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How to Write a Comedy Script: Screenwriting Tips from The Hangover

How to Write a Comedy Script: Screenwriting Tips from the Hangover

If you’re wondering how to write a comedy script, look no further. This post will give you an overview of comedy writing secrets by examining the 2009 summer blockbuster The Hangover. While The Hangover is known for its R-rated humor, don’t worry. These screenwriting tips are applicable to screenplays for children, adults…and adults who behave like children.

Comedy Script Screenwriting Tip #1: Employ reversals

Writing a comedy script is actually pretty easy because the basis of the humor–a one-liner, a complicated joke, repartee, sarcasm, slapstick and comic set pieces–is rooted in reversals.

All comedy is based on reversals: taking audience expectations and subverting them.

How do you create humor by going against expectations? Some examples from The Hangover should help clarify:

  • Phil, Alan and Stu wait at the valet stand expecting the valet to bring them a 1969 Mercedes–instead he drives over a police cruiser
  • When Phil drives the cruiser, he doesn’t act at all like an officer of the law…remember the lady in leopard print?
  • Stu plans to propose to his uptight girlfriend and instead marries a stripper
  • Alan goes into the suite bathroom, normally a sanctuary for both men and women, and finds a giant tiger inside
  • The boys use roofies to drug the tiger–not exactly approved by a big cat veterinarian
  • The guys drive the drugged tiger back to Mike Tyson’s house, believing the animal to be sedated–but he wakes up and he’s not happy
  • Phil, Stu and Alan hear a sound in the trunk of the Mercedes. Believing it’s Doug, they open it–and a completely naked Chinese man springs out and hits them with a crowbar.
  • When the Chinese man reenters their lives, now fully dressed in a tracksuit, he says he has Doug and is holding him for ransom. When the crew raises the funds through blackjack wins, they make the exchange, only to find that the Doug they rescued wasn’t their Doug, but a black drug dealer Doug.

As you can see, understanding reversals is the key to writing a comedy. The rest of the comedy screenwriting tips in this post are actually just nuances of this basic principle; reversals are the blueprint that your screenplay will be built on. So when you’re sitting down to write your comedy script, ask yourself how can I create a reversal of my audience’s expectations?

Comedy Script Screenwriting Tip #2: The big build up

To increase the humor in your comedy script, have your characters anticipate the exact opposite of what’s about to occur next. Why do that? When you widen the gap between your character’s expectations (and therefore the audience’s) and what happens, you widen the scope of the reversal…hopefully producing bigger laughs.

Here are two examples from the Hangover:

When the guys are waiting at the impound lot, they muse about how wrecked the Mercedes will be. But when the car is brought to them, it was in pristine condition (although maybe a little dusty). If that didn’t make you laugh, at the very least it should have made you smile. Plus, when you witness the tiger waking up in the backseat of the car and mauling it to pieces, you should laugh harder because of what the characters anticipated several scenes earlier.

The tiger also plays a part in another example. The gang has returned the tiger to Mike Tyson’s home and are reviewing security camera footage in order to see if Doug was with them then (he was). While watching the tape, Phil says, “you know, I just have to say, I have never seen a more beautiful, elegant…just regal creature.”

The tiger from The Hangover

Mr Regal

This buildup is followed by Phil pretending to do lewd activities with the majestic beast. As an animal lover, I’m not a big fan of the tiger joke–but I do think it’s funny that Phil goes on and on about how amazed he is by the animal, and then is exposed as a fraud a few seconds later. Whether you think the tiger joke is funny or not, whatever humor is there is made funnier by the buildup that preceded it.

So if you’re looking to inject more humorous notes into your comedy screenplay, look for opportunities for your character to shoot the breeze…share some expectation or observation…and then show the exact opposite happening a few moments later.

Comedy Script Screenwriting Tip #3: Location, location, location

The setting that you name in your slugline is super important.

How to Write a Comedy Script:  Location Slug

In 13 Screenwriting Tips from Sherlock Holmes, we saw that choosing a dockyard as a backdrop for a huge action sequence/set-piece paid off in the mystery adventure movie. The dockyard was such a great setting because it was chock full of items Holmes and Dredger could use to battle each other.

The same principle applies to writing comedy scenes. Choose locations in your comedy script wisely–and humorous ideas will flow easily. Think of places that are visually interesting and that also are full of objects that your characters can interact with in funny ways.

Think of it like this: if Vince Vaughn is trapped in a room with someone who’s not funny (about 80% of the current Saturday Night Live cast), you wouldn’t expect comedy gold, would you?

But if on the other hand, you stuck Vince with someone with a sense a humor–Robert Downey Jr perhaps–they could riff off each other. The same applies to your characters. Put them in locations where they can “riff off” of the objects and people in those places.

How to Write a Comedy Script: Downey Jr + Vaugn = Comedy Gold

Let’s see how this screenwriting tip applies to The Hangover. Most of the movie takes place in Las Vegas. Visually interesting? Check. Full of objects and people our three amigos can riff off of? Yes, and in spades, my friend. In spades.

While we’re on the subject of location…

Comedy Script Screenwriting Tip #4: Look for the less obvious joke

The chances are that when you’ve decided upon a location that will yield comedy gold in your screenplay…somebody else has already thought of it. Las Vegas isn’t a particularly original location for a movie, and yet it has a lot of potential…so what’s an aspiring comedy writer to do?

Look for the less obvious joke. Most likely it’s not the first funny scene that you write, but more like the fifth, sometimes even fiftieth. Do some research on that setting, and mine those details for all the potential funny moments and set pieces you can think of. In the original screenplay of The Hangover, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore had included a few sequences that made use of the Las Vegas ambiance, but even though they were funny, they felt stale because they were too much like stuff we’ve already seen.

The Hangover crew makes a toast in Las Vegas

Las Vegas, Stale City?

One sequence occurred at a strip club. The boys get so distracted by the dancing women that they forget they only have a few hours left to recover Doug. The other scene took place at an all male dancing revue and was supposed to be a big payoff for some homosexual jokes made way earlier in the screenplay.

Strippers dancing in Vegas? Yawn. A bunch of straight guys partying the night away end up making homo jokes? So last decade. These scenes, thankfully, were dropped from the final movie. Instead, the guys found a tiger in the their room–a tiger that belonged to Mike Tyson, and whom they had to drug with roofies in order to return him to the boxing champion.

The tiger & Mike–those are elements that seem in keeping with the Vegas vibe (I wouldn’t really be able to suspend my disbelief if this happened in let’s say, Dallas,) and they’re elements that I haven’t seen in any other comedy I’ve seen or screenplay I’ve read. And wasn’t it ten times funnier than any gay joke?

You might be thinking that while they dropped the strip show, they still kept the stripper angle since Stu married one. And that worked…didn’t it? Having a bachelor marry a stripper in Vegas isn’t an original idea; it’s been overdone in fiction and real life. But the screenwriters added some nuances to the stripper wife concept that made it more fresh.

First, Stu couldn’t remember that he was married. When he did get married, he was missing a tooth and he was wearing a blue polyester tuxedo. (In the original screenplay draft, he was actually in armor and bought a shield to commemorate the blessed event which I think is pretty funny.) Finally, long-suffering Stu was supposed to propose to his uptight girlfriend at Doug’s wedding. Instead he gets married to a stripper with a sunny disposition. That twist was, drumroll please, a reversal which added some fresh humor to the canon of Vegas stripper jokes.

So the takeaway lesson here is: if you end up choosing a location that’s been done a million times before in other screenplays and movies, try to add some twists to the set up so the humor isn’t exactly like all the other comedy set pieces we’ve encountered before.

Comedy Script Screenwriting Tip #5: Irony is king

According to Wikipedia, the definition of irony is having a disparity or incongruity between intention & expression or intention and results. Since irony is just a specialized reversal, it makes sense that it’s going to be a strong weapon in your comedy arsenal. The nice thing about irony is that it can be applied in a variety of situations–at both the micro and macro levels. Hapless Stu can be our guide to using both when writing comedy scripts:

In the original screenplay draft of The Hangover, Stu woke up to discover that he had a mullet. And yes, while that is definitely funny…is that as funny as him losing his tooth? His “lateral incisor” to be exact (that line is my favorite of the movie!). I don’t think so. Losing the tooth isn’t just funny. Since Stu is a dentist, it’s ironic–and that adds a greater comic edge to the scene.

How to Write a Comedy Script:  Use Irony like Stu & His Tooth

Ack! My lateral incisor is missing

When you’re trying to write funny scenes, ask yourself what is the most ironic thing that could happen to my character? What is, for him or her, personally the worst thing that could happen? And if you answer that creatively, you’ll have comedy gold.

You should also keep irony in mind when brainstorming the overall concept of your screenplay. When you’re writing a thriller or action-adventure movie, you want your hero to be a person with an amazing skill set that will help him masterfully overcome the obstacles in his or her path a la Jason Bourne or Evelyn Salt.

But when you’re writing a comedy, oftentimes, your hero should be the person who’s voted LEAST likely to succeed.

This situation will create the most irony, and therefore has the most potential for humor. In Stu’s case, he is a very uptight person who’s bullied by his girlfriend, so he’s the person least likely to adapt to the craziness found in Vegas. That’s why I think his experience is the funniest out of all of the Hangover dudes.

This technique is probably one of the most common ones used in blockbuster comedy movies. For example, in the romantic comedy The Proposal (also wildly successful), Sandra Bullock’s character is a neurotic Type A devil of a New York boss. She’s the least likely person in the world to appreciate the small-town charm of Sitka, Alaska. This irony is at the root of a lot of that movie’s comic set pieces.

Over at Scriptshadow, Carson Reeves analyzed a comedy spec called I Think My Facebook Friend is Dead. (Great title, right?) Anyway, the heroes of that screenplay were these agoraphobe tech geeks who banded together to rescue a Facebook friend. I haven’t read it yet, but according to the comments, while the concept was really good, the execution needed work, especially with regard to the locations of their search and rescue mission.

One commenter, Claude, gave some really good advice…yep, you guessed it. He increased the irony factor by suggesting that the girl was abducted by Amish relatives. Now, our tech friends have to find her–in the middle of Amish country, which may be chock full of fireplaces, but certainly not Facebook addicts. That concept has a ton of potential because of the wise use of irony.

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