How to Write a Comedy Part 2

by Ken Ludwig

Written for Samuel French's [Breaking Character]

Earlier in this series I discussed my view that in order to write a successful stage comedy in the classic Western tradition, it is advisable to create a strong premise for the basic plot. Without such a premise, I argued, a writer is going to have an uphill battle if she wants to create a comedy of any lasting significance. Arguably, there are a few very fine comedies written over the past fifty years that don’t hang their hats on a distinctive premise – ART by Yasmina Reza comes to mind – but it seems to me that they are few and far between.

In terms of classical comedy, even “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” is rarely enough on its own; but “boy meets girl and then girl meets the boy’s identical twin and thinks that the twin is the boy she already loves” is the kind distinctive premise that has formed the basis of one comedy after another in the Western tradition. See The Comedy of Errors, to say nothing of Twelfth Night, Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon and Lend Me a Tenor.

And while television series seem to be able to thrive on chatter without much else going on (viz. Friends and Seinfeld in all their glory), stage comedies don’t seem to work very well without pretty muscular stories to carry them forward. It’s not that television series don’t have plots in each episode. It’s more that the plots aren’t taken very seriously – they exist primarily as excuses for the wonderful chatter of the characters we grow to love over weeks and weeks, then years and years.

The plots in stage plays seem to need more muscle – perhaps because we’re with the characters for a much shorter period of time. Stage comedies thrive on big ideas, large characters and life-changing plot twists. Where would Joe Orton’s Loot be without a bank robbery next to a funeral parlor? To say nothing of the comedies of Michael Frayn, Woody Allen and Alan Bennett?

There are several other equally important ingredients to strong stage comedies, and one of the most important of these involves deception and mistaken identity. If you’re trying to write a comedy – or analyze one, or just sit back and enjoy one on a more casual level – consider what I would call the second ingredient in most classic stage comedies of the past 2,500 years:

Deception and mistaken identity.

Certainly there isn’t a single Shakespeare comedy that doesn’t abound in mistaken identity. But also consider the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Here’s a playwright who liked to take issue with traditional theatrical forms, calling them old-fashioned and outdated. He wanted to forge, along with Ibsen, a new theatre of the intellect that didn’t depend on the ““claptrap” of “artificial” playwrights like Scribe and Sardou who, in his opinion, spent too much time plotting for plot’s sake alone. “Bardolatry” for Shaw was a sin partly because Shakespeare’s plots were so unbelievable. But when Shaw first wanted to get noticed, and then when he hit his stride as a playwright, he found himself returning again and again to classic comic devices.

In his writings, Shaw said that he included such “claptrap” in his own comedies merely to satisfy audiences who had come to expect it. But Shaw liked to say things to try and shock his readers; it was his own form of ironic deception. In fact, he knew in his bones that stage comedies work best when there is some form of deception or mistaken identity woven tightly into the plot.

Thus, in The Devil's Disciple, which is set during the American Revolution, Dick Dudgeon, the hero of the play and the local firebrand, impersonates the local minister, Anthony Anderson, so that Anderson won’t be captured and hung by the British. In the course of his heroics, Anderson’s wife Judith falls in love with him for his self-sacrifice. In fact Judith wants him to drop his deception so he can save his own skin, but Dudgeon insists on going to his death to save Anderson’s reputation, Judith’s dignity, and his own integrity. (Shaw unashamedly borrowed this plot from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. However, unlike the Dickens novel, The Devil's Disciple ends with Dudgeon being saved.)

Deception and mistaken identity occur again and again in Shaw, in at least half of his major comedies, including Arms and the Man, The Man of Destiny, Caesar and Cleopatra, and, of course, his most famous play, Pygmalion. In Pygmalion (and My Fair Lady, which is based on Pygmalion), Henry Higgins spends half the play turning Eliza, a flower girl, into a duchess, and he then passes her off as such at an Embassy ball. In the course of Higgins’s experiment, he also changes Eliza’s soul, and it is this unexpected twist that elevates the play from a simple comedy into something more multi-dimensional and profound.

Similarly, in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer virtually every action in the play is based on deception and mistaken identity. It starts when local booby Tony Lumpkin convinces his sister’s suitor, Marlow, that the house he’s visiting is an inn, not a private residence. (Marlow therefore treats his future father-in-law like a servant-innkeeper.) And it continues when the sister-heroine, Kate, convinces Marlow that she’s a servant in the house, then a poor relation. More importantly, as in Pygmalion, the mistakes are used to deepen the meaning the of the piece. When Marlow refuses to mislead Kate into a liaison because he would be taking advantage of a poor relation, we learn everything we need to know about Marlow’s heart and character.

Thus, while deception and mistaken identity can be relied on to raise laughter in the theatre, the best playwrights also use these devices to take their plays a step further: they use them to add texture to relationships between the characters, to enrich and deepen the characters themselves, and to enhance the meaning of the plays so that their themes toll a little more deeply and spread their light a little more widely.

Finally, film comedies, like comic plays, thrive on deception and mistaken identity. We see it in the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, like It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey where heiresses pose as vagabonds and heirs as butlers. And we see it in the romcoms of today. Think of Jennifer Anniston in, say, Just Go With It, where she plays an office manager pretending to be a wife in order to help a friend. Or Something About Mary where almost every man pursuing Cameron Diaz is lying about who he really is – including Tucker who goes so far as to stump around on crutches and use an English accent.

As a playwright, I’ve always been drawn to deception and mistaken identity for story lines. In Twentieth Century for example, which I adapted for Broadway a few years ago from a comedy classic by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a gentle lunatic named Matthew J. Clark pretends to be a rich tycoon who can save the theatre empire of the protagonist, Oscar Jaffe. This deception, hilarious in itself, ultimately reminds us that money – though it drives Jaffe’s business – never rules his soul, which is deeply rooted in the glory of the theatre world.

And in Leading Ladies, which I adapted from the Duke and the King episodes of Huckleberry Finn, Jack and Leo, two down-on-their luck actors, pretend to be the long-lost British heirs of a rich old woman who seems about ready to die in her family home in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Ultimately the two men confess to their deception because they’ve fallen in love with the two women who can change their lives.

The moral of all this for playwrights writing today is to take the time to look back at the greatest practitioners of our profession and not be afraid to emulate them. Shakespeare took the story of The Comedy of Errors lock, stock and barrel from The Menaechmi of Plautus, which was written over 1,600 years before Shakespeare put pen to paper. And he took much of the plot of AS YOU LIKE IT from a novel called Rosalind by Thomas Lodge written about ten years before the play appeared.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it’s how we, as writers, find our distinctive voices. In trying to imitate the writers we love, our own voices eventually emerge, and these voices are expressed not only in our choice of words, characters and theme, but also in the stories we choose to tell.

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