Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.
Of course thanks to Haddaway we laugh every time we ask the question, but it truly is an important question, and without delving into it, our efforts to write a romantic comedy script will be futile. In this third installment of the mini-series (part 2 here, and part 1 here), we’ll look at the motivating factors that can drive a romantic comedy.
Here’s a quick test: type the word ‘love’ into the Tumblr search engine and see what comes up. Chances are you’ll get a smattering of gyrating K-Pop idols, sentiments written in old-timey cursive on paper, and lots and lots of people fucking. Is this what love is now?
Having binged on over thirty romcoms these past few weeks, I think we’ve got a very strange conception of what love actually is. There’s a very blurry line in movies and television between wanting to love someone versus wanting to fuck them, and that’s kind of problematic. The endgame of love, in popular media, is getting to fuck someone, and we know that’s just a harlequin romance fantasy. It’s so much more complex than that.
The act of sex is not love, it is an expression of it. It is one of many expressions that can also include things like getting a card, doing the dishes, hanging up your towel, donating to an animal shelter, or simply listening. In mainstream cinema we tend to default to equating sex as love because a) watching people fuck is good for business and marketing, and b) it feeds into our primal instincts and is therefore the fastest route to universality.
This is also love.
But we all know there’s so much more to it, and that the very best romance / romantic comedies know this. I recently watched the Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color and it is one of the freshest, most startling romances I’ve seen in a long time, probably the best since Once. It has very explicit sex scenes but they are just one component of the complexity of the core romance. There is a great dose of pain in the film, the pain of separation, of not getting it right, of possibly losing this person who makes you feel alive, who makes you feel safe, who you can truly be yourself around. I finished watching the film and said “this is a portrait of true, if not tragic, love.”Love is painful.
For a romantic comedy to be truly epic, it must accept this pain, and the source of its humor will arise from that pain. The greatest jokes come from the uncomfortable truths of the human condition, that we’re programmed to do the impressive mating dance and yet we falter, we have flaws, and we hope and pray that the person we’re interested in can see through all of that.
The mating dance - that most awkward of rituals - is the source of the greatest humor. I see it on the street all the time. A male pigeon puffs his chest and prances around a disinterested female, hoping she’ll be impressed. She’s trying to mind her own, and this clown is flexing and preening, making pretty much an ass out of himself. I imagine a bunch of other birds looking at him and feeling sorry for him, and others angling to cash in on his failure. So now my bird friend has two options: amp up his game and make the adjustments to get the girl, or back down and let the other birds swoop in.
Photo by notablackpopstar.
This is the first act of any romantic comedy. We establish the normal world of the hero(ine), their normal way of life, which may include plenty of failure, or loveless sex, or escape from the pursuit of romantic happiness. The end of the first act arrives with the call to action - the object of affection - and the failure of the normal way of doing things. Our hero(ine) is now locked in - if they want the love, then they’re going to have to make some changes to make it happen. End act one.
The second act is where most romcoms fail, in that the core of comedy is found in the failed attempts to get things right with the object of affection. Today’s romcoms revel in humiliation and mean spirited predatory humor on insecurities. Instead, the second act is the very best place for observational humor, humor that brings up absurdity as opposed to humiliation.
In the second act, the hero(ine) works through their playbook, and fails at them all. The realization then arrives that the normal playbook, be it an ace or pathetic one, will not work in this situation. The midpoint comes when the hero(ine) is shown the error of their ways, and it is implied that they will have to make a great change for things to work out. They concoct a new plan, and the end of the second act is when this new plan, fueled by some kind of courage, doesn’t seem to be working. The second act ends with the character on the precipice of absolute failure - not only do they stand to lose the object of affection, but they stand to be in even worse shape than when the movie started.
We’re still playing it safe here, but the third act is where we really have to dig in and understand what being in love is about. In the third act, now having faced almost certain desolation, the hero(ine) must partake in the final, epic battle for their love. This is the Campbellian “slaying of the dragon,” be it a rival suitor, a crippling insecurity (Hugh Grant was / is the king of this in romcoms), or a fear of humiliation. The hero(ine) steps beyond the limitations of their body and becomes an elemental force of love, laying it all out on the line. Exposed heart, willing to lose the world for their love.
We think this is where it all ends, but there is always one last battle, the villain that isn’t really dead, and comes back for one final swipe. This is the moment of true love. It is that moment when our hero(ine) has their worst fear realized, they overcome it, and a new normal is achieved. That new normal is up to you. It may be tragic, in the idea that is always better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all, or it may be victorious, where the new normal is a coexistence with a new partner in crime.
As aforementioned, this is where we have to dig deep and figure out what is love. For us. It’s different for everyone. But there is one universal factor for true love, and this has been proven over and over again throughout the annals of recorded human history, and that is that true love is rooted in compassion. If passion in Latin means to suffer, then compassion means to suffer with. We suffer for the things we care about, and that’s all what the third act is about. It’s taking the proverbial (and sometimes literal) bullet. True love will not come to you, you will have to make a sacrifice for it, and it is the degree of what you’re willing to give up which defines the epic scale of your love. Sometimes the greatest act of love is simply letting go, and that is the core of the tragic romance. You let go with the hope that they will return, that destiny has it written that you be together. The choice, as it is presented in so many romantic comedies, is not between Hot Guy A and Hot Guy B, it is between you and your conscience. What will being with either guy entail you sacrificing? The greater the sacrifice, the deeper the love. It’s as simple as that.
In my research of romcoms I realized that the great romantic comedies are always romances that happen to be funny. It doesn’t work the other way around. Humor in a romantic comedy is born from brute honesty, observations of human behavior when we are at our most vulnerable, and the missteps that the ego makes us take because we’re too afraid of exposing ourselves as crumbling, awkward people. The desire to appear strong - like the puffed up pigeon - is what is required to have sex for procreation, but the need to be vulnerable - which is born through suffering - is what is required for romantic love. The comedy is in the facade of strength, and the romance is in strength of conviction.
I’m not sure if I’ve cracked the romantic comedy but I think this was a pretty good start. It’s definitely completely out of my comfort zone. But I know what I like, and I don’t really like what I see today. In modern romcoms I’m being sold the idea that romantic love is the only answer to loneliness. This is wrong. The only thing that romantic love addresses is the desire to be wooed, to be pursued. True love is seeing beyond that. True love is not finding the person who is right for you, it is that moment when you are truly at peace with yourself.
Let’s write a romantic comedy about that.