Comedies thrive on strong, specific ideas that are themselves innately comic. 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. 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 Here’s a playwright who liked to take issue with traditional theatrical forms, calling them old-fashioned and outdated.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, 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.
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 themes, but also in the stories we choose to tell.
Excerpted from Samuel French’s Breaking Character