Your Comedy needs Drama
I recently watched the 2009 buddy comedy THE HANGOVER, and I felt the need to write an article about it. If you haven’t seen the movie, some of this might be lost on you, but the core of what I want to talk about is the engine that keeps the movie running – and how masterfully it was executed – which does not require you to have watched it.
Let’s dive in!
Well, first – a recap of the plot: Three buddies wake up from a bachelor party in Las Vegas, with no memory of the previous night and the bachelor missing. They make their way around the city in order to find their friend before his wedding. Hilarity ensues, with stand-out moments like: Mike Tyson and a tiger, tasers in the face, marrying a stripper, finding a baby in their hotel room, being beaten by a naked Asian man, and winning $80k in Blackjack.
Yes, this move is a big, summer, block-buster comedy, that on the surface is full of sleezy jokes (making a baby air-masturbate at a table), mostly deplorable characters, and from what I remembered a very “bro-ey” vibe to the whole tone of the movie. It is, after all, four dudes going to Vegas to willingly engage in less than gentlemanly activities, lie to their significant others about it, and generally act like college age frat boys. THAT and because it was made back in 2009, there are some highly dated jokes, slurs, and portrayal of women that were admittedly hard to stomach, BUT!!!! I can’t deny that the structure of the story, plots, twists, set-ups and payoffs, was incredibly well done!
Let’s take a closer look.
The primary engine that keeps the story running is a very simple question: What happened to Doug? Where is he? Is he dead? Is he in jail? HOW are they going to get back home for his wedding!?! The stakes of those questions are present in EVERY SCENE and add a gravity to the movie that honestly makes the film much more than cheap jokes and big set pieces.
The writers, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, also play with the timeline quite a bit and do it in a way that has the audience piecing together what happened the night before, WITH the characters. It’s SO satisfying. There are constant plot twists and reveals that propel the movie forward in a seemingly new direction every 5-7 minutes.
Point being is this, I believe newer writers tend to write comedy scripts (features or pilot) without considering how essential the dramatic stakes of the plot are. Judd Apatow said once in an interview I heard that his comedy movies are just dramas with jokes throw in. That blew my hair back when I heard it, but I think it’s incredibly important to understand.
If you are going to write a comedy, do not neglect how dramatic the beats of the story need to be. Hangover is a shining example of a movie that could honestly work as a straight drama. It wouldn’t be very good, haha, but the story stands alone as a wildly dramatic tale of three friends desperately trying to find their lost friend. For that reason, I think it’s worth watching and studying as a benchmark for how the engine of a comedy-feature should run.