Fish out of water – Elements of Comedy

Scene from the classic fish out of water movie "Some Like It Hot"
Scene from the classic fish out of water movie “Some Like It Hot”

When creating comedic scenes and premises, there are a lot of tried-and-true devices and formulas we can work with. One of my favorites is fish out of water.

So what does fish out of water mean?

It’s very much like it sounds. A fish out of water scene entails a character (the fish) being outside of their normal environment (the water).¬†Look at some classic movies and you’ll see examples of this everywhere. One of my favorites is Trading Places, with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy (they were so young and edgy then…ah…those were the days). Another is Being There, with the late, great Peter Sellers.

In Trading Places, Dan Akroyd is a yuppie, pretentious stock broker who has never worked a day in his life. Eddie Murphy is a homeless con man without a penny to his name. In the movie, they basically switch places (thankfully not because of magic and they don’t take over each other’s bodies). Eddie Murphy gets the pampered treatment and Dan Akroyd loses his job, fiance, house, and everyone he knows. Despite this sounding like some tragedy, the movie his hilarious. Even when Dan Akroyd tries to shoot himself in the head, we laugh. Why? Because we’re all sick.

Establish the character

The first step in a fish out of water scene is to establish your main character. Establish their normal. For some characters, we have assumptions of normal based on who the character is. For example, your character could be a priest. As readers, we have a preconceived notion of what a priest would and wouldn’t do, and where they would and wouldn’t go. Their normal setting is in a church, or a community center. Now, let’s mess with ’em.

Change the environment

A priest doing his normal thing in a church doesn’t have much comedic potential. But let’s put that priest in a strip club. Now we’ve got something to work with. Just those two elements together have created tension. Tension, in physics, is equal to comedic potential (trust me on this, I’m a scientist).

You can get a character into a new environment without much work. In fact, you can just start with the character in the environment to start with – something a lot of sketch comedy scenes do. But this isn’t limited to just sketch. Think about scenes in your own writing. Are there places where the character can be drawn into some place where they normally wouldn’t go? Take them there.

Stay with the character

Keep telling the story from the character’s perspective. Describe their nervousness and apprehension. What’s happening to the character on the inside? How are they plotting to escape? Stay with them and let us experience the scene through their eyes.

Put them through hell

Trading Places - Dan Akroyd Santa
Dan Akroyd at his lowest in Trading Places

As humans, we’re a pretty sick lot. We like watching people go through terribly awkward things (see also: America Idol). It’s one of the foundations of comedy, because it builds tension. So how do we throw more comedy potential into the scene? We heighten it. That priest is now getting a lap dance (but let’s pretend he’s not enjoying it). We can keep heightening and heightening, but at some point the character would just walk away, right?

Give them a reason to be there

The character needs to have a reason to be in the scene. There is something that they are after that makes them willing participants in this strange world. That adds to the heightening and means that the character’s going to let the environment push him to the breaking point. It also speaks volumes to us, as readers, about the character’s will. It gets us on the character’s side. Now we’re cheering for him/her.

Let the character be won over

One way to end the scene is to have the character leave it. That’s not too funny. It removes the tension and doesn’t usually pay off.

The other (and better) way is to allow the character to be won over by his/her environment. With our priest friend, he might not fully embrace the idea of a strip club by making it rain on stage, but maybe he sets up a confessional next to the Champagne Room. Or, you know, something funny.

Scenes, sketches, movies, novels

Fish out of water is a well tested formula for creating tension and comedic potential. If you’re writing comedy, hopefully some of these tips above can help you pace out scenes and build some tension that results in some laughs. The nice thing about the formula is that it works on everything from short scenes to movies and novels.

Other examples of fish out of water

There are so many fish out of water stories out there that you probably already know. Here are just a few:

Blazing Saddles РA black sheriff in the old west

Some Like it Hot – Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon pose as women to win over Marilyn Monroe

Big – Tom Hanks is a boy trapped in a man’s body

Beverly Hills Cop – Eddie Murphy is a rough-and-tumble Detroit cop in Beverly Hills