So You Want To / Write a Screwball Comedy
A Screwball Comedy
is the story of opposites attracting
and learning how to change for the better. It can be seen as a mixture between a Romantic Comedy
and just a comedy on its own. Both genres can be written as balanced or one can take over more than the other.
It's considered an old (and mostly dead) genre with its heyday being in The Golden Age of Hollywood
, but if you want to be the one to bring it back into fashion, you've come to the right place.
With screwball comedies, there needs to be two characters with completely different attributes. Like romcoms, they have a Meet Cute
and spend time together, whether through choice or force, and then enjoy each other's company. Through this, the two of them go through Character Development
— hanging around with each other eventually changes their personalities or their outlooks on life and they gain each other's respect.
There might be a Love Triangle
that tears the two leads apart. One of them could be due to be married to another but getting along with this new person is straining their relationship or making one reconsider. There could be an important job that one of the characters have to do which puts them in a dilemma over their new relationship or the fate of their life/job.
Also, it's a comedy. Include witty lines, play-on words, and lots of slapstick. In a story like this, Slapstick Knows No Gender
Regardless, screwball comedies are usually a mixture of a romantic comedy and a simple comedy; adding more of one genre than another is fine, depending on what story you want to write.
- Do you want your characters to fall in love with each other?: This is the basic convention of the typical screwball comedies of the classic Hollywood films. They often contain many tropes that are used in the current romantic comedies of today, with many of them possibly the Trope Codifier of a couple. You can find many of them on the Romance Arc page.
- Is it just two people that are friends/learn to become friends?: This links more with the comedy genre side of the romcom/comedy dichotomy. They can be/become Platonic or Heterosexual Life-Partners.
To make your screwball comedy work, you need to have the perfect (and typical, to an extent) set of characters. Commonly, the leading characters usually are the wild eccentric and the shy reserve; by the end, the wild eccentric learns self-control and the shy reserve learns to come out of their shell.
The Two Leads
Common female characters: The female character types have a wide spectrum.
- The ones from the most famous comedies of old are cloudcuckoolanders and/or genki girls. In the romantic types, they often drive the male character crazy until he reaches his Berserk Button. They might be very emotional, camp and theatrical; they are definitely very loud and could annoy others around them. It might be a "You're Cute When You're Angry" kind of annoying, or just plain annoying. Often, they show the male lead an exciting side to the world and wins him over. May have a What Does He See in Her? reaction from the rest of the cast.
- Rich Bitches that have to deal with hopeless suitors that are too poor and/or wacky for her. Often an acceptable target for slapstick or being humiliated by the other characters because of this, and can be a bit prudish, too (although, in the world of the classic period of Hollywood, allusions to this are common).
- The Tease that enjoys making the shy male lead squirm in embarrassment. Probably uses innuendo like it's punctuation; more likely a Ms. Fanservice that shows off her legs a lot, who is a Master of the Mixed Message.
Common male characters
- Smug jerkass that needs to be taught a lesson. Reaches a Despair Event Horizon about their previous actions and changes for the better.
- Workaholic that loathes the female's presence because she's getting in the way. More likely paired with the wildest in the list above. Might wear Nerd Glasses and/or constantly seen in a suit.
- Nice Guy who always puts effort into all they do. Slightly (or mostly) adorkable; he's possibly a Clueless Chick Magnet to several women he knows but No Guy Wants to Be Chased. "What Does She See in Him?" everyone asks. Perhaps Weakness Turns Her On. He might fall over a lot.
- If you consider going through the platonic way, you shouldn't call it a screwball comedy because it stars two people. Make sure that they follow the polar opposites factor because that's one trope away from changing the genre of your work.
- Be careful if you consider going into the romantic comedy side of your work. There is a danger that you could change it completely into a romantic comedy. If you are wary of this, consider looking at the page Write a Romantic Comedy.
- Including a Third-Act Misunderstanding can be tricky. You can use it if you want but it's a typical cliche of a romcom. It's often named the most hated trope of romantic comedies and is parodied and subverted a lot because of this.
- Don't be lazy with your characterisation. Do remember that your audience are supposed to like the leading characters. If there is to be conflict between the two of them as they're learning to get along, attempt to make the audience still try and root for them to form a relationship.
- For your energetic eccentric, you can make them annoying to the characters, but try not to turn them into The Scrappy which sickens your audience when you make them fall in love with the quiet reserve.
- For your quiet reserve, if you want them to react negatively to the eccentric's behaviour, try not to make them a one-note whiner. If they come across as a nag with no other personality traits, the audience won't care for them either.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- The common romantic one is an energetic eccentric and a quiet reserve. Through this, the characters Meet Cute and then Hilarity Ensues easily. Through this, the eccentric eventually learns to calm themselves down and the reserve learns how to overcome their shyness.
- Hidden Depths can be used too. The audience can learn not to judge a person after their first meeting.
- Classism is often one that the classic films love to use as well. Rich and poor meet and then learn not to judge people in the other's social situation.
- A more obvious one — opposites can attract.
Commonly, screwball comedies have a plot device to make the two leading characters come together. This allows them to bond and then make a truce (especially if they don't like each other at first).
Set Designer / Location Scout
- To make a period piece based on the films from old, you can base the costumes around the fashions of the 1930s and '40s.
- For a comedy based on class, there could possibly be extremes between the leads to show the contrast of their social lives. In a more obvious approach, the rich character dresses in expensive designer clothing and the poorer character would wear dirty, scruffy rags or clothes that are mismatched in colors and sizes.
With comedies like these, there will definitely be stunt actors needed for (probably) every character, depending on how far you want to go with the slapstick side of the genre. The use of slapstick often breaks haughty characters (one occasionally being one of the leading characters) and makes them as equal as their likeable love interest.
Consider basic slapstick like trips and pratfalls, but you can include the occasional giant stunt (e.g. falling from a building). Be careful when it comes to major stunts because they can get tiresome if you overuse them. The Rule of Three
might be the best option, in this case.
If you want to create a screwball comedy that is like the ones of old, consider these...
- My Man Godfrey (1936): A homeless man during the years of The Great Depression is offered a job as butler to a wealthy family by one of the daughters. The daughter is a wild eccentric that has a crush on her new butler and tries everything she can to win him over. Hilariously, she's not the only woman in the house that has feelings for him because her smug sister, and the maid do too.
- The Lady Eve
- Ball of Fire (1941): If you want to include a Third-Act Misunderstanding, consider looking into this movie, which does a wonderful subversion of the cliched versions of today. It mixes this trope perfectly with Mistaken Identity and Love Triangle through a telephone call between the gangster fiance and the shy English professor.
- The Philadelphia Story
- Libeled Lady
- Bringing Up Baby (1938): In Small Reference Pools, this is often the screwball comedy that many people know when it comes to understanding the genre. In this movie, the two leads bond over trying to transport a leopard across town, despite the leading male character preparing to marry another woman. When the animal goes missing, the situation plays into the leading woman's Honey Trap plan to try and make the male character love her instead of his fiancee.
Other comedies with screwball elements in them...
- You've Got M@il (1998): Although considered a "classic" modern romcom, this movie uses the classist version of screwballs through two business rivals that ironically become closer through the anonymity of online dating. The woman owns an independent bookshop and the man is hoping to open a new one for his company's popular bookstore franchise. You can use the romantic side of the genre, but it doesn't have to be old-fashioned.
- The Thin Man (1934) and the rest of the series: A retired detective and his wealthy wife solve murder mysteries between partying and sips of alcohol.
- As You Like It: Even in Shakespeare's time, there were comedies that had screwball elements. The female lead dresses in drag when she goes to hide in the woods with her cousin. There, she reunites with her crush, who cannot see through her disguise, so he tries to make him fall in love with her through the man she's pretending to be.
The Epic Fails
The 1987 Madonna
film Who's That Girl
. It's often been described as a remake of Bringing Up Baby
, and even has the similarity of being one of the biggest box office flops of the year they were released. However, Bringing Up Baby
managed to be saved through Vindication
, whereas Who's That Girl
has not. A classic example of exaggerating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
character to the most unlistenable
and annoying levels
, as well as pairing her with an equally unlikable leading man and confusing scenarios in the narrative that throw it off guard. It's saying something when the audience and critics found the supporting characters more interesting and entertaining.