A romantic comedy needs to be two things: romantic and funny. It seems self-evident, but lately articles have appeared in newspapers and on the Internet bemoaning the fact that many recent movie rom-coms are neither romantic nor comedic. So what makes a piece of writing funny? Anne Gracie identifies the following situations:
1. Surprise. We laugh at the unexpected. When we expect one thing and get another it can be funny. An example is the movie “Tootsie”; we expect a woman and find a man dressed like a woman.
2. The Human Condition. There are events that almost everyone can relate to; the run in the stocking on the eve of an important meeting, getting stuck in traffic, coping with family on holidays. Everyone has their foibles and insecurities. What the writer does is takes these universal events and foibles and, perhaps with a little exaggeration, turns them into funny situations. So the family get together over the holidays with the meddling in-laws and crazy Uncle George, turns into an extended stay when a blizzard traps everyone at your house.
3. Laughing at someone else’s expense. Remember “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? In video after video, some poor sap fell, got bonked on the head, or otherwise painfully hurt himself. There was always an element of “As long as it wasn’t me, that was really funny.” It doesn’t need to be slapstick, painful humour; someone getting dumped at the altar is funny, if it’s not you.
4. Truth exaggerated. Take a believable situation and stretch. Underneath, it’s still a recognizable situation, but the edges are blurred. For me, “Flawty Towers” is truth exaggerated. On the surface it’s a TV show about a small, boutique hotel in the English countryside, but you don’t have to dig too deep to find an inept, semi-paranoid innkeeper, a shrewish wife, and an assembly of crazy staff.
5. A comic world. This is a world where the usual rules don’t seem to apply. Often a character from ‘away’ enters this world and is the alien. For example, in “The Bob Newhart Show”, Bob and his wife are strangers in a strange land when they take over a small inn in Vermont. In the British show “Doc Martin”, a proper doctor moves to the Cornish seaside and encounters the quirky village inhabitants, who have their own ways of doing things and living their lives.
The Characters in a Romantic Comedy
1. The characters in a romantic comedy have to be special enough that the reader falls in love with the hero and roots for the heroine. They want these two to be together, sometimes long before the characters themselves realize it.
2. Insurmountable odds must stand between the two lovers. In “While you were Sleeping”, the hero thinks the heroine is engaged to his comatose brother. In “Pretty Woman”, the hero is a billionaire and the heroine is a hooker. Sometimes these insurmountable odds are due to a deception. More on that later.
3. The heroine stands in the way of the hero attaining his external goal (or vice versa; the hero may stand in the way of the heroine’s external goal). In “Michael”, the reporter falls in love with a rival reporter as they pursue the story of the angel Michael.
4. The heroine (or hero) must throw up obstacles to the other character’s external goal and his (her) love goal. In “Mrs. Doubtfire”, the Sally Field character stands in the way not only of Robin William’s external goal of seeing his children, she also stands in the way of him winning her back.
In his excellent article, “Writing Romantic Comedies”, Michael Hauge identifies some elements of romantic comedy:
1. The hero must be involved in a romantic pursuit. He is desperately trying to win (or win back), the love of his life. For example, Julia Roberts pursues her former best friend in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. Ben Stiller goes after his high school love in “There’s Something About Mary”.
2. The hero (or heroine) must have a second visible or external goal. In “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray’s character is desperately trying to get out of Puxatawny, while pursuing a relationship with Andie MacDowall. Pursuing two goals increases pace, adds to the conflict and the humour, and helps the reader to become emotionally invested.
3. The characters in a romantic comedy never think their situation is funny. They are desperate to achieve their goals, and terrified of the conflicts they face. Michael Hauge says: “The driving motivations in romantic comedies actually grow out of immense pain and loss. The plots of the most successful romantic comedies of all time involve unemployment, disease, prostitution, physical abuse, physical deformity, humiliation, ridicule, the loss of one's children, attempted assassination, suicide and death.
The humor then arises from the way the heroes OVERREACT to their situations. They devise fantastic plots, pose as women, adopt false identities, juggle two lovers simultaneously, tell enormous lies, fly across the country to meet a voice on a radio, or do everything imaginable to sabotage their best friend's wedding.”
4. Romantic comedies are sexy. There doesn’t have to be a number of sex scenes, and in fact in romantic comedy movies, we rarely see the couple having sex. But if the characters end up in bed, there should be a clear lead up to that eventuality. It must feel inevitable.
5. Romantic comedies always involve some sort of deception. The hero is often pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Miss Congeniality). He lies to his loved one about his job (Michael, The Secret of My Success), his feelings (Jerry Maguire, As Good as it Gets) or his intentions (Groundhog Day, Roxanne). Michael Hauge says: “This dishonesty is necessary not only to increase the conflict and the humor in these films, but also to force the heroes to confront their own inner conflicts and deception. Only by facing the truth about themselves will they be able to change and grow.”
Have you ever written romantic comedy? Do you like to read romantic comedy, or watch rom-com movies? What is funny to you?