An incredibly late post about the comedy writing workshop I went to for the Aye Write festival about a month and a half ago. Overall it was great fun, though there was this one point that I disagreed with. During the workshop endings were discussed and the author running the workshop said that comedies can only have happy endings, and almost everyone in the workshop agreed with her. For her specific genre, which was romantic comedies, what I’ve seen from publishers and readers shows this to be true but there’s a lot of scope for an “unhappy” ending in a comic story. Within context, the correct unhappy ending can either be a.) very fitting to a story or b.) hilarious in its own right.
The next contains spoilers for an old TV series and an old film so, uh, the 1980’s called and spoiler alert?
For my first point, perhaps the most memorable and most powerful example I can think of is the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Set in the WW1 trenches, you can imagine the scope for happy endings. The series comes to a close with the main characters going “over the top” in a suicidal charge infamous for devastating loss of troops. While the episode makes liberal use of extremely dark humour (for example, as the troops wait to go over and Darling exclaims “Oh , we’ve survived it, the Great War, from 1914 to 1917!”), it ends an on especially bleak note. The entire atmosphere of the program seems to flip with three simple words from the overly optimistic, nothing-can-bring-me-down George. “I’m scared, sir.” That’s when it hits. All the characters are going to die. The jokes keep coming but they are the characters’ last words. It’s over. And finally, it ends with Blackadder’s famous “good luck everyone” and they go over the top. The series ends.
It is dark, and unfunny, and brings people to tears. It is also perfect.
The second point, where the unhappy end can actually be a joke by itself, has a few good examples – in fact my favourite film is one of them. Evil Dead II is a comedy horror film, your classic “terrible things happen to young adults in a cabin in the woods” story. Everyone’s favourite one-handed, chainsaw wielding, shotgun-toting white trash asshole Ash Williams spends the film freaking out and killing demons. Just as he finally succeeds, as he triumphs over the horrors and is given perhaps a chance to return to his normal and safe life, he is transported back to 13th century England (it makes a little more sense in the film, though admittedly not much) where there’s an army waiting, expecting him to lead them in a great war against the demons. The film ends with this army chanting that he’s their deliverer, and with Ash stood on a plinth screaming in despair.
Trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds. Ash doesn’t get what he wants, in the most ridiculous way possible, and fits with the “what other terrible things can we do to this guy” humour that the film employs liberally.
So while the advice that certain genres of comedy require a certain type of ending, I definitely don’t believe it’s true for all. Yeah, you probably don’t want your rom-com to end with a tragic double murder, but a war setting has much more flexibility. Blackadder nailed it. Irvine Welsh’s Filth could never be disregarded as a comedy but at the same time really couldn’t have ended well. Wars? Corrupt police? End of the world? A family reunion? All these things have the potential for both comedy or tragedy but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if you ask me. Over running the world with nightmare horrors can actually be pretty funny, but isn’t necessarily going to end breezy. The possibilities for dark endings in funny stories are limitless, within reason.
Remember the magic words: Context and audience.
Anything can be funny if you’re smart about it. Then again, maybe I’m a little twisted.