Premise: (from Black List) Four dysfunctional coworkers get lost in the wilderness during a team-building trip and must work together in order to survive.
About: April Prosser broke onto the scene a couple of years ago with the big spec sale, Plus One, about a newly divorced woman who’s only got one option for a wingwoman, a loud sexually-oversharing wild card. That film will star Cecily Strong from SNL as the wild card and Jessica Chastain as the divorcee. This is Prosser’s follow-up script.
Writer: April Prosser
Details: 112 pages
Today, I want to ask the question: What makes a good comedy?
Because every time I read a comedy where I don’t laugh enough, I find myself asking that question. And since comedy is the hardest genre to get right, I ask that question a lot.
I can tell you what a good comedy isn’t. A good comedy isn’t one long script where the writer looks to insert funny dialogue lines. And I think that’s how most writers approach this genre. They come up with a concept, they get their 3 acts in order, then they make their characters say funny things every once in awhile.
This results in a lot of “unfunny laughs.” We’re laughing. But we’re not really laughing. We’re reacting to a pre-established paradigm that makes us feel like we should laugh, so we do.
And therein lies the challenge. How do we build real laughs? How do we create those moments where audiences are literally holding their stomachs because they’re laughing so hard?
That’s something we’ll get to in a second. But first, let’s hike through the plot of Rugged.
“Rugged” starts out, uniquely enough, with a montage. In it, Kate, a VP of Sales for a tech company, voice overs the evolution of her three-woman team. There’s Blair, the one who routinely heads to the bathroom to sneak a sip of vodka (or two). There’s Anne, the cold bitchy one who doubles as a professional eye-roller. And there’s Cassie, naive and, some may argue, dumb.
Things started out well enough. But over time, this team has mastered the art of getting on each other’s nerves. Anne is furious that Blair always comes in late. Blair is pissed that Cassidy keeps sending her bad leads. And Cassidy… well Cassidy doesn’t realize where she is half the time. Finally, there’s Kate herself, who’s so bad at disciplining her subordinates that you could say she’s the main reason for all their dysfunction.
Things come to a head when the team goes nuclear just as a major client shows up, screaming and yelling at each other while the client looks on. The CEO has had it and tells Kate to go hike a mountain with her team and work out their issues. Oh, and if they don’t get a picture on top of the mountain, they’re all fired.
Things go about as well as you’d think. None of the girls know a lick about camping. So the bitching and moaning begins the second they begin elevating. On the first night, their unsecured tent goes flying away in the wind, forcing them to cozy up with four male hikers, something no one’s complaining about.
But the next day, they get lost. They realize that when they shacked up with the dudes, they moved off their trail. Which means they could be anywhere on this mountain. And since none of their phones have a signal, of course, they’re going to have to figure this out on their own. Dare I say, they’re going to have to become a TEAM to make it out alive. Are these girls rugged enough? Hold on tight to your bear spray to find out.
The answer to how do we write truly hilarious comedy is complicated. For starters, you have to give us characters we like and care about. If we don’t care about what happens to these people, it’s hard to draw laughs at their expense.
Also, you need to set up clearly-defined conflict in each relationship because you’ll be exploiting that conflict throughout the script for laughs. For example, if a man is hated by his girlfriend’s father, you can play with that, making it so every time the man tries to impress the father, it backfires.
That’s the basics.
Once you have those, there are two main components that will generate gut-busting laughter.
The first is set pieces. And you’re only going to find funny set pieces if you have the kind of concept that generates funny set pieces. For example, a concept where a bunch of drunk dudes wake up with no idea where the groom is the day before he gets married is going to yield a lot more funny set pieces than, say, a concept where an accountant gets fired and has to look for a new job.
So follow along here. Good concept = good set pieces = lots of laughter.
So what is a set piece? A set piece is any moment in a script that contains an important objective that has a big impact on your hero’s overall pursuit. Believe it or not, a set piece doesn’t need to be some giant scenario. It can be, and usually is. But read that definition again. Any moment in the script that contains an important objective that has a big impact on your hero’s overall pursuit.
One of the best comedic set pieces in history was the “answering machine” set piece in Jon Favereau’s Swingers. And all that scene had was a guy in a small room with a phone. However, it met the criteria for a set piece. Mikey’s pursuit was getting over his girlfriend by finally finding someone new. He met a great girl earlier that night. He’d been told, whatever you do, don’t call her for two days. But when he gets home, he can’t help himself, so he calls her. He gets her answering machine. He leaves her a message that he enjoyed their time together and can’t wait to see her, but he gets cut off during the message by the beep.
So he calls again. And he again says he can’t wait to meet. But then starts getting insecure, and starts sounding needy, and tries to talk himself out of it, but gets cut off by the beep. So he calls again. And he tries explain away his neediness and not sound desperate while doing so. But the more he tries to not sound desperate, the more desperate he sounds. And he gets cut off again. So he calls again. You get the idea.
These are the scenes – these cleverly constructed set-pieces – that generate the biggest laughs. Because they build. And while they build, they take you with them. And the higher up the mountain they go, the more that’s on the line, so the more you laugh.
To bring this back to Rugged, it never had any of these scenes. Well, I guess the last third of the script had some. But there weren’t any in the first 2/3. The humor depended more on the “keep writing until I find a funny line for one of the girls to say” approach. And that manner is so tiring to read. Because when someone reads or watches a comedy, all they want to do is laugh. So they’re waiting for you to bring them those laughs. And when all you give them are these tiny dialogue breadcrumb jokes every once in awhile, you feel gypped.
The only other way to get genuine gut-busting laughs is to come up with a great hilarious character who, just by existing, is funny. So if you’re not a set-piece writer, you better be a comedic character creator. Like Melissa McCarthy’s breakout role in Bridesmaids. That character was so weird and so funny. When she stole those puppies, I was on the floor, rolling in artificial popcorn butter, laughing my ass off.
And, unfortunately, there weren’t any super-funny characters here. Everyone was pretty basic. You’ve got the drunk, the bitch, the naive girl, and the overly nice girl. And there’s actually a lesson to learn from this. All of these characters make sense within the construct of the story. You want these people to be real so that you can arc them over the course of the story.
But you then have to find a wild-card super-weirdo character somewhere. It could’ve been a guide. It could’ve been some Old Man Jones they run into while up on the mountain. Because if you don’t have the set-pieces, you need a character who’s their own set-piece. And we didn’t have that.
Anyways, I’m curious to know what you guys think of this and would love to get your thoughts on what makes a good comedy. I have mad respect for everyone who takes on this genre because it’s so damn hard. But I couldn’t get into this.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In coming up with a comedy idea, all you should care about is finding the idea that contains the most comedic potential. It doesn’t have to be a super clever premise, like The Hangover. It could be something simple, like Meet the Parents. As long as you can imagine a haul of funny set-pieces, you’ve probably got a good comedy idea.