“Character-driven comedy.” I see writers put this down in their bios as a specialty all the time. I admit that I have too.
But what the hell does “character-driven comedy” even supposed to mean? I mean, if you’re telling a story then it should be by it’s very nature character-driven, right?
For me, CDC is your ability to find the moments and laughs that come out of your character’s point-of-view. It’s their emotional response. Their reacations. The way only they can think and speak. If the character is well-drawn and/or we are familiar with said character, we laugh because we know this person.
I think writers identify “character-driven” specialists to delineate themselves from the joke writers. TV writers often get asked in staffing meetings if they’re the joke person or the story person. It’s a dumb question because any comedy writer worth their salt is both, dagnabit.
A good test to see if your character is working (let alone funny) is to pull them out of the piece you’ve written and see if they stand on their own.
I practiced this technique at the Groundlings. The goal wasn’t simply to write sketches with a funny premise. It was to write characters who were real with a unique (and hopefully) funny POV.
Think about your favorite characters. Imagine a Michael Scott or Liz Lemon or Alan Partridge. Bring them out of their worlds and place them somwhere totally different. How do they sound? How do they react? What do they want?
Alan Partridge is a great example of a character who’s comedy comes from his POV. It’s the reason he’s stayed funny through nearly two decades. He keeps getting dropped into new contexts and we get to see how he responds. His character is not dependent on the setup that he originated from.
His POV has shifted over the years but there is enough of him still where we understand the humor. We anticipate what will disgust him, arouse him, engage him.
Drilling down a level further, we can laugh at how he’s evolved and also how he’s stayed the same. Ultimately, we understand what motivates and moves him.
Contrast that with a show that is more joke-driven. Setup punchlines. The best shows make this work because they are constantly innovating on how to surprise you. The laziest shows throw pop-culture references at you. Those Nae Nae jokes are aging great. (They are not)
Veep is a show the masterfully combines both joke and character-driven comedy. The jokes derive from a cynical, power-hungry and crass worldview. Characters are complete dicks to each other. We expect that and its fun and funny to see how writers can surprise us with new absurd ways to torture each other with words.
The character-driven comedy resonates though because it springs from a universal emotion: Frustration.
Everyone feels frustrated. Over-looked. We all feel down and out and like we’re surrounded by idiots. That’s why that show is so funny and why it can push the “likability” of its characters to insane degrees. No matter how far they go, there’s always one hand holding onto a relatable emotion.
So what should you say when you are inevitably asked if you’re a joke person or a story person? Be honest with your strengths whatever they may be. But if you say joke person you better be really funny.