Why Some Comedies are Too Sad to Be Funny

I wrote and produced the short film "Leanne is Gone" in 2012. Here's the trailer:

I swear. I meant to write a comedy.

Okay, so you may not believe this, but the inspiration for this film was actually quite comical. Eventually, the script took its own path, and turned dark - too dark - to call it a comedy. It's impeccably directed, by the way, by gorgeous and talented artist Bryan Scott Cooper and it stars myself and talented actor David Hemphill.

To me, it's a film about forgiveness being the only path toward friendship. The film's title, "Leanne is Gone" refers to our lead character's sister, a woman who has just taken her own life. Her melancholic brother is Dylan, newly out of rehab for heroin use. Hilarious, right? The man he comes to stay with is his newly-widowed alcoholic brother-in-law, Sean.

Basically, the two men are in conflict, as each of them secretly blame themselves for her death, but blame each other outwardly. Both struggle with these hidden feelings. If they choose forgiveness, they could possibly connect and begin the healing process. If they go the opposite route, they may just end up killing each other.

Why was it too sad? Well beyond the very dark subject matter, the story ended up with very few (what I like to call) 'release' moments. Engaging stories are built on tension, and comedies are peppered with 'releases' - the moments you get to laugh.

When I added jokes to this script, they felt very 'muscled' and inappropriate. For instance, when Sean the brother-in-law is drunk and sitting on the floor, I initially had Dylan ask him - in the middle of an intense fight - to pee in a cup. Could be funny in the right situation, but they were discussing a recently-dead woman whom they each loved. It just didn't fit.

So am I writing a comedy or a drama?

Every comedy has tense moments. Every drama has light-hearted fun moments (If it doesn't, it's time for a rewrite). But it can be difficult to sort-out where exactly your story fits in. Of course some stories can't be categorized as easily, and are labeled "dramedies".

I've put together a check-list of sorts to figure out in which genre you may be writing. I'd like to disclaim that no story needs to be bound by genre, and good stories are good stories, regardless of category. Genre is most helpful in describing to others what you're writing, and of course the marketing of the story later.

It's a comedy if ...

  • You are laughing—a lot
  • The subject matter is exaggerated, but relatable to real life
  • Characters make a fool of themselves
  • At the end, you think 'that was fun!'

It's a drama if ...

  • You are crying. Or on the edge of your seat—a lot
  • The subject matter feels real and grounded
  • Characters seem like real people
  • At the end, you think 'that was intense!'

Why does genre matter?

Of course, you must set out to write a good story first. Have like-able heroes that take charge and are completely transformed throughout their journey, then analyze for genre afterward. There's no harm in deciding later. There is harm, though, in muscling serious stories into being funny, or vice versa. As always, be sure to let me know how it goes.