Elements of Comedy EQ: what makes something FUNNy?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Comedy specifically caters to the emotion of joy. The goal of all comedy is to make an audience laugh. Yet laughter is very culturally subjective, and what makes one audience laugh won't necessarily make an audience laugh in a different place or a later time. To ensure an audience knows they are supposed to be laughing and find a work comedic, comedies use common tropes to define the genre and make the subjective nature of comedy universally understood.

The Fool

The main character of a comedy is a fool, defined as someone who should have the skills or resources to live a noble life but doesn't because of some personal failing. Fools are usually crass and uncultured, but are good, fun-loving people. Comedies can feature many fools all competing for the same goal, like two men after the same woman. A fool isn't necessarily stupid either--fools can be very successful or intelligent in some ways but absolutely foolish in other ways (like in social relationships or family settings). Think of the titular nerds in Revenge of the Nerds--all of them have knowledge on many topics but are foolish when it comes to dealing with the social structure of the university.

Fools are usually given a rational partner as a counterpoint against their goofiness. This type of "anti-fool" is often called a straight man, meaning they are considered normal and play every situation straight and logical. Lucy has Ricky; Fozzie has Kermit; George, Elaine, and Kramer have Jerry; and everyone in Arlen has Hank Hill. The straight man usually solves problems in the comedy with their level-headed rationality, though this is not to say that the straight man is perfect--sometimes, the fool has much to teach the straight man about embracing life and lightening up.


A fool is defined by having a critical personal failing. So what is a fool's failing? Often, there is a degree of stupidity or lack of education, but fools are almost always harmed by their own selfishness. Everyone in a comedy has selfish motivations--they want money, they want the girl, they want glory, etc. This selfishness causes the problems for the fool and his friends. Now, not every selfish character is a comic character (think Agamemnon, Ebenezer Scrooge, or Charles Foster Kane), but every comic character is selfish. The comic fool is always greedy in the beginning. It is only through addressing their selfishness and overcoming their own desires that they gain enlightenment and solve the main conflict. This is why so many comedies have romantic subplots, as lasting and loving relationships require selflessness.

Unrealistic Conflicts

We now have the general plot of the comedy: the comic fool's greed will compel him to do whatever he can to reach his goals, and he often turns to an unrealistic scheme to accomplish these goals. This is the recently divorced father who, instead of fighting in the courts to see his children, becomes a crossdressing nanny. This is the vacationer who, in order to find a buried treasure, will abandon his wife and mother-in-law in the desert. This is the slacker who, in order to gain control of his father's company, will go back to elementary school. The stakes of these situations are just as high as in drama, but the absurdity (or wild ridiculousness) of the situation leads to comedic moments.

But why do comedic characters believe absurd schemes will solve their problems? One, they're usually a fool that doesn't think things through. But even a straight man or logical character can turn to ridiculous means when thrust into ridiculous circumstances, such as those found in the green world.

The Green World

To get what they want, the fool must reverse their circumstances and move from selfishness to selflessness. This can rarely happen while trapped in the grind of regular life, so in traditional comedies, the fool must move to a place where the rules of life are different. In classic comedies from the Greeks to the Renaissance, the fool moves from the city into the forest, known as "the green world" for obvious reasons. Yet the green world is not just a forest--it is any place marked by reversal--what is unacceptable in the city is acceptable in the green world, what is difficult becomes easy, and what is foolish becomes wise.

Few modern comedies force their characters into a literal new place, but the spirit of the green world still exists in that characters are thrust into new situations or relationships that make their regular life seem strange. Usually this is achieved by a character challenging the fool to reexamine how they live life. This could be a romantic interest, coworker, or child--a trope for the past 15 years that accomplishes this is the manic pixie dream girl. The green world, either literal or figurative, is a place of change where anything can happen.


The characters need to inhabit a world of reversal not only to achieve their goals, but also because most comedy comes from irony. Irony is the reversal of expectations and comes in three forms: dramatic irony, situation irony, and verbal irony.

  • Dramatic irony is where the characters think something will happen, but the audience knows something else will happen (e.g., an employee criticizes the boss without realizing the boss is standing behind her).
  • Situational irony occurs when characters act in a certain way and expect a certain result, but the result is actually unexpected (e.g., Wile E. Coyote pulls the string, and in spite of gravity, the rock doesn't crush the Road Runner.)
  • Verbal irony is also known as wordplay or wit. Wordplay is when someone says something other characters do not expect and plays against what a normal person would say in the situation (e.g., a cook needs to make 7 donuts for 13 men and determines he needs to make 28).

Irony becomes the backbone of the joke. A joke is simply a moment where the artist intends the audience to laugh. While entire books and college courses are devoted to how to tell and create jokes, a joke always has two parts: the setup and the reversal. The setup is crucial for the audience or characters to expect something, while the reversal uses irony to surprise and amuse the audience. Some jokes rely on the fool's own stupidity or selfishness harming themselves, while other jokes rely on the fool triumphing over common sense and logic.


Fools cannot change and achieve their goals on their own. The green world is populated with many helpers that guide the fool and help him discover the right way to use his talents. There is often a love interest and a rival the fool has to defeat. Unlike myths, where the helpers assist the hero and then leave, the helpers in a comedy become permanently part of the fool's world. Donkey never leaves Shrek's side. When Lucy and Ricky move to Connecticut, the Mertzes follow. The comedy is just as much about achieving and maintaining a community of friends as it is about the fool accomplishing a goal.

Happy Ending

Ultimately, a comedy celebrates the brilliance of life. The fool is a lover of the simple pleasures in life--love, food, drink, games--but must discover how he fits into the larger world of civilized life. The plot of the comedy changes the fool by giving him friends, allowing him to win, and changing his outlook on life. This all results in the fool leaving the green world happily. In classic comedies, this celebration of happiness was represented in a wedding, the ultimate symbol of achieving love, friendship, and personal worth. As weddings (eventually) generate new life, the wedding underpins the idea that comedies are all about the joys of life.

Comic Subgenres
  • ROMANTIC COMEDY: The largest subgenre of comedy (and romance), the rom-com merges the tropes of the romance to the tropes of comedy. The fool is either single or in an unsatisfying marriage, and their trip into the green world will specifically fix their love life. While most comedies have aa romantic subplot, the character' love life is the main conflict in the rom-com.
  • SCREWBALL COMEDY: Second only to the romantic comedy in popularity, the screwball comedy is a spoof on the romantic comedy: instead of a blossoming sensitive love relationship, it features a battle of the sexes, with the female character often the pursuer and the male character finding himself emasculated. The screwball comedy uses completely exaggerated and impossible situations in order to criticize romance, societal rules, and social classes. The dialogue is not just quick--it is overlapping, loud, and incredibly witty. While the screwball comedy had its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre can be seen as far back as the works of Aristophanes and Shakespeare and as recent as the comedic films of the Coen Brothers and Adam McKay.
  • PARODY: A parody is a comedy that mocks a specific text or type of text, following and upending its tropes and characters in order to laugh at their flaws. A slew of airport disaster films were parodied in Airplane, classic monster movies were parodied in Young Frankenstein, the teen slashers Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were parodied in Scary Movie, and the political speeches of the moment are always the subject of parody in Saturday Night Live. Ultimately, parody requires knowledge of a popular text to understand the topical humor.
  • SATIRE: Like parody, a satire is a mocking criticism, but while a parody mocks a specific text or event, satire mocks the stupidity or hypocrisy in specific social structure or cultural norm and acts as a text for social change. Scream satirized the horror genre and "rules" of a horror movie while Blazing Saddles satirized the idea of the whitewashed western. Many texts contain elements of parody within their satire: Shrek, for example, parodies the Matrix films and The Dating Game while satirizing the success of Disney princess films and their homogenous idea of what a hero can be.
  • SLAPSTICK: Named after a theatrical tool of staged violence, this subgenre revolves around physical pain as a source of amusement. While known for its physicality, slapstick is also known for rapid-fire wordplay and wit. The commedia del arte genre of Italian theatre was heavily into slapstick, a tradition adopted by the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, the comedians of silent films, and the jackasses of Jackass. If a slapstick comedy becomes too exaggerated to the point of being completely unrealistic, it becomes known as a farce.
  • DARK COMEDY: These comedies revolve around an attempt to bring humor into what would normally be a tragic or horrific situation--like a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one. These comedies tend to make audiences laugh and gasp at the same time, as they feel a sense of guilt for embracing mockery of dark topics. Horror comedies like Scream and Happy Death Day, existentially uncomfortable comedies like Uncle Vanya and Mother Courage and Her Children, and surrealist absurdities like Ubi Roi and Waiting for Godot all fall under dark comedy. Even Dante's trip through hell in the Inferno is considered a very dark comedy.
  • COMEDY OF MANNERS: Traditionally of the Victorian Era in Britain, a comedy of manners involves the rich elite trying to solve an easy problem while trying to be well mannered and proper--their own politeness becomes their obstacle. This includes the works of Moliere, Oscar Wilde, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Created By
Brandon Coon


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