The Layers of Conflict in Comedy


Comedy writing is a never ending process of hit and miss. Real laughter is an involuntary action. Even when we shouldn’t, we can’t help ourselves. Comedy is full of contradictions. It takes all the wrong things seriously and vise versa. It makes connections where there obviously aren’t any and fails to see obvious connections: comic divergent thinking.

The Comic Premise

To find the comedy, you need to find the comic premise: the gap between comic reality and real reality.

If you want to catch a squirrel just climb a tree and act like a nut.

  • Real reality: squirrels collect (real) nuts
  • Comic reality: acting like a nut means acting crazy

The difference in meaning is the gap, the comic premise. The best comedy crosses lines of definition. There are all sorts of different gaps, having one thing in common: conflict.

There are three layers of comedy conflict

1 Global Conflict: People vs. their world

  • A normal character in a comic world.
    This character stands for the viewer/reader (real reality) in an odd world.
  • A comic character in a normal world.

2 Interpersonal (local) Conflict: People vs. people

  • A comic character put together with a normal character
  • Two comic characters in opposition

3 Inner Conflict: Character vs. himself

  • A normal character becomes a comic character
    Example: The lead character in the film Big
  • A comic character is at war with himself (without changing)
    Example: a deaf person convinced he can hear

The best comedy storytelling has all three layers: There is a global conflict where he has to adapt to a new/changing world. There is local conflict with the people around them. Lastly, there is inner conflict stemming from changing or being at odds with himself. Example: Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. Global conflict: teachers / parents/ authorities. Local conflict: friends/ Hobbes. Inner conflict: losing control of himself.

Source: Vorhaus, L. The Comic Toolbox