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Comedy Screenwriting Craft: Using Metaphors

One of my favorite plays (and films and TV shows, for that matter) was Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, in which a pair of mismatched friends, one divorced and one soon-to-be, decide to room together. On the surface, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger are friends and roommates. As the story progresses, however, their relationship undergoes a subtle but startling transformation.

Take, for example, the scene in which Oscar has set up a date with two stewardesses for himself and Felix. As Oscar comes home, he finds Felix, wearing an apron, meeting him at the door with arms folded. What follows is a scene that almost any wayward husband might recognize as Felix peppers Oscar with: Do you know what time it is? Where were you? Why didn’t you call me? Do you know that the meatloaf is all dried out now? Finally, Oscar blurts out what we all might be thinking: “Wait a minute. I want to get this down on a tape recorder because nobody's going to believe me.  You mean now I got to call you if I'm coming home late for dinner?” Their growing antagonism begins to resemble, metaphorically, that of an old married couple! 

A metaphor, like a simile, is a comparison or analogy showing how two otherwise unlike objects are similar in some way. I define a Metaphorical Relationship as the essential, somewhat hidden, relationship that lies or is perceived beneath the surface relationship. By grafting the squabbling behavior of an old married couple onto the bachelor roommates, Felix and Oscar, Neil Simon creates an instant comic situation.

Metaphorical Relationships work because, while they show the characters behaving in ludicrous ways, the behavior itself is both recognizable and believable. Imagine an adult couple having an argument over money. Now, imagine the same couple fighting as though they were kids in the backseat of a car. The content they cover may be similar, but now the couple might be pushing each other, sticking their tongue out and punctuating their points with, “Did not!” “Did too!” “Did not!” “Too!” “Not!” “Too!” “Not to a thousand!” “Too to infinity!” (Pause) “Not to infinity . . . plus one!” The metaphor takes a serious, perhaps dry, exchange and makes it comic while keeping it connected to a recognizable reality.

Try this as an exercise: Take a conversation between two or more characters. Now place one or all of those characters into a metaphorical relationship. They can both treat each other metaphorically, like the kids in the back of the car; or one can be in the metaphorical relationship, like Felix treating Oscar as though he were the wife while the other reacts to the odd behavior like Oscar does. Or you can have them treat the entire scene in a metaphorical way. For instance, in an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry remembers that he has an old library book he’s forgotten to return. When he attempts to return it, though, there’s a librarian who claims to be a “Library Detective.” All of a sudden, the entire episode becomes a film noir, with all the dialogue and characters reacting as though they were in that style of cinema.

The trick is to keep the characters reacting honestly within the metaphorical situation without destroying or denying the given reality of the scene. For example, in The Odd Couple, while Felix and Oscar behave like an old married couple, it would be incorrect for Felix to actually think that Oscar was his husband, and do something like call him “Darling,” or try to kiss him. Oscar’s his friend and roommate; Felix just behaves as though Oscar was his husband. Metaphorically, that is!

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