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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Thin Is the Line between Murder and Comedy? Will a Fruitcake fit?

An interesting thought occurred to me the other day which was spawned by a "keyword" search phrase that lead to my website Play-dead.com; the search term was "how do murder mystery and comedy differ?"

I have actually pondered a similar question myself which is: "How can I (and others) get away with writing Murder Mystery Comedies?" I mean, we are writing about someone being murdered and yet, the whole thing is steeped in the compound of the comedy genre and people actually laugh. Come on, if you think about it, there is no way that should work. Murder is horrendous thing, right?

How do you explain it?


O.K. First of all, it's not as if I'm writing something like "Abbot and Costello Meet The BTK Killer" or Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "On The Road to Jonestown".
That would be using something very serious and well known and trying to add comedy to it. That wouldn't really work.

Here's the deal:

The "Poetic License", if you will, for Murder Mystery Comedy has to do with "context". That is, in what "context" do you base something that on the surface is normally a "horrendous thing"?
Is everything in the play set up very seriously? Is the atmosphere and tone of the story very stark, dark and dramatic? Is the victim a very kind and caring person that the audience can identify and sympathize with? Is the crime tremendously brutal and violent? If so, the context of the piece is similar to "The Diary Of Anne Frank" or The Laramie Project. The context is all wrong.

What would be correct context?

Well, how about moving the context 180 degrees. Set up the play in a "not so serious" mood. Establish a tone and atmosphere that is light and slightly satirical. Create a victim that no one has room to identify with or spend one iota of sympathy upon. A character that is perhaps pompous or shallow, or better yet, not very realistic. And when the "horrendous" act occurs - it has all the impact of Aunt Helen belching at the Dinner table. You are not shocked by it, but instead want to laugh.

Speaking of food, I heard a quote attributed to Alfred Hitchcock - I don't have the exact quote so I will paraphrase: - A good suspense thriller should be like a Fruitcake, full of nuts - (again, it was something akin to this) The point is, right from the start of the story, you should get a good idea of what's about to be served. The characters are not rich and developed as in a thick layer cake, no, instead they're a bit nutty. Once the brain registers this concept, the "serious" factor moves out and leaves room for humor.

The bottom line is the characters and the story should be slightly removed from reality. In doing so, you remove the audience's perception away from reality. You place their expectations in correct context and give them permission to laugh. Even at the subject of "murder".

Context and tone are most important when walking the thin line between what appears on the surface to be a serious subject and allowing laughter to prevail. If done correctly, the horrendous can become hilarity.