August 17

THE FUNNY THING ABOUT THEME….

DUCK SOUP GIFJim from Dallas, TX asks:

You’ve done a good deal of discussing theme and its importance, nay, necessity, in any script. What about the theme of a comedy? Are there thematic considerations to be made when writing a comedy or does theme remain the same and its execution change? Is there such a thing as a comedic theme?

The fact that I write mostly drama does not stop me from having an opinion about comedy. However, take this opinion for what it’s worth. In my opinion, there is no difference with respect to the need for and the formulation of theme in any genre. There may be certain themes common to specific genre, but mostly by practice rather than necessity.

Here are a few classic comedies and my interpretation of their themes. You can see the variety of themes the genre can accommodate:

“Duck Soup” (Marx Bros.) – make peace, not war.
“Airplane” (Zucker Bros.) – face your fears.
“Big Lebowsky” (Cohen Bros.) – It’s better to be honest even if you’re a schlemiel.
“There’s Something About Mary” (Farelly Bros) – Letting go is part of true love.
“Manhattan” (Wood Allen & Marshall Brickman – they’re as close as brothers, really) – You have to have faith in people.

A classic difference between comedy and other genre has been that comedies often involve characters that fail to learn anything about the theme and fail to grow in any way. However, these days, comedies are often essentially indistinguishable from dramas in terms of character development, structure and theme. The only real difference is that comedies are funny.

For more on theme in comedy, look at Artful Writer’s many entries on theme. Craig Mazin, who writes most of the entries over there, is an A-level comedy writer.




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Posted August 17, 2005 by TW in category "Theme

16 COMMENTS :

  1. By Joshua on

    A lot of classic comedy themes echo Caddyshack (and its forebear, Animal House) which is slob versus snob – many Marx brother movies echo it as well –

  2. By TW (Post author) on

    You might consider taking your themes a step further. “Slob versus snob” is likely not as helpful in writing your script as something that takes a point of view on the issue. The theme in Caddyshack might be formulated as “Better to be low brow and imaginative than high brow and stiff.” The same for Animal House. If you are writing a piece with this theme, you will want scenes that test the limitations of this point of view. For example, in Animal House, Katy’s relationship with Boon tested that point of view. Leaving a thematic issue unchallenged often results in a preachy script, which is almost as bad as a story with no theme.

  3. By Joshua on

    Well sure, but that’s more about application, right? The theme of the story is Slob vs Snob, and testing it, exploring it and showing both sides is what good story telling is, applying the craft of writing – but it doesn’t change what it’s about – Animal House is essential about the animals vs the elite, it’s stated many times, that’s what it’s about.

    Sure, you can fine tune the theme, in fact, there can be variations of it within each story – I was simply stating a common theme I’ve noticed in many great comedies –

  4. By TW (Post author) on

    Definitely right. And the purpose for my response was not to disagree with you but to point out for the benefit of others that, as a writing tool, for me at least, general themes are not very useful. I prefer to formulate the theme in terms of a question, point of view or argument. See “But I Have A Theme….”

  5. By Joshua on

    Ah, so we agree. Excellent.

    Too bad, though, because conflict makes not only good drama, but fun comedy too, sometimes.

    Except maybe in the Middle East.

  6. By Tommy on

    The best (and most practical) advice I’ve ever received regarding theme is to treat your script like an essay and let the theme be the thesis statement. Therefore, I consider “Better to be low brow and imaginative than high brow and stiff” much more effective than “slob versus snob”. For example, I could say that the theme of my current script is “good versus evil”, but what is that, really? It’s so vague, it really won’t help much at all. So I’ll rephrase my theme into a statement that will form the basis for a story — “Until you realize there is good in the world, you will only see the bad”.

    That’s something solid, something you can actually work with in each scene. An arc for the protagonist. As in an essay, you go back and forth between the two values of the theme, making strong cases for both arguments, but eventually the evidence will be stronger for the side that the theme supports.

    “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is a theme. “You have to learn to love yourself before you can learn to love others is a theme”. “Love”, by itself, is not a theme.

  7. By Joshua on

    slob vs snob is much more specific than good vs evil. It’s not like we’re saying the untidy vs the tidy (though that would be interesting) – but again, you’re talking about application of craft – I have no argument with you that theme should be as specific as possible. I merely wanted to point out a common comedy theme that wasn’t listed in the post – it’s one that we see in many comedies. That’s all I was saying, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, I’m just saying that it is there.

  8. By Tommy on

    Still, I think the theme has to be a statment.
    What if in Animal House the snobs won? It’s still “slob versus snob”, but something would feel wrong about that ending. And that’s because the snobs winning wouldn’t be truthful to the theme. I think that’s why “Better to be low brow and imaginative than high brow and stiff” is a much more accurate theme. If the snobs do infact win at the end, you’d need to change almost every previous scene to demonstrate an opposing theme that would be in the snobs favor.

  9. By Joshua on

    Tommy, if the snobs in Animal House won, the theme wouldn’t be “slobs vs snobs,” it would be “snobs vs slobs”, dig? I don’t for a second believe that the theme of Animal House is “better to be low brow and imaginative than high brow and stiff” because, well that theme sounds high brow and stiff, you know?

    Caddyshack was actually advertised as “slobs vs snobs” – and I think that THAT is a statement in and of itself.

    You can do a lot of different things with that statement, whether you’re going to college or to a golf course or in the army (Stripes) but it is a very specific statement.

  10. By Tommy on

    Well, “slobs versus snobs” isn’t really a statement, so much as it is, well… a tagline. I know that there is a theme in “slobs versus snobs”, or vice versa, or any number of themes that can be derived from that, but I still don’t consider that a theme by itself. My definition of theme (as lifted from http://www.artfulwriter.com):

    “A proposed argument, e.g. “There’s no place like home,” “It is better to love and lose than never to have loved at all,” “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In this sense, “theme” could actually be referred to as “The Answer.””

    A proposed argument. That definition works best for me, maybe it doesn’t for you, but I find that having a specific statement and answer is the best way for me to weave theme throughout my story. I’ve always thought of the climax as the event where the theme (or thesis, answer, whatever) is proved beyond all doubt. So if I can’t express my theme as a coherant statement, then I don’t have one.

    The whole article can be found at http://artfulwriter.com/archives/2005/01/character_and_s.html#more

  11. By Joshua on

    Perhaps it doesn’t work for you, that theme, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for Harold Ramis or John Landis. What you’ve said sounds perfectly reasonable for you – what I’m saying is that a few comedies that are now considered classics were just as simply as “Slobs versus Snobs” – that’s all I was saying. In the telling of the story, that’s where it gets expanded upon, the theme, but the beginning was just really that.

  12. By Craig Mazin on

    “The theme of the story is Slob vs Snob”

    Nope.

    There really is a right answer here (my new favorite phrase, BTW).

    A dramatically useful theme is an argument, not an arena for argument. “Slob versus Snob” isn’t a proposition or assertion. It’s a genre of comedy…like “fish out of water” or “comedy of errors” (also not a theme).

    “Better a slob than a snob” is a theme. If your theme doesn’t have a point of view, your movie won’t either. Animal House isn’t neutral on the question.

  13. By Joshua on

    Gulp. Craig just pimp-slapped me. And I kinda got excited about it, in a naughty school boy way – is that wrong? Should I go to confession? Do you have to be Catholic to go to confession? And why not, shouldn’t it be for everyone?

    Actually, I didn’t think about POV being stated specifically in theme, you are of course correct and I stand corrected.

  14. By TW (Post author) on

    Craig:

    I love it when you do that…..

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