Why Good Comedy Needs to be Serious

By G. Connor Salter, a professional writing student at Taylor University

I loved the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So, I was both reluctant and excited to see the sequel. As it turned out, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 was surprisingly boring.

It wasn’t so much that the script was bad. The writing wasn’t as great as the first film, but many of the jokes by themselves should have worked. So, why didn’t they work?

I would argue the primary reason the jokes didn’t work was due to the movie’s tone. The movie’s general atmosphere made the plot too silly to appreciate the jokes.

That sounds like a strange critique to make of a comedy film. How can a comedy film be too silly? Well, let me explain.

There are many ways to define and analyze what makes a story funny. But one of the most consistently funny things is absurdity. Absurd things are illogical, they have no logical connection to previously mentioned ideas. They’re the last things you expect.

So, to have absurdity in a story, the audience must first have a sense (based on prior experience or on the tone the storyteller creates) that things are supposed to go a certain way. Then a joke comes in that totally goes against that sense of order.

For example, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail viewers see the Black Knight get his limbs chopped off multiples times, but he keeps saying “Tis but a scratch!” or “I’ve had worse.”

Most of these responses aren’t particularly clever, they’re like the things toddlers say in arguments. But in that scene, the Black Knight’s responses become funny because viewers know a knight fighting a duel should admit defeat after losing limbs.

If viewers didn’t know that already, the scene introducing the Black Knight (him fighting a very serious battle), the dramatic music as he starts fighting King Arthur, and the fact King Arthur keeps protesting (“You’ve got no arms left!”) reinforce that belief. Knights lose duels when they get wounded. But this knight refuses to admit it, and it’s so funny to watch.

So, sometimes the secret to making comedy work is to give your story a serious tone. You tell the story in a dramatic way, so the audience expects serious things to happen. You include serious moments in the story and make them feel genuinely serious.

If you’re making a film, you use lighting, music, and camera work that suggests a dramatic atmosphere. You may also tell actors to “play it straight,” as if they’re acting in a serious movie or play. Then the jokes come in and that contrast makes the jokes funny.

That’s why My Big Fat Greek Wedding works.

The atmosphere doesn’t make everything feel silly. In fact, some scenes are genuinely serious, and the movie makes them seem serious. Even when the acting gets over-the-top, it comes across as theatre acting, not campy acting. So, the movie generally feels serious – and then the jokes come, and you laugh so hard.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 meanwhile, makes everything feel kind of silly. Even when there are dramatic moments, they don’t have the same impact. Since everything already feels kind of silly, the jokes don’t have as much contrast, and they don’t feel nearly as funny.

It’s like watching a stand-up act where the comedian comes out and says, “I’m gonna tell you a joke, okay? It goes like this…”

If you’re writing a comedic story and it doesn’t seem to be working, consider making the story feel serious. That may be what the story needs to make the jokes really shine.

One comment

  1. Great observation, Connor! I think a huge component of this is that the characters are serious about the situation. If the characters are legitimately and emotionally invested in a plot, then they will have expectations/plans for making that plot go in their favor. When the plot deviates from that plan, that provides the “contrast” you were talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

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