Writing the Action-Comedy

2010 is shaping up to be the year of the action-comedy. Hits like “Date Night”, “Macgruber” and the sure to be a hit: The Other Guys, make you forget about the disasters that were “The Bounty Hunter” and “Killers”.

Right now, the action comedy seems to be the way to go.

The keys words there are: "right now". There's a reason you don't want to write the genre that is currently trending. The genre won't be trending forever.

By the time you get that script written, a whole new fad will be the “end all, be all”.

However, I've worked with writers for a long time, and I know that you'll write one anyway. You stubborn, stubborn screenwriter.

So I figure, if you're going to do something stupid, do it right.

Here are some tips to make sure your action-comedy is a hit and not a miss.

1) Know your Tone:

Pick a tone and stick with it. This is great advice for any type of screenwriting, but especially for the action-comedy.

So many action-comedy’s that I read fall apart due to tone. The script starts out only being funny and then devolves into just action. Or it starts off with light humor and action and ends up as dark humor with heads being chopped off.

One of the reasons (many reasons) that the movie “Killers” didn’t work is because of the switch in tone. It went from an almost James Bond type feel to a slapstick comedy out of the blue.

If there was a consistent tone, the movie may have fared better with critics and more people may have gone and seen it.

And if you do decide that you must switch up your tone, do it no later then at the act 1 break. The later into the script the more jarring the swich will be.

2) Less Action, More Comedy:

First you much understand the difference between an action-comedy and an action movie with some comedy thrown in.

Movies like The Losers, Kick-ass and The A-Team are all action movies with bits of comedy.

A movie like “Date Night” however is a great example of an action-comedy. It’s a movie with comedic characters being thrown into a world of action.

And it’s that concept that makes the action-comedy what it is.

For every gunfight and explosion, there must be double the amount of jokes and gags.

When an audience goes into an action-comedy they expect to laugh at least sixty percent of the time. If they walk out feeling like they just saw “The Expendables”, they won’t be happy.

3) Make us Like Your Characters:

The beauty of this sub-genre is how easy it can be to get the reader attached to your character. Humor is the number one way to get a reader to like your character. Once you get them to like your character, they will be invested when said character is put into danger.

Use that!

I read so many scripts that put their characters in harms way first, then have them start cracking jokes between gunfights. But why should I or the reader care yet?

The best example of this mistake would be in “The Bounty Hunter”. If you were unlucky enough to catch this disaster (8% on rotten tomatoes last I checked) you probably never connected to Jennifer Aniston’s “Nicole” or Gerard Butler’s “Milo”. And why would you?

Neither one of them were good people. They were both self centered and pretty much boring. But worst of all, they didn’t make us laugh! A sin in the world of comedy.

If your character makes the reader laugh, you’ve done something very special. You got the reader to connect with the character. Now the reader will care when your character's life is on the line.

4) Kill the cliches:

There are so many clichés in both comedy and action that I could never scratch the surface in the space I have for this blog.

But if you saw one in a movie or while reading a screenplay, you would identify it as one.

Reversing these cliches or putting a different spin on them can make your script look really good compared to the rest of the pile on the reader’s desk.

Look at the interrogation scene in “Cop Out”. Or the excellent car chase in “Date Night”. Or the entire concept of “MacGruber”, a comedy that spends most of it’s time lampooning 80’s action flicks.

If you’re writing an action-comedy or already have one written, look through it for anything that you’ve seen in another movie.

If you find a cliché, kill it.

5) Don't Bomb in the Third Act:

Here’s the biggest problem when writing action-comedies myself. The third act. How do you create a finale that’s both exciting and funny?

This is a question with no one answer. Every story is different. The best I can do is shine a spotlight on one of the worst third acts in recent history. The third act of “Killers”.

I suggest that every screenwriter should see this movie. You’ll learn exactly what not to do in a third act.

It’s a third act that wraps up the story in the most confusing way possible. Me and my wife looked at each other and screamed at practically the same time, “But that doesn’t make any sense!”

Your third act can not be rushed, confusing or swept under the rug. And in this case, it has to be funny.

Good luck. With an action-comedy, you’re going to need it.


The action-comedy has been around for a long time. After the success of “Date Night”, everyone seems to think it will be the next big thing. And “The Other Guys” may just seal that deal.

Personally I think we’ll be getting more high concept comedies (”The Hangover”, “Hot Tub Time Machine”, “Due Date”).

But who knows? It’s not something that you can predict.

All we can do is write the best we can. And in the case of the action-comedy, the funniest we can.

If you have any tips on writing an action-comedy, please leave a comment below.

And don’t worry, you don’t have to be funny.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote the spec "Five Killers" that became "Killers". My original draft was, as you describe, an action movie with bits of comedy. The studio hired other writers to make it more of a romantic comedy (changing the tone) and to come up with a completely new third act. There's a lot to learn from watching "Killers", but most of the lessons there are really about development and how a script can evolve from the page of the screen. At the end of the day, our job as writers is to write something that inspires many, many people to try and make the best movie they can. And all we can really do is hope they succeed.