FADE OUT. You’ve completed your TV pilot draft, poured a celebratory drink, and slapped "Dramedy" on the front cover.
“There, that’ll sell it. That word brings all the interested parties.”
Then someone tells you that execs don’t like the word dramedy, so you fuss over it and change the title page to read Comedy/Drama.
Choosing a genre can be an excruciating decision, made even more difficult if you don’t understand the difference between comedy and drama.
Spoiler alert! It’s not about whether your script is funny ...
In a comedy, consequences don’t last. If a character loses their job, they’ll get it back, usually before the end of the episode. Traditional comedies end happily, so we’ll invite them back into our homes each week.
Sitcoms follow this rule to the T. In The Conners, no matter how much snark they throw at each other, this family will bond together to solve their issues. In How I Met Your Mother, even when Lily and Marshall break up, we know that she’ll return because permanently separating these five friends would kill the series engine.
There can be death in a comedy, but characters get past it quickly. Take Dead To Me as an example. These two women should not stay friends. They’ve straight-up murdered each other’s husbands—that alone should be a deal-breaker—but because they stick with each other, this series can live in the thirty-minute space. In the Shrill pilot, the main character has an abortion. But because she’s content with her choice, and we aren’t holding in the emotions of how it affected her, it can remain a comedy. Ultimately, nothing has changed, and we go into the next episode resetting the characters and engine.
In thirty minutes, unless you’re the genius writers of Dave or Atlanta, as a general rule, there isn’t time to fully develop the emotions and turning relationships that come from the choices characters make. Traditional comedies like Modern Family pull characters apart because of conflict but bring them together in the end.
You can use this Hollywood adage: comedy is two people in a room fighting who are both correct. The conflict will be more about how the characters get past their differences.
I know I said comedy’s not necessarily about humor, but having an insane joke density will land you firmly in the comedy column. Take something like the FX series Dave. In early episodes, Lil Dicky lures us into his life story with endless jokes about his tiny dick and peeing from two holes, providing an escape for viewers. Audiences who want to watch comedy are traditionally looking for a retreat. This goes all the way back to Shakespearean comedies. So, it is with season one of Dave: he builds a rap career where everyone thinks he’s a joke while trying desperately to hide his small penis from his girlfriend.
If you worry you’re not funny but want to write comedy, try this trick:
Give your characters an obsession.
Characters taking something too seriously is a one-way ticket to comedyville. You can make them want something stupid so badly it’s funny. Think Stepbrothers, about grown men trying to prevent their parents from getting married, fighting over a drum set like toddlers.
Give your characters an absurd goal, and don’t let them give up.
In a drama, consequences stick. Characters break up; they lose; they die. Shakespeare called drama what it is: a tragedy.
The choices a character makes have a lasting effect. We often assume there’s supposed to be zero comedy in a drama. For some shows, that’s true. There’s no relief for the character or the audience in The Handmaid’s Tale; June must rescue her child from Gilead, and she will endure the disastrous and deathly consequences of that singular mission, no matter what. A season four spoiler alert: even when she gets out, and back to her husband, she cannot be happy.
In Wu-Tang: An American Saga, every time the characters win, it’s followed by something horrible. It has us hooked because we love Wu-Tang and want these characters to put their differences aside. We know they must succeed at some point because it’s a true story and these characters made music together. In the 90s, Wu-Tang changed our perspective not only on pop culture and music but also racial inequality. They empowered people of color to create something of their own and on their own. This series allows little levity. The characters must remain vigilant because the stakes are too high if their music career fails: death.
Dramedies and dark comedies manage a delicate balancing act of comedy and consequence. Hacks, technically a dramedy, is about two women desperate to save their flailing careers. The insult-off when these two characters first meet, where neither of them wants to work together, is the funniest thing on TV right now. Fight me. Seriously, let’s set up a debate. A Twitter battle? I don’t know what the kids are doing these days. Tik-Tok, probably. Are Vines still a thing?
In Hacks, when the TV writer character's one-night stand dies, she's obsessed with how she didn't learn anything about him because she talked about herself all night. She's telling the police all about how she's an asshole, rather than being sad about his death, giving us a laugh we need in this dark moment. It falls more on the comedy side, because no matter how poorly these two women treat each other, the engine demands they keep working together, so the consequences cannot last.
And then there are the occasional hour-long dramedies. If this format is your thing, study Jenji Kohan. Check out her recent Teenage Bounty Hunter. RIP to that series—screw you, COVID 19, because that show was hilarious. Teenage twins become bounty hunters while attending a religious private school. I love a series that has the stones to poke fun at mid-America. When one twin goes on a date with her boyfriend, she also hunts a nearby bounty, and it’s a highly amusing physical comedy as she tries to manage both. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend she’s a bounty hunter, so he thinks she doesn’t care about him. Their breakup lasts, and repercussions like this are why this show leans toward drama.
Hour-long Fargo builds a comedic world, with an oddity about the characters that can’t help but be funny, even though they’re murderous. The comedy also comes back to their level of obsession. And the accent helps, too—anything they say is funny. But at the end of the day, this is still a drama, where consequences last.
The word dramedy doesn't fully work in a pitch because execs don't know which space you're working in. Whether or not your series is funny isn’t the deciding factor. Humor can exist in both.
Here’s the deal. If you’re an emerging writer trying to decide, the comedy vs. drama rule is this: if your series is 22 to 30 minutes, call it a comedy. If it’s 44 to 60 minutes, it’s a drama.
Exceptions exist, of course, because filmmaking is an art. Thirty-minute Dave is funny because he’s desperate to be taken seriously as a rapper, except his lyrics read more like a parody. And then, when we least expect it, the show drops a mental health episode about hype-man Gata that will crack any stone heart. I dare you to watch it and not hold back tears. Gata’s friendship with Dave means everything, and he’s about to screw it up, along with his big career break. This series takes the time to show us how the choices the characters make are affecting them and their relationships.
Thirty-minute Atlanta brings stand-up level insults, hilarious dialogue, and physical comedy, but in a high-stakes world where consequences stick. Only Donald Glover/Childish Gambino can show sensitive footage of a Black man nearly hanged while rapping about Human Centipede (in his Bonfire music video.) Atlanta has a way of easing us in so that it can then deliver a shock, and through this, is able to tackle serious issues.
Hour-long Shameless broke all the rules of both comedy and drama, petitioning to be included in the comedy awards at the Emmys. Some didn’t think this was fair because, in an hour, there's time to dig deep into the consequences of alcoholism, poverty, and family while making us laugh so hard we can’t talk. Or pee. Or spit take our whisky. Smile so much our face hurts. Cry. However you react to laughter. Shameless was the best of both worlds. It could have won an Emmy in either category. It’s the moments of levity intertwined with deep loss that makes this series exceptional.
Sometimes a series loses steam when marketing gets the hook wrong. If your audience goes into a series expecting a comedy, but then it gets real, they’re thrown, because it wasn’t the mood they were hoping to experience. If they show up to Atlanta looking for a sitcom because it’s 30 minutes, they’ll be disappointed. Remember: comedies bring escape, and dramas face tragedy.
The later episodes of Dave go full-on drama, even though they’re working in the 30-minute space. This series is breaking comedy vs. drama rules because his choices create a fallout that lasts. Another spoiler alert: Dave loses his sweet kindergarten teacher girlfriend nearing the end of season one because narcissism prevents him from putting her needs before his career.
I’m curious if the audience for Dave will drop off in season two since it’s stressful watching him lose his relationship, friendships, and his mojo when we’re expecting comedy. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t come out unscathed. The writing is brilliant and groundbreaking, but it’s no longer an escape. We are facing real issues. The warning signs were there—we should have known this series would head into lasting consequences because the writers were taking time in season one to give secondary characters entire episodes, allowing those relationships to develop fully. That structure, specifically, is what makes Dave able to break the rules; they don’t try to manage a complete arc for each secondary storyline in every episode, as other comedies do.
When you’re deciding whether your new story idea should be 30 minutes or an hour, don’t worry about whether or not you can pull off Dave-level joke density. Instead, consider this: will your characters face lasting consequences from their choices? Drama. Will everything turn out alright in the end? Comedy.
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)