comedy (narrative theory) Comedy is a statement or event that causes amusement or laughter. The verbal joke is a particular type of statement, a form of comedy which is understood to be formulated by setting up the joke, indicating a familiar situation, expectation, narrative or circumstance, followed by punchline, which creates an alternative narrative with a defamatory or whimsical version to the idea/narrative presented in the setting up, and then, after the punchline, there is a topper, which can be a comment on the incongruity between the two elements or add to the punchline. The format of the verbal joke indicates that the audience is familiar with the social situation and comedy has this as a basis, a shared understanding of what is socially appropriate or generally assumed which is then subverted by a comic perspective. The punchline transforms what is understood, expected, and it offers a view which is socially inappropriate or fanciful. A joke is presented for approval to the audience and laughter is the positive response.
If a joke’s punchline is accepted it is funny, if not, it is liable to be understood to be offensive, because even as a joke the ideas presented transgress acceptable boundaries, or the joke has not created a successful second critical narrative: it’s disappointing because the punchline is not incisive. The topper can extend the alternative narrative into a second comic observation or comment on the joke, offering an explanation, giving the joke a sense of being a communal idea, the joke teller letting the audience know that everyone shares, or should share, the same understanding of what is being laughed at. This sense that everyone can take a joke or should accept a joke gives the sense that this is a legitimate and possibly fair form of social discourse, but comedy is not just an observation: it is a social commentary, commenting on norms, decrying certain behaviours, pointing out failures and flaws. So, comedy can be coercive, the subject of the joke is meant to accept being shamed, lampooned, made foolish and the laughter is a social ritual: often putting someone in their place.
Comedy disrupts and undermines so it can be socially subversive, but this has its limits. Comedy that is boldly transgressive will have a marginalised audience, being rejected by many, while comedy that confirms beliefs, attitudes and prejudices will be widely supported. Whenever anyone says, it’s just a joke, this is unlikely to be true. The root of jokes is that the social standards of decorum, what people should be like is contrasted with what people actually are like: and this disjunction makes laughter a form of judgement: if someone is holding a false front they can be laughed at.
In a film narrative the set up for a verbal joke can be established in the story action of the film, so there is no verbal setting up only a story event and a comic comment on this situation, which might have a further topper by the character who made the initial comment making a second comment or by another character offering a comment. In a film narrative the comic comment will rarely break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, but there is still the sense that the comment acknowledges that there is a comic viewpoint that can be taken on the dramatic situation: there’s time left in the screen performance, often through the blocking and the editing, for the audience’s laughter: a gap for the audience for the audience to make their views known: the film hoping for their comic perspective to be approved.
The event-based joke of the film narrative is often how comedy works in life: people are in a particular situation, something is not going right, and they comment on this, offering an alternative viewpoint on their circumstances. In a film the character can joke to themselves, offering their comic viewpoint, seeing themselves in a comic light, and often comedy films have a convention where the subject of the joke, when it is a person or group, does not respond, or reply, but lets the joke pass. This gives the joker an authority to make comic statements and for the audience to respond with laughter. The joke in life and in a film narrative, laughing at someone, will become problematic if the subject of the joke took offence, or resisted the joke, so ‘not seeing the joke’ is a convention of comedy. Also, a film narrative is coded as a comedy or a drama, and often this signalled from the start by the use of the music in the titles, and by the opening events of the narration: indicating comic distance, so the audience is given permission to laugh and the convention that one character can openly comment on situations and mock others is accepted as a realism. A film drama that halfway through the plot suddenly had serious characters being mocked and made ludicrous would be experienced as a very odd change of form and would be likely to be rejected by the audience: the change in the tone of narration from drama to comedy seeming to be cruel and unwarranted because drama connects the audience to characters through empathy, which might be considered an opposite to comic distance.
Comic events, non-verbal comedy, rather than verbal jokes and comic statements, are when what is expected to happen does not, and the anticipated social performance, fails. The event may not in itself be comic, such as spilling a cup of coffee, but the joke, can be indicated in the performance of the action: the mistake is exaggerated, or the mistake is foreseen but still not avoided, and to ensure a comic narrative one mistake follows another. In a verbal joke a person can make a joke about someone/something or about themselves, and in a non-verbal physical joke the subject of the joke can also be the joker, and to ensure that comedy and laughter is indicated and permitted, the joker will come to accept their failings, either in silence or in exhausted exasperation. Comedy is not like life where the emotions of resentment, anger and hate can arise from a person’s sense of failing or making mistakes. In a comedy the story will aim to provide an environment where the failure to act appropriately is not taken to be offensive or aggressive: it’s all good fun. In the cartoon narrative characters can be hit, burnt destroyed, killed, but it’s all comic because for a cartoon character no real harm is done. Comedy characters are resilient, they bounce back up.
There is whimsical and fanciful comedy, but verbal comedy, jokes are most often acts of judgement or alternatively, depending on who is making the joke, a defence. Comedy will be aggressive, repressive, mocking: refusing to let a figure, the butt of the joke, retain their dignity, the comedy putting them in their place, showing them their folly, and this can be accepted as funny by the audience because it is understood by the audience that this joke is right and just: the upstart, the unworthy are scorned with laughter. Comedy is also a resistance, a defence, the joker comically refusing to accept authority, showing the falsehood of those who claim the privilege of being authoritative and sincere. Here comedy undermines the powerful and the repressive and enables the oppressed to laugh and have a sense of triumph. In actual society seriousness is carefully controlled so that the oppressed don’t get a chance to joke very often. The purpose of formality in social life, the controlling of statements of disrespect, is to ensure that authority is respected, and the standard measure of good conduct is that a person is serious and deferential. In life the leader or the executive may make slight, polite jokes against themselves, at festive occasions, to show they are ‘good sports,’ but the formality of social life, the seriousness of public and private etiquette acts as a barrier to prevent those in power being made fun off. Comedy is present in society, but acceptable mainly in comic environments. Society informally legislates, giving certain figures the right to be comics in controlled situations, while in everyday life comedy is not sanctioned. Comedy is used socially to put people down, so it is curtailed in social spheres, or it can be the start of a dispute: ‘are you making fun of me?’ being the opening statement that leads to an argument or a fight.
To consider comedy and how it is structured into a narrative form, offering more than just individual jokes there are five approaches which in their forms signal how the comedy is to be understood and enjoyed:
Stupid Comedy: Those who are socially inferior or displaced and can’t cope with the world, or those who are made to feel inferior by society, play by their own rules and the normal world suffers as a result. Stupid comedy is the clown, the idiot, the failure. Here the boss can be defeated, the officious policeman fooled. That stupid comedy is often understood as low taste, its stupid, indicates a social caution for the audience: the stupid acting person is not respected in real life and they do not succeed in actual life. There will often be the fool in a comedy narrative and also their non-comic serious partner: these non-comic figures indicate social norms. Sometimes the serious partner suffers, but they still represent social sanction and decorum.
Clever Comedy: Taking a knowing look at the world, dissecting its foibles, pointing out its idiocies, making fun of what traps and demeans others, makes things more bearable. The superior comedy needs the audience to align with this. The clever comedy requires knowledge of culture, literature, history, an overt understanding social conventions, and so will have a limited audience in any society. Superior comedy, the sense that it gives the selective audience of being in on the joke, groups together the knowing audience. It might be that clever comedy is defined by an ‘in’ group so its not actually that clever: different classes and ethnicities having their own in-jokes: social observations on others.
Social Comedy: We live within social norms. There’s an etiquette and a social standard for everything. In the social comedy people’s desires are greater, they want more than they are entitled to, and their personal problems are exaggerated for comic effect. Seeing all the intricacies, rules, and our own standards of behaviour highlighted, pushed to the limit, and even broken gives us the distance we need for comedy. This can often by the comedy of an institution, such as a legal firm, a school, a hospital, a shop. For anyone working or being part of a social institution there’s a separation between the loyalty that is demanded, the rules that are in place, the behaviour that is expected, and how the characters want to see themselves. Social comedy shows the rules and has fun with showing that there is a resistance to this and that the social rules can be made ridiculous or flaunted. A social comedy can more readily have a serious denouement than a stupid comedy: the values of the social institution are recognised and return after the comic episode.
Comedy of Absurdity: The regulated, orderly world has failed or evaporated so something replaces it, an absurd environment, but of course people are still people and things still go wrong. Each absurdity is a metaphor or exaggeration of a world that is familiar to us. The comedy of absurdity will place familiar social situations in a metaphorical context, where new problems and difficulties are offered. Often an absurd comedy will start within an absurdist framework, and then show that this framework cannot function successfully: someone gets all the money they could ever want and then their life slowly crumbles. So, absurd comedy can have a normative ending and a sometimes, less often, a whimsical ending. The idea here is comedy without pointing fingers, and magical realism is connected to this: where the actual social environment is suppressive, dangerous, aggressively oppressive, then moving to another realm for the comedy is the only way to create a comic space without causing offense and as a result being censured.
Comedy of Delight: What if all the obstacles were removed, and all the venality and cruelty were banished. That's when the world becomes wonderful. This is a comedy of absurdity without tension, and is liable to become non-comic if it stops presenting any sort of normative situation. The delight comes from this comic environment being a reward for something, so there needs to be some harsh circumstances before the delight. Whimsy is not recognised as a comedy in many ways because it only raises a smile: there’s no clear target for the comedy, so its mild and therefore less funny.
To move on from the function of the verbal and the non-verbal joke, and from a set of forms for comedy narrative, there will often be several types of comedy used in a single film, with different characters having different comic perspectives. As an example: the ensemble film brings together ill assorted characters and this means that they have different comic attitudes. What the range of characters enables are different types of joke: a smart character will offer clever jokes, a whimsical character will offer whimsical jokes. There is a wide range of options for comic approaches, how to formulate jokes:
Absurdity: The ridiculous and the nonsensical: the real world transformed into the fantastic; the absurd leading to a world of wonder, or a world where things are worse than ever.
Aphorism: A clever witticism where its social observation is seen as apt or acute.
Coincidence: When the disaster that’s been likely to happen wreaks havoc, the laughter begins. When events transpire to bring out hidden secrets then the audience joins in the fun.
Crudity: When the polite world is disrupted or has to confront sex and other bodily functions, there is laughter in embarrassment and recognition
Delight: When that wonderful thing occurs, followed by another wonderful thing and as this keeps going a smile of wonder can turn to a laugh of delight
Embarrassment: It is humorous when others lose their dignity without harsh regret, when for us the same situation would be one we dread.
Epigram: A clever remark for a knowing laugh.
Euphemism: Politely referring to something that is unpleasant or embarrassing, while making sure that what’s rude is plainly understood.
Exaggeration: Each of us has our small troubles, but to see them magnified allows us the release of laughter. To see the foibles and failings of the world, its pretensions and petty vanities and to exaggerate them is to make them comical.
Hyperbole: An extravagant exaggeration that pokes fun at the normal world
Innuendo: To insult, to demean, to sexualise when the meaning is clear, but the words are innocent in order to carry on a covert and amusing conversation in a polite, serious situation.
Irony: To say exactly the opposite of what you are actually implying, makes it clear exactly what you mean. It’s an attack with a humorous distance for a knowing audience.
Demean: The proud, the vain, self-important, it’s fun to see those who want to lord it over us demeaned and ridiculed
Literalism: Something is said; we know its colloquial meaning, but it’s literal meaning makes something else, something unexpected happen.
Mockery: To ridicule the pretensions, rules and traditions that you are surrounded by is to poke fun at the world
One-upmanship: When someone wants to put you down its fun to get the better of them and let everyone know it
Punning: Phrases and words have more than one meaning. A pun can just be a silly comparison or a pointed re-working of a popular phrase, or saying.
Rudeness: To be impolite and offensive is to refuse respect, and to challenge customs and taboos. To mock and ridicule the conventional is a comic weapon.
Sarcasm: Insincerity is the easiest defence to all trials and tribulations
Sauciness: Suggesting that sex is naughty, but fun, can raise a knowing smile
Silliness: Why takes things seriously? Make the pompous trivial, the serious silly.
Stupidity: To refuse or be unable to cope with the world, to playfully be unable to cope with the world is to undermine its norms.
Synchronicity: The incredible, the wondrous, makes the world less drab and less grey. There is an escape from the dull and familiar, it can and does happen.
Understatement: To make light of the serious, to refuse to be afraid or unimpressed is to take a comic distance.
Whimsy: To link something serious to something you find odd or fanciful. It makes the world a funnier place.
Wordplay: To play with language, to twist its meaning, its sounds, its everyday use is to have fun.
All comedy relies on comic distance, a comic environment, conventions that allow comedy. So, the differences between life are established in a comic narrative:
In life: social behaviour is more often than not limited by self-restraint and in terms of one person’s relationship with another person a single off-hand cutting remark that says what you really think of someone can end in long-term animosity. In comedy: restraint is given up and what's usually left unspoken is said. In comedy the conceit is that comments can fly, behaviour can be flagrantly hurtful, but no one takes long-term offence. The person made fun of lets the comment pass or gives a rueful smile and the moment is over: there are no grudges.
In life: the excesses of pride, arrogance, selfishness, defiant stupidity, dumb naivety and salacious desire are likely to leave someone ostracised, ignored or detested. In comedy: it's the display of pride, arrogance, selfishness, defiant stupidity, dumb naivety and salacious desire that's funny; In comedy a character gets to be who they really are and when they suffer for this or event triumph its funny.
In life: we regret, possibly even dread, the revelation of our weaknesses, flaws and failures, because of the shame and anxiety they cause us. In comedy: failures, flaws and weaknesses can't be concealed. They’re in the open and the audience laugh; sometimes because they feel the same worries and sometimes because their own failures in comparison to the exaggerations of comedy fiction aren’t that bad.
In life: each day, there are a few minor problems, perhaps one or two funny moments and we get by without too many mishaps or making too much of a fool of ourselves. In comedy: a minor problems soon escalates and reaches new heights in terms of complexity and the potential for failure or embarrassment. The audience laugh because their own lives aren’t so bad and in a comedy world it's pretend: real problems offer no such comic distance.
In life: there are a few people who exhibit extremes, but most people most of the time are reasonable and reasonably reserved. In comedy: In comedy: characters are sharply drawn; A character who is dumb keeps being dumb. A worrier will worry endlessly about everything. Even a dull ordinary person is extremely grey and extremely dull.
In life: lying, plotting, scheming, hiding and denying are to be concealed, because they make people distrust you and can socially stigmatised you. In life if you're caught out then you might not be able to laugh it off, because you've hurt and betrayed someone. In comedy: the anxiety of lying, trying to hide something, the machinations, the lengths someone will go to in order to hold aloft a false front and conceal the truth are all part of the fun and games. There's laughter in seeing the effort to conceal and in seeing someone failing to conceal.
In life: it's rude to laugh at someone when they show their flaws and failing. In comedy: when an audience watches a comedy laughter is a two-sided joy. The audience laugh at a character because their behaviour is so socially flagrant or inept or inappropriate. The audience can also laugh in sympathy with a character because they can empathise with that failure, flaw or faux pas.
On thing that is common to all comedy is that it surprises, startles, shock or delights us, and the essential aspect of all comedy is that it goes beyond the ordinary, the dull and the familiar. If a man goes into a bakery and comes out with a loaf of bread, that is not funny. If a man goes into a bakery and struggles out the door with a loaf of bread that’s the size of a washing machine that has the potential to be funny. Comedy pushes the barriers of behaviour, goes beyond an audience’s anticipation of what someone is going to say or do. To do this comedy uses a whole range of comic tactics from absurdity to mockery, to sarcasm to irony. The whole impetus of comedy is to create a distance, a perspective on the world, a world that is no longer pedestrian, but comic. Each of the tactics of comedy disturbs, disrupts, alters, and changes things from what is expected. Comedy plays with the world changing it, distorting it, and in doing so creates, the glee, the relief and enjoyment of laughter. In the main comedy is judgemental, it can be stigmatising, it can be liberating.
The broad parameters of the various types of comedy are defined by their approach to comedy; is it fanciful, is it aggressive, is it knowing, etc. What actually limits what is suitable for a piece of comedy is more specifically defined by the parameters of taste than by any set definition about what is comic. Audiences can link their preferred tastes for comedy to particular types of comedy, or, to comedy actors who carry a particular comic persona. What audiences expect is that the comedy they want to consume will not stray into an area which does not appeal to them. One comedian is a fanciful absurdist who does not attack or insult others. Another comedian is a social commentator, making jokes about people's moral and social values and the world of politics and this comedian does not do 'crude and rude' comedy. The plays of Oscar Wilde are famous for their epigrams. They don’t rely on stupid comedy, especially physical comedy. Audiences recognise what they like in comedy. Some will go for the rude, some for the smart, and some for the silly. The talent of a comedian, or a comedy writer is in their ability to use the elements of comedy to define their own style and brand of humour and to connect this to an appreciative audience.
It is a popular myth that comedy is much more difficult to create than drama; that it’s too hard to understand and explain how comedy works and therefore much harder to write it. This situation may have come about from a combination of reasons. Firstly, comedy is not a single entity. There is actually a whole range of ways to make people laugh and so trying to understand comedy as a single sort of emotional experience is not practical. This means that many writers only have a vague idea of what ‘comedy’ is in relation to analysing and understanding it; we laugh, but we don’t really know why. What follows on naturally from this vagueness is the second problem that when people want to write comedy they don’t really know what they are after. To write comedy one has to put the variety of comic tactics, comedy styles to good use and the first step is towards doing this is to understand the range that is available rather than just trying to be comic using an unspecified idea of what might be funny.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019