Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.
Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”
No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet, asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.
Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.
How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
Not because the director the same amazing man behind THE BOURNE IDENTITY. And not because Emily Blunt and the other supporting actors nailed it.
I almost didn’t see this film because of my antipathy for Tom Cruise, and yeah, I’d lost respect for him the last few years. But this bit of cinema goes a long way toward rehabbing Cruise as a blockbuster star, though not for the reasons you’d expect.
Warning: spoilers. Also, I refer to action heroes as “he” for simplicity, and yes, Ronda Rousey and other female action stars are amazing.
5) Reversal of tough-guy expectations
Most action stars have an actual background in Being a Tough Guy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of bodybuilding. The rest of the cast of THE EXPENDABLES 12: ANARCHY AT THE AARP MEETING is full of martial arts maniacs, pro wrestling hulks and mixed-martial arts studs.
The fact that Tom Cruise is short in real life isn’t an impediment here. Jackie Chan, Jean Claude Van Damme and Jet Li could all fit in the back seat of a Yugo.
Doesn’t matter. They look big and tough on screen.
The difference? While he did all his own stunts in this movie, just like the toughest Tinseltown tough guys, Tom the Cruise can actually act. Shockingly, acting ability tends to matter on the big screen.
4) Humor that’s deeper than one-liners and puns
Another staple of action movies is a bit of comic relief to balance out all the explosions.
Bond is notorious for bad puns, like “She always did like a good squeeze” after Remington Steele dispatched Onatopp, who later fell in love with Wolverine.
Schwarzenegger is famous for his one-liners, too. I’ll say the phrase and you’ll know the movie:
“I’ll be back.”
“Consider that a divorce.”
For action stars, that’s about all the humor than can typically muster, unless their name is Jackie Chan or Jason Statham and they know how to make a fight itself funny.
The humor in action movies is almost always about other characters. The hero is a straight man.
EDGE OF TOMORROW has humor throughout, and it’s far more sophisticated and varied than puns, one-liners and physical gags.
That takes actual acting chops, which Tom has. He uses them, often to get laughs at the expense of his own character. It’s different and refreshing.
3) Acting range
ROADHOUSE is a cult classic that turned Patrick Swayze into a believable action hero, if only for one movie, despite the insane chasm between dirty dancing with Jennifer Gray and bar fights alongside Sam Elliot.
But the range of most of these stars goes like this: brooding while looking off into the distance, brooding while ignoring the love interest, brooding while training, brooding while handling weapons and gear and, finally, grimacing in pain while being tortured by the bad guy before he escapes, throws the villain down a bottomless pit and broods while walking off into the distance.
Not a lot of range there. It’s like the famous internet chart, the Many Moods of Batman.
Tom has plenty of range, which he uses to connects with his co-stars — and connect with the audience in a variety of ways. Other action heroes typically focus on a variety of ways of dispatching bad guys.
2) Improving on the graphic novel
The movie differs from the original graphic novel, and this time, that’s a good thing.
In the novel, the alien Mimics reset the day with three separate ingredients: a Server alien, an Antennae and a Backup Antennae.
Bit complicated. And the novel has the Emily Blunt character turn on the hero at the end, because she figures out she’s the Backup Antennae and the day will keep resetting unless the hero kills her.
This is all too Connor McCloud vs. Duncan McCloud.
The movie simplifies things: there’s an Alpha alien that looks different than the others and has the power — along with the big, immobile Omega brain — to reset the day. If you kill the Alpha and get its blood splattered all over you, that power to reset the day gets transferred. The catch: you have to die, every day.
In the movie, Emily Blunt’s character doesn’t fight Tom Cruise and make him kill her. The climax does something great: it strips Cruise and Blunt of all their powers and gadgets.
Before, she and Cruise both had mech suits and Cruise had the power to reset the day. The climax takes those things away. Cruise only has one shot, one life, and they have to do it without the suits and guns. The stakes are much, much higher.
1) Go ahead and hate him in Act 1
A huge weakness of most action movies is there’s no character arc, no growth.
The hero is a smooth, handsome killer in Act 1. He breaks necks (and hearts) in Act 2 as a warmup, then mows down an army of bad guys in Act 3.
The hero doesn’t really change: he’s awesome the first time you see him, the most skilled and deadly killer around, and it takes an army of bad guys to even match up with him.
In this film, Cruise’s character starts out as a jerk and a coward. Not a little jerk. A big one. And not simply a coward, but a soldier who tries everything to avoid going to the front lines.
So if you started out disliking Cruise, as I did, his character isn’t trying to change your mind. At all. He isn’t saving the cat (Blake Snyder!) in the first scene. The script embraces your ambivalence or dislike of Cruise, and the movie works better if you don’t have a TOP GUN poster in your bedroom and all of his movies on BluRay.
Because the more you dislike or hate Cruise in Act 1, the bigger the journey will be by Act 3 — and real momentum comes not via intensity, but from the emotional distance traveled. If you love a character in Act 1 and love him in Act 3, there’s no journey.
The script doesn’t flip a magical switch, either, and say, “Okay, now you’re supposed to love the guy from here on out.”
Cruise’s character evolves, slowly, and not always in a linear way. There’s a great scene where he gives up. Instead of fighting the same battle on that beach for the 159th time, he steals a motorcycle, goes to London and has a giant pint of beer. This isn’t a throwaway scene. The director, and screenwriter, are surprising us by letting the character make different choices. The hero isn’t your typical action hero robot, plowing ahead to save the day no matter what. He’s human and flawed.
In the end, Cruise’s hero sacrifices himself to protect others. There was a lot of resistance, internally, to him making those choices. His character didn’t always do the heroic thing.
So there’s more to saying this movie is like GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with INDEPENDENCE DAY, and yes, I bet somebody on YouTube already posted a mashup called GROUNDHOG INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Bill Murray’s character in GROUNDHOG DAY also starts out as a selfish jerk. There’s no single moment that turns him into a nice guy. He does bad things and makes all kinds of bad choices. Only in the end does he figure out that becoming a better person takes more than charm and wit. It takes sacrifice and selflessness to get him there.
EDGE OF TOMORROW might have worked with another, unblemished actor. Matt Damon is talented and worked with this director before, and he put on a similar mech suit in Elysium, so I bet he could strap it on just fine. But the movie wouldn’t be as good.
Let’s give props to Tom Cruise: just as Robert Downey, Jr.’s past troubles helped make him the perfect choice for Tony Stark, Cruise’s long rise and fall from grace helped make him the perfect person for this movie. He nailed it in a way that a lesser known – and better liked — actor simply couldn’t.
On the airplane to Germany and back, I saw many, many movies.
Some were good. Some were terrible. Though my record of seeing something like 5,982 films on a flight to Dubai wasn’t broken, I saw plenty.
Two movies made a real impression for entirely different reasons: ONE DAY starring Anne the Hathaway and THE DESCENDANTS starring George the Clooney.
First up: ONE DAY.
Anne Hatheway — Catwoman this summer in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES — is a good actress in this bad movie, which smelled strongly of Nicholas Sparks.
Here’s the plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, girl gets hit by a truck and dies.
I kid you not.
When the truck smashed into Anne the Hatheway, I wanted to throw cutlery at the screen.
Then there was 10 minutes of the boy, Dexter, being sad about the love of his life dying like that. The End.
But maybe my sleep-deprived brain was being grumpy. So when I got home, I fired up the Series of Tubes and hit Rotten Tomatoes to see what professional critics thought of this movie, and they thought it stank up the joint. This reviewer hits it on the head.
HOWEVER: Let’s dive into why the movie rubbed audiences and critics wrong. The acting was fine. The dialogue was good. The episodic thing of showing one day per year of their relationship didn’t hurt the movie that much.
It was the structure and storytelling. The bones were all wrong.
ONE DAY is like sucking all of the comedy from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and replacing the laughs with misery, then making sure the ending left the audience mad.
Love stories should make you believe in the power of love, not make you think, “The love of my life might get hit by a truck tomorrow, so why bother?”
Up until the truck hits Anne the Hathaway, she’s the focus of the movie, the protag, the heroine. It’s really her POV and she’s quite sympathetic while the boy, Dexter, is a charming jerk. After she’s randomly smashed by a truck, the POV and focus shifts entirely to Dexter for the last minutes of the movie. He wallows in misery. He gets drunk, starts fights in nightclubs, blah blah blah. Then he takes his daughter up to the same hill that he and Anne walked up when they first met and credits roll. Oooookay.
There are rules for (a) love stories, (b) tragedies and (c) horror movies. Rules that make sense for audiences and writers alike.
It’s not really a love story when your heroine gets hit by a truck for no reason. Not a tragedy, either, because tragedies require heroes who fall from grace. They cause their own downfall.
Anne the Hathaway didn’t do anything to deserve her death. Neither did she sacrifice herself for a cause, which would’ve made her death meaningful. Tom Hanks dying in PRIVATE RYAN sucked, but you understood why he did it: to save Matt Damon.
Now in horror movies, it’s perfectly fine for the boogeyman to kill any character in any way, but horror movies are really about punishing sin, with the monster going after lusty teenagers or silly scientists who think they can play god. Everybody dies in the end.
ONE DAY was bad because all sorts of things just happen for no reason.
Dexter randomly gets fired from his TV host job.
His first wife randomly cheats on him, so they get divorced.
Anne the Hathaway randomly gets pancaked by a truck.
If you’re doing a French existentialist movie in black-and-white with subtitles, that sort of thing is fine. Life is meaningless! Personal choice is an illusion! Things just happen!
Good love stories, good tragedies and good horror movies work because things don’t just happen. Characters make choices. Bad choices tend to get punished. Good choices eventually get rewarded. That’s a story.
Verdict: Rent it on Netflix if you want to get truly mad and need to pre-funk before the main event.
THE DESCENDANTS is an entirely different movie, and not just because it has George the Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt instead of Anne the Hathaway pretending to have a British accent.
There is a parallel: George’s wife dies in this movie. She’s in a powerboat accident right off and spends most of the movie in a coma before dying.
Now, that sounds sad, and superficially close to ONE DAY. Except it’s not. The wife isn’t the center of the movie.
The A story is George’s relationship with his two daughters, which isn’t great at the start of the movie. His young daughter keeps getting in trouble at school and his older daughter is in a boarding school to shape up.
The B story is whether or not George, as trustee of 25,000 acres of ancestral land — virginal, undeveloped land in Hawaii — will sell the land and turn it into golf courses and condos.
George’s wife is also a thrill-seeker who (a) does dangerous things like ride really fast in power boats and (b) was cheating on him. Also (c) she isn’t the protag for 3/4ths of the movie, as Anne Hathaway is before getting thwacked by that random truck.
So it makes story sense for George’s wife to get injured while riding too fast in a power boat with a man who’s not her husband, though this is a different man than the one she’s sleeping with.
And it makes story sense for the man she is cheating with — who is also married with kids — to get punished. This happens after George and his daughter visit and the man’s wife figures things out.
To get me to watch ONE DAY again, you’d have to hand me a stack of purple euros and an endless pitcher of margaritas, and even then, I’m 50-50.
I’d happily watch THE DESCENDANTS again. There are plenty of neat little moments throughout, like the obnoxious surfer-stoner friend of the daughter who turns out to be kinder and wiser than he looks. George is also happy to look goofy, like whenever his character runs, which is hilarious. He doesn’t insist on being a movie star.
This is what I like about George and his OCEAN 11 buddies Brad Pitt and Matt Damon — despite being voted Sexiest Man Alive, none of them care about looking stupid. They take risks. They roll the dice with movies big and small.
THE DESCENDANTS is a small movie that says big things. There are no CGI effects. It looks like a no-budget indie movie. And you don’t care, because the story is good.
George suffers, sacrifices and grows. He learns how to be a dad for his daughters, and makes the right choice by not selling all that land, consequences be damned. Things happen for a reason, and nobody gets randomly hit by a truck.
You leave the movie feeling hopeful, and a little wiser.
Verdict: Buy it, if movies can still be bought and stored on the cloud or whatever.
I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.
How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?
The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.
Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.
Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.
The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.
Bad writing is all bad in the same way.
People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.
Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!
You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.
It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.
Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.
The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.
A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.
This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.
Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.
That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?
Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.
The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.
I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.
Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.
Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.
Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.
ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.
The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.
Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.
He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.
Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.
To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.
The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.
If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.
If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.
Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.
George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.
All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.
Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.
Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.
For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.
LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.
Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.
Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”
That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.
Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.
Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.
Specifically, comedies target an institution.
Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.
Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.
The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.
Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types
There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.
Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.
Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.
This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!
But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.