Sutton Foster), who lies about her age to resurrect her publishing career — and pursue romance with the significantly younger Josh (Nico Tortorella).

Created by Darren Star and adapted from Pamela Redmond Satran‘s book, the character relationships here, unlike the aforementioned shows, stem more so from intimacy than insult. And, true to pure sit-com structure, Liza’s ongoing lie naturally finds her in difficult situations, though not always comedic. And therein lies the charm and success of this show, not fearing the encroachment of drama when story necessitates.

“Younger” returns in June, while the new seasons of “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” premiere in the coming weeks.

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2 thoughts on “The best comedy writing starts with characters”

  1. Thanks, George, for posting this. Although my life is a comedy, I have no idea how to write it. Or didn’t, anyway. Thanks!

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