Robert McKee on Comedy

I doubt there are any screenwriters or potential screenwriters who don’t know who Robert McKee is. His book Story is considered a screenwriting bible, and his story seminar is an industry standard. So when I found out he was going to be lecturing on comedy here at work for two hours, I jumped at the chance to attend.  The session was as awesome as I thought it would be.  I was scribbling notes furiously the whole time, and ended up with six pages in all, some of them more coherent than others. I wanted to type them up, so I figured this would be a great place to do it. Now I won’t lose them and perhaps someone else might be able to benefit from them.  They’re a bit scattershot, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but he gave a lot of really good info. I spoke to him briefly afterward. He was incredibly nice and even signed my book. (I highly recommend Story to all writers, not just screenwriters. It’s amazing.) If you ever get a chance to listen to him, definitely take it. Check down below for the notes, and let me know what you think.


Comedy is pure. If the audience laughs, it works. If they don’t laugh, it doesn’t work. It’s as plain as that.

A culture is in deep trouble when it can’t laugh at itself.

A common but false belief is that the principles of good storytelling don’t apply to comedy. They do.

Dramatic writers admire the human spirit. Under the worse circumstances, the human spirit will prevail. Comedic writers are cynical, believing that in the best of circumstances, people will find a way to mess up.

The comic mind is idealistic, intelligent and angry. The belief is that if you can pull the pants down on the world, make people laugh at all the problems, there’s a chance things might change for the better.

The root of comedy is anger.  If you want to write a comedy, figure out what makes you really mad. He used George Carlin as an example of this.

Drama appeals to emotions.

Comedy appeals to intelligence. That’s why stupid people don’t laugh.

Drama reveals compassion.

Comedy wants us to stay objective, denounce society’s ills.

Drama deals with inner conflicts, pain, passion. Macbeth.

Comedy deals with social conflicts, relationships between people. Oscar Wilde and comedy of manners.  The modern sitcom is the great-grandchild of Oscar Wilde, as it’s typically a ridicule of the working class. The British Carry On series is a perfect example of this.

Drama is universal. The subjects are eternal.

Comedy is topical. The comedian Mort Sahl, whose routine consisted of riffing off the current day’s newspaper, embodies this idea.

Most comedy is dated, thus grows stale quickly. Some, such as A Fish Called Wanda, don’t.

Comedy is very culture-specific and doesn’t travel well since a knowledge of what’s going on in the culture is needed to appreciate the humor.

At the heart of comedy is the nature of the comic character. With both dramatic and comic characters, their lives are thrown off-kilter and they try to fix things.

The dramatic character is self-aware as he is trying to put his life back in balance, while the comedic character has a blind obsession.  If you want to create a comedic character, give them a blind obsession.

Molière’s plays illustrate this approach. The Miser, The Misanthrope, etc.

All in the Family. Archie Bunker’s blind obsession is racism. If he were to realize he was a racist, the comedy would end.

Comic characters are relatively simple. Complexity would be inappropriate. Hamlet doesn’t get any laughs. He draws you in, makes you feel empathy.

Comic characters need clarity, and comedy exploits the character’s blind obsession.

The deep difference in drama and comedy is the turning of the story.

In drama, when the gap between audience expectations and unfolding events opens, surprise and curiosity result. The audience looks for the hidden causes as to why the world reacted the way it did.

In comedy, when the gap between audience expectations and unfolding events opens, it should come as a rush of insight, resulting in laughter.

Comedy has four major conventions.

1. It doesn’t really hurt. Looney Tunes, etc. Frog getting crushed in Princess and the Frog vs. frogs falling and splattering in Magnolia.

2. Clarity. Characters have to be clear, no ambiguity. The jokes should be gotten instantly.

3. Pure comedy has to have a happy ending. (black comedy doesn’t)

4. It must attack social institutions or behavior.

If you want to write a comedy start with a drama.

Trivialize the exalted, exalt the trivial.

All comedy is a satire of something.

There are two major sub-genres of comedy.

High Comedy: Comedy of sophistication. Verbal wit. Has a serious purpose. Example: Dr. Strangelove.

Low Comedy: Comedy that relies on sight gags, farces, scatological humor. Appeals to inner child.

Parody is the gentlest form of comedy. The subject of ridicule is actually admired. Example: Young Frankenstein.

Satire has real anger, something that really bothers you. Example: Blazing Saddles.

Mel Brooks hates the western genre, feels it is fascist. The lone hero comes down from the hills to save the townspeople, then retreats again to the hills. Echoes of Hitler and Mussolini. People have accused Avatar of doing this.

Broadcast News vs. Network. Divorce, Italian Style vs. War of the Roses. Parody vs. Satire.

Farce is a clockwork of chaos. Monty Python, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Slapstick: animation, Looney Tunes, Three Stooges.

Comedy varies by subject. Comedy of manners, comedy of character, comedy of courtship, comedy of social institution.

Classically told comedy: Clueless.

Anti-structure comedy: Wayne’s World, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Films break the 4th wall.

Comedy mixes well with other genres. Take a dramatic story, leaven it with wit/humor.

Tragicomedy: Charlie Chaplin. City Lights. Life is Beautiful.

Dramedy: Annie Hall. Manhattan.

Crimedy: Beverly Hills Cop. (originally written for Sylvester Stallone. Eddie Murphy improvised most of the humor.) Lethal Weapon films.

Horror comedy: Shaun of the Dead. Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Musical comedy: The Producers.

Comedy can be used effectively as a sub-plot.

Before you can understand comedy, you have to understand laughter.  What is laughter?

William McDougall believed that  “laughter has been evolved in the human race as an antidote to sympathy.”

Freud stated “Laughter is a release from tension.”

Laughter is an emotion abandoned by thought.

A joke has two parts. The set-up builds tension, playing on emotion. These emotions operate on a primal level, and they’re hard to arouse. People would rather remain calm.

The punch is the second part of the joke, and it suddenly reveals a situation we would never associate with the first. It is incongruous and cuts across the set-up. They collide in the audience’s mind and explode. Reason quickly recovers, but the primal emotion is still there, with nowhere to go. Laughter gets rid of that emotion. Laughter is not an emotion, it’s the getting rid of an emotion. You can laugh over any emotion you’re feeling. Fear, pain, anger, etc.  Laughter is a criticism we hurl at something stupid or ugly.

The subject of the set-up has to be something intense, so as to get the emotions flowing and churning. That’s why comedy breaks taboos. Religion, death, politics, sex, scatalogical, are all fair game. If you allow anything in society to become uncomical, it gains power and can swallow society.

Comic is all about timing. Because you’re trying to arouse emotions, you have to time the punch well.  You want to hit the punch when the rising emotion is at its peak. Too early or late and the joke fails.

In addition, timing the laughter is important. Laughter explodes, builds, then dies off. Don’t wait until the last idiot stops laughing before you deliver the next joke.

The periodic sentence is important.  It’s when you can’t understand the meaning of the sentence until the final word of it is spoken. “If you didn’t want me to do that, why did you give me this____?”

Above all, jokes should have brevity. Make them as lean as possible, then they can be stretched or compressed as needed.

And something sort of unrelated to the topic, but a cool quote: “Complex characters need Needs, not just Desires. Needs are a hole in the character that he must fill.”


7 responses to “Robert McKee on Comedy

  1. Excellent work Dan. Great thoughts here, thanks for jotting them down and making it available to those of us not so fortunate to have heard the lecture.

  2. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  3. I’ll tweet this page too, as McKee definitely blows all of our hair back just a little more than we expect. After taking his STORY seminar, it’s easily realized that a writer doesn’t know anything until they educate themselves the correct way. McKee is that way. Cheers for posting this! -Andrew Flynn, Phoenix, @drewisawriter.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. I’m jealous you got to to through the Story seminar. Maybe one of these years I’ll make it.

    I think you’ll enjoy the book Carrie. Lots of good stuff in there.

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