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. Often paired with the fool is a straight man, which is a normal unfoolish person that serves as a counterpoint to the fool's insanity and goofiness.

Selfishness

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, some works feature an unselfish community-minded character who is seen as a fool, yet this character exists in works that are NOT comedies. The comic fool is always greedy in the beginning.

Unrealistic Conflicts

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 of the situation leads to comedic moments.

The Green World

To get what they want, the fool must reverse their circumstances. This can rarely happen in their regular life, so in traditional comedies, the fool must move to a place where the rules of life are different. Classically, the fool moves from the city into the forest, known as the green world. The green world is 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.

Irony

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).
Jokes

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 them, while other jokes rely on the fool triumphing over common sense and logic.

Community

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 fools world. The comedy is just as much about achieving a community of friends as it is about the fool accomplishing a goal.

Happy Ending

Ultimately, a comedy celebrates 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
  • 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.
  • SLAPSTICK: Mostly a film genre, this subgenre revolves around physical pain as a source of amusement. While known for its physicality, slapstick is also known for rapid-fire wordplay.
  • DARK COMEDY: These comedies revolve around an attempt to bring humor into a tragic situation--like a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one. Often, some characters have a happy ending while others have a tragic end.
Created By
Brandon Coon
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Credits:

Created with images by WikiImages - "selfie monkey self portrait" • phill.lister - "Leominster" • benjaminfailor - "trees forest green" • Alexas_Fotos - "i beg your pardon marriage proposal excuse" • skeeze - "three stooges joe derita moe howard"

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