Laughter is the Best Medicine

Shaun of the Dead — Why Comedy Needs Character

Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. When Edgar Wright directs a film, we can expect— among other things—no shortage of style. “K. O.!” But what tends to make his films so compelling
is his equal focus on substance. When creating Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright
and co-writer Simon Pegg made a point of keeping one foot in reality. “Even though it’s a zombie film, and it’s
kind of like a fantasy, it’s almost plausible. If a zombie epidemic really did happen in
this neighborhood, this might be quite a likely response.” But how do you keep any realism in a movie
full of jokes… “Ed, just get her off me!” …stylized shots… …and zombies? In the case of an Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg film, it’s all about prioritizing character and the world of the story, and making sure everything else only serves
to enhance those elements. So today, I want to explore how to make story
elements grow from the main character… To examine why building a world based on character
is so important… And how the best comedy is often a direct
product of these two elements. Let’s take a look at Shaun of the Dead. In his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby
writes: “In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an
infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.” So if character comes first, that means that
everything in Shaun of the Dead must begin with Shaun, and to understand Shaun, we need to look at
the three basic elements of character: weakness, need, and desire. Shaun is designed to be a kind of an everyman
character. He goes to the same shop every morning, works an unfulfilling job during the day, and goes to the same pub every night. While it’s a fairly comfortable life, Shaun claims that he wants to get more out
of it… “I got things I want to do with my life.” “When?” …but his character’s weakness is his unwillingness
to make the effort to change, and his need is to take responsibility, grow
up, and choose to truly live his life. So if this is the main struggle of his character,
how does it influence the design of the world? Returning to Truby: “To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a
web in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often
defined by who he is not.” Shaun’s roommates are designed to directly
reflect his own struggles. Pete represents an extreme version of Sean’s
need. He’s ambitious, responsible, and financially
successful. And Ed, Shaun’s best friend, represents an extreme version of his weakness, expressing no ambition or responsibility whatsoever. Pete and Ed embody the opposing ways of life
that Shaun is struggling with. And Sean would probably never change if everything
stayed the same, so there has to be some element of the world
that will force him to grow. “You promised you’d stop smoking when
I did! You promised you’d go back to the gym! You promised you’d try drinking red wine
instead of beer!” “Well–“ “You promised things would change!” Shaun’s girlfriend, Liz, feels held back
by Shaun’s complacency, and eventually breaks up with him as a result. Liz’s relationship with Shaun serves to
give him a clear, external desire. In this way, all the important people in his
life are designed to help express his character. But it’s not just the supporting cast that
should grow from the main character, in Shaun of the Dead, the story world is an
expression of the protagonist. Returning once more to The Anatomy of Story,
Truby defines the story world as: “A complex and detailed web in which each
element has story meaning and is in some way a physical expression of
the character web and especially of the hero.” In Shaun of the Dead, a key element of the
story world is, of course, zombies. One of the most interesting aspects of the
film is how they are slowly revealed to the audience, and even more slowly to the main character. At first, we can’t tell who’s been affected
by the virus and who’s just a bored commuter. “Shaun is sat on a bus crowded with blank
passengers; a pasty guy listens to his walkman, an old man slowly nods off. On the street, he sees a young woman faint.” It’s not until the zombie outbreak has found
its way into his back yard that Shaun notices that something is happening. “Excuse me.” While this slow reveal is done largely for
comedic effect, the zombies are not just a random, fun backdrop
for the story… They’re also a physical expression of Shaun’s
weakness— a personification of the part of himself he
needs to defeat. “You can read so much into zombies of like, oh they’re us being an automaton in the
city, and being a commuter, or being a lazy boyfriend, or sitting there
playing the Playstation everyday, Or just being on autopilot in your life.” In the screenplay, Shaun is even introduced
as being zombie-like. “Bare feet shuffle into shot. Slowly we
pan up to see- Shaun. Dead to the world. His face tired.
He yawns.” Not only does the zombie epidemic literally
bring Shaun face to face with his weakness, it’s also the perfect catalyst to force
characters into making powerful choices that they may not have made in any other situation. When Shaun’s stepfather, Philip, has been
bitten and is about to turn, he finally confesses why he was so hard on
Shaun. “I just wanted you to be strong, and I always
loved you, Shaun. There’s a good boy.” And later, when Shaun’s mom is also bitten
and will become a zombie at any moment, Shaun must do something he never would have
done in any other context— take responsibility and make an impossibly
hard decision. “Shaun takes the rifle from David and points it at her. His hands shake, his eyes fill with tears.
His finger tenses.” “I’m sorry, Mum.” “Zombie Barbara hisses and lunges forward.” A zombie outbreak is exactly what Shaun needs
to grow, it’s there to serve the character first
and foremost. But, of course, the movie isn’t all drama
and traumatic choices. In fact, it’s a comedy, and even here, screenwriters
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have made sure that the comedy enhances character. Comedy is largely subjective, but as with
most elements of a story, it’s usually best if it is used to reveal
character. While Shaun of the Dead has some funny, isolated
moments that teach us about the characters, the main source the humor comes from how the
characters react to the story world. – “Purple Rain.”
– “No.” – “Sign of the Times.”
– “Definitely not.” – “The Batman soundtrack.”
– “Throw it.” “Oh!” One of the ways Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
master this is with callback humor. A character will say or experience something
early in the film which helps define them, like when Shaun rounds out an already-embarrassing
work meeting with his pen leaking ink in his pocket… “You’ve got red on you.” …which then is referenced and re-contextualized
by the events of the story world later on. “You’ve got red on you.” Another example is when Shaun gives Ed advice
while he’s playing a video game early in the film… “Um, oh…top left… I was just going to say…reload.” “I’m on it.” “…since…ooh nice shot.” “Thanks.” …which Ed then repeats to Shaun at the end
of the movie when he’s killing zombies. “Top left!” – “Reload!”
– “I’m on it!” “Nice shot.” But perhaps the most effect example of callback
in Shaun of the Dead comes about as a result of this joke: “I’m sorry Shaun.” “It’s alright.” “No no, I’m sorry Shaun.” “Shaun puzzles, before his expression turns
to disgust.” “Oh my god that’s rotten!” “ I’ll stop doing them when you stop laughing.” “I am not laughing, I’m going.” It’s a brief interaction early in the film that
serves to illustrate their relationship, but it’s brought back at the end of the
film in an entirely different context. Ed has been bitten, and offers to stay behind in the basement
of the pub in order to help Shaun and Liz escape. As Shaun is hit with the gravity of losing
his best friend, he apologizes to Ed for having shouted at
him, to which Ed replies: “I’m sorry too.” “It’s okay.” “No no, I’m sorry Shaun.” “Shaun puzzles, before his expression turns
to disgust.” “Oh god. That’s not funny.” “I’ll stop doing them when you stop laughing.” “I’m not laughing.” This is the culmination of everything Shaun
of the Dead does so well. A bit of humor that expresses character, reframed by the context of the story world
in a way that affects us emotionally. If you strip away the outer layers of the
movie, it has the foundation of a simple drama about a man who needs to change his life in order to
save his relationship. Add in zombies, and you have a drama-slash-horror
film where the protagonist will die unless he finds
the courage to transform the way he lives his life. And finally, add comedy into the mix and you
have a “zomromcom,” where the humor, characters, and story world
all emerge organically from the hero of Shaun of the Dead. In reality, the imminent zombie invasion is
no laughing matter. And if you’re looking to learn skills that
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20,000 classes for free. Thanks to Skillshare for sponsoring this video. Hey guys, hope you enjoyed the video. If you want to follow me as I do various creative
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100 thoughts on “Shaun of the Dead — Why Comedy Needs Character

  1. This is my favourite movie and nothing will change my mind

    Also Edgar Wright is my favourite director and all of his movies are great, including “the worlds end”

  2. Lol someone should create a YouTube channel dedicated to the deconstruction and analysis of this channel's ability to so perfectly and cleverly segue into a Skillshare advertisement 👍

  3. I never realized that the video game Shaun & Ed were playing was Time Splitters 2. Who knew that Edgar Wright had such great taste in zombie-filled video games?

  4. I like zombie land as a satire too. That is how I got into watching Shaun of the dead. It was better than expected.

  5. They aren't his strength and weakness. They're just two opposites to contrast. There's nothing strong about being a cold, boring, jerk that only cares about work and there's nothing weak about being a fun loving couch potato that sees the pointlessness of being someone else's pawn in the pursuit of wealth (a wage slave).

  6. And this is what movies like Venom, or the Predator or Justice League miss when trying to mimic Marvel's humor. There needs to be a clear set personality and character underneath it to make it work. The movies I just listed use comedy as a replacement for character, rather than using character to supplement the comedy. Which unfortunately makes the comedy hollow and forced.

  7. Okay, I thought you were going to shit all over this film and I was gonna write a fuck off paragraph but we are all good

  8. I think you're looking too deeply into this movie, it's a mick-take of american zombie movies because they're typically cheesy and end with the main characters being gun toting badass, in Britain we'd literally close the curtains and wait for it all to blow over

  9. Do you think you'll ever do a video on hot fuzz or world's end? I love SOTD and HF but felt weirdly let down by TWE. Would love to see your take on it especially, as even with favorite movies (e.g. SOTD!) I always come out of your essays feeling like I've gained a much deeper and fuller appreciation for what I already loved.

  10. no mention of the symmetrical story telling? That the film's first and second half are an inverted mirror of each other, opening and closing with the exact same shots, and playing all the exact same scenes in the exact same places in reverse, except some characters are now zombies? It's not just repetition. It's genius on a level rarely seen in filmmaking.

  11. Now people understand why critics love this movie so much.

    It’s so layered. All the hard work on character and the incredible script has paid off.

  12. You NEED to watch the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost TV show "Spaced" to get all these films. Anyone watching them without that grounding are missing out on so much

  13. "Is the coast clear?
    Shaun: No…
    How many?
    Shaun: Lots…
    LOLOL!!! One of the great sight gags, Shaun tiny stepping up the slide, a few seconds, tiny stepping down and we get the above dialogue…BRILLIANT!

  14. We in America could never produce this kind of take on the zombie genre— from the time I saw "BEDAZZLED" in 1968 and "The Magic Christian" in 1969 (at the age of 9) I knew I was forever besotted by British cinema…and particularly comedy. Simon Pegg is a renaissance man; he can act (comedy or dramatic), he can write with the best of them AND—he can handle his drink like a proper gentleman.

  15. "you ever take a shortcut before?" I love the way that this is a running gag too. Shaun of the dead- Falling over and breaking the fence, Hot Fuzz- Actually jumps the fences however his partner breaks the fence again. A worlds end- The entire fence row breaks. Its like an easter egg whilst being a comedic joke. That is the best part of the directing of these movies.

  16. No matter how many times i see this movie, i enjoy it. The acting, humor, screenplay, foreshadowing, zombies…everything is so fckin good

  17. I dunno who has it worse… Sean: for needing zombies in order to grow (06:20) or me: for needing to clean my apartment in order to grow.

  18. Watching this after seeing the dead don't die and it's exactly what that movie missed! The characters don't grow or change at all making the story feel pointless

  19. I like that this brings up callback humor because I've noticed that callback humor as well as subtle humor seems far more prevalent in UK creators than it is in US creators. I'm not sure if it's just because I haven't seen enough of either to know otherwise though/

  20. I watched this film beforebut I never noticed that callback humour part. Thanks for pointing it out, it really makes me appreciate more of the geniusness of this film.

  21. That is a thhhhhhhhhhin link to the sponsor, this particular time around… the real (??) zombie apocalypse is imminent… is it? Is it really….?

  22. God I loved this movie. A real love letter to the zombie genre. Of course this was before the market became oversaturated with zombie content. If you'd have told me when I was 13, or 20, or even 30, that I'd end up getting burned out on zombies I'd have thought you were crazy.

  23. Are homosexuals just naturally attracted to filmography or is their obnoxious style of speech just becoming more common place?

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