Storytelling in depth: Comedy in 8 easy steps

Community - Jeff Winger - Dean Pelton

“Community” cohorts Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale),
left, and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) hug it out.

Part of a series on the intricacies of storytelling, and how to harness it for your brand …

Dan Harmon tells the same story over and over.

Dan HarmonTo be precise, he uses the same story structure over and over. He’s the mad genius behind “Community,” a sitcom about a tight-knit group of community college students.

Harmon is also a combative, egomaniacal, tortured writer and producer, based on the media reports, his own tweets and blog posts and Hollywood gossip.

Despite his failings, he has created a comedy that deconstructs while simultaneously hews to sitcom tropes. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s an anti-sitcom. And it’s wonderful.

His story structure has eight steps that he follows closely:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

The Splitsider blog shows how he follows these steps on “Community” and in his online comedy shorts for Channel101.com, including the series “Laser Fart” (shown below).

It’s not only a great structure for a funny story, but for really any kind of story.

We can apply the eight steps to our favorite TV and movie plots to understand their structure better. And we can use it to improve our own stories.

What’s interesting about Harmon’s approach is that it subverts audience expectations. We think the hero will get what he wants at the end, but Harmon surprises us by letting him “win” mid-story.

As we talk about our companies and our brands, we must find the structures within each story. Having that framework shows us that we have clear direction and shows the audience that this is a story worth exploring.

We can use those eight steps over and over, as Dan Harmon has used them for goofy short films, an NBC sitcom and the Oscar-nominated movie “Monster House.” (He was one of the writers.)

Even if we’re not mad geniuses, we can tell stories like them.

Video: “Laser Fart,” Pilot

See more posts in our “Storytelling in-depth” series.

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y’all Connect. See his full bio.