Zootopia (US title) or Zootropolis (EU title) is a comedy released by Disney during the first half of 2016. The movie was widely succesful and received praise by both critics and audience. This praise is, in my opinion, very well deserved.
Zootopia not only entertains us, but it also gives a great lesson about comedy writing: for a comedy to be really good, its plot should work as a drama. It’s frequent for young writers to try to start writing a comedy with a funny scene, or an absurd situation, but the truth is great comedies always have an interesting plot that could have been written as a drama. Jokes can always be added later.
Zootropolis’ plot is very simple: a rookie police officer gets involved, by sheer chance, in a case that can become way bigger than it looke like in the beginning. A street crook will help her and they will form an unusual police couple which will engage in an adventure that includes contacts with the mafia, mad scientist experiments and dangerous political implications. As you can see, this story could have been told as a political thriller or an “noir” drama. The funny moments (such as the scene with the sloth) are added when the story allows them, but they don’t distract us from the relevance of the case.
This can happen with all kind of absurd comedies. Let me give you two more examples:
- Naked Gun: A rebel detective who won’t follow the rules is investigating a conspiracy to murder the queen of England when she visits the US. The case gets complicated when he starts a romantic relationship with the assistant of the main suspect.
- The Birdcage: A young man invites her fiance’s family to meet his father. There’s a problem: his father’s gay and lives with another man, while his fiance’s family is very conservative and old fashioned. If they find out about his father’s sexual orientation, they might force the young couple to break their relationship.
As you can see, Naked Gun‘s plot could be used for a crime thriller or an action film, while The Birdcage could have been a melodrama. Truth is, pretty much every great comedy in history has a plot that could easily work as a drama. The lesson is clear: if you want to write good comedy, write a good story first, and add the jokes later.