Ah, ridiculous people. Or people who do ridiculous things. Or clueless people. You can’t go too wrong with either of them in a work of fiction.
Funniness comes in many guises; ineptness, zaniness, ignorance, childishness, indecisiveness, sarcasm, wittiness, stupidity, a funny appearance… exaggeration. As in most things humorous, the source of character humor arises from deviations in expected patterns of behavior.
When these diviations in a character’s behavior create a set of expectations, and social and cultural norms create an incompatible set of expectations, comedy is the result. As scenes play out, one set of expectations violates the other.
Michael Scott in The Office, is the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin. Impossibly inappropriate on his best day, he frequently offends his employees by making comments of a racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise ignorant nature. As a result, in the series’ second episode (“Diversity Day”), Dunder Mifflin’s corporate office schedules a mandatory seminar on diversity for Michael at his office in Scranton. Michael, however, finds the presentation condescending and decides to hold his own diversity-promoting activities.
To experience what it’s like to be a minority, Michael distributes index cards, each with a different race written on it, to his staff and instructs them to wear the card on their foreheads. Pam is wearing Jewish; Kevin, Italian; Angela, Jamaican; Stanley, Black; Dwight, Asian; Meredith, Brazil; Oscar, Eskimo; Phyllis, Haitin; and Michael, who says there’s no card for “Arab” or “Muslim” because it would be “too explosive”, Martin Luther King, Jr. He then tells them to treat the others according to the race on their forehead.
This episode illustrates the importance of setting up a comedic situation. Michael’s employees are not amused by his actions. At one point, Kelly, an Indian American woman, slaps Michael and storms out of the room. The employees and audience at home witness the same scene, but their reactions differ. That the employees are offended endorses the expectations that Michael is violating and renders the situation funny. Also a key factor in the humor is Michael’s likeability. His ignorance has a kind of purity to it—he’s purely dumb, rather than hateful. In fact, his love for people, particularly for his staff, is as exaggerated as his ignorance. Had Michael Scott been consistently offensive, he wouldn’t have been funny.
But Michael is like an adoring, dumb dog—man’s best friend. To demonstrate his conviction for tolerance he tells the staff, “Abraham Lincoln once said, that if you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North, and those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace.”
Ignorance, laziness, obsession, cowardice, stinginess, lecherousness, intemperance, indifference—any exaggerated trait that largely defines your character will do. So long as it’s counterbalanced by a winning incongruity, or rather an exaggerated and opposite trait that makes the character likeable.
Pretense, for example, is behind many humorous characters. Readers laugh when he or she lacks self-knowledge—a fraudulent character who attempts to present him or herself as an authority figure. So too will readers laugh at characters involved in embarrassing situations, pratfalls, and minor misfortunes. Chevy Chase made a career of this type of comedy. Many successful comedians develop a persona, a character with an incongruity at the core of his personality. Steve Martin is the socially-inept sophisticate, and Bill Cosby is an adult with child-like enthusiasms.
Other types of unexpected behavior that will generate laughter fall under slapstick: silly walks, silly faces, silly sounds, silly body movements and funny gestures. A character can deviate in the way that he speaks by playing with the rhythm, pitch, tempo, volume and timing of his movements or actions. He can speak gibberish while presenting it as a meaningful utterance. Incongruity can also be expressed in one’s makeup, hairstyle and wardrobe.
An exaggerated, understated, or irrelevant response to a situation exemplifies deviations from expected behavior and will produce tension in readers who know what the expected behavior should be. This tension will be relieved through laughter if no harm comes to characters who have gained our empathy. If harm comes to a character we don’t empathize with (e.g. the burglars in the movie Home Alone), that, too, will get a laugh.
Repetition of behavior also deviates from the norm and results in laughter. The bumbling character, similar to Michael Scott and best typified by Peter Sellers as Inspector Clousseau in the Pink Panther movies, is an example of the incompetent police detective. Of course, there’s also the competent police detective who’s a social misfit, aka, Lee Goldberg’s Detective Monk.
A character that continues to make the same mistakes pries a laugh from us. An example of this is the Rick Moranis character, Louis, in the movie, Ghostbusters. He locks himself out of his apartment on three different occasions.
The characters in a romantic comedy never think their situation is humorous. They’re desperate to achieve their goals and terrified by the conflicts they face. When the people on the screen or in the novel are laughing, the audience isn’t.
The driving motivations in romantic comedies grow out of pain and loss. The plots of the most successful romantic comedies involve unemployment, disease, prostitution, physical abuse, physical deformity, humiliation, ridicule, and the loss of one’s children. Humor then arises from the way their heroes overreact to their situations. They devise fantastic plots, pose as women, adopt false identities, juggle two lovers, tell outrageous lies, fly across the country to meet a voice on a radio, or do everything imaginable to sabotage their best friend’s wedding.
One process for designing comic characters that deviate from expected norms of behavior is to work with the framework of Aristotle’s Ethical Theory. With virtue and vice on opposite sides of the spectrum, he defined a sphere of action for each and identified the mean or norm representing appropriate behavior. From this mean, he then constructed an excess, which represents the exaggerated behavior pattern, and a deficiency, which represents the understated behavior pattern. Extreme cases of either type of deviation will produce laughter.
SPHERE OF ACTION OR FEELING
Fear and Confidence
Pleasure and Pain
Getting and Spending
Getting and Spending
Honour and Dishonour
Honour and Dishonour
Lack of spirit/unirascibility
(Aristotle (1955). The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachaen Ethics. (rev. ed.)(J. K. Thomson, trans.). New York: Viking. p. 104.)
EXAMPLES OF EXCESS CHARACTER TRAITS
- Vanity: Joker (Batman)—Admiring himself in the mirror as his girlfriend Alicia watches.
- Licentiousness: Peter Venkman (Ghostbusters) lusts after the female student during the ESP experiment.
- Prodigality: Joker (Batman) throws money into the crowd at the Gotham City parade.
- Ambition: Joker (Batman) wants his face on the one-dollar bill
- Shyness: Forrest (Forrest Gump)—Forrest is shy when Jenny first makes a sexual advance towards him in her college bedroom.
- Boastfulness: Joker (Batman)—Boss Grissom could not run Gotham City without him.
- Buffoonery: Ray Stantz (Ghostbusters)—Over-enthusiastic whenever he talks about the supernatural
- Obsequiousness: Hotel Manager (Ghostbusters)—He tries to placate clients waiting to use the Ballroom
EXAMPLES OF DEFICIENT CHARACTER TRAITS
- Cowardice: Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark)—When Sallah sees snakes in Well of Souls, he tells Indiana Jones to go first.
- Insensibility: Louis (Ghostbusters)—At the end of the story, Louis is oblivious to the danger he has just experienced.
- Cheapness: Uncle Frank (Home Alone)—He will not pay for the pizzas.
- Pettiness: Kevin’s Sisters (Home Alone)—They will not help Kevin pack his suitcases.
- Timidity: Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz)—He is afraid to go in the Witch’s Castle to save Dorothy
- Lack of Ambition: Kevin (Home Alone): There is nothing he really wants at first but to be left alone.
- Lack of Spirit: Egon (Ghostbusters)—Egon is a scientific nerd, who is passive and indifferent to the sexual advances of the secretary.
- Understatement: Venkman (Ghostbusters)—Almost all of his reactions are understated
- Boorishness: Egon (Ghostbusters)—Egon is a scientific nerd whose only talks about his research topics.
- Cantankerousness: Mr. Peck, the EPA Inspector (Ghostbusters)—Self-righteous and very difficult to work with.
- Shamelessness: Burglars (Home Alone)—Marv brags that they are ‘the wet bandits.’
- Malicious Enjoyment: Marv (Home Alone)—Stuffs the sinks so water will overflow onto the floor.
For our characters to win a laugh, we have to write scenes showing them breaking the rules of appropriate behavior. Write your characters and scenes using this technique, and the audience will laugh.
- Abandon logic. Often what is funny in a statement is that it’s illogical.
- Simple is almost always better than complex. If a humorous remark isn’t working, try simplifying the language.
- Short is almost always better than long. The best humor is concise and direct.
- Be willing to surprise yourself. Humor should defy our expectations; don’t let your own expectations limit you.
- Abandon your dignity. You can’t be funny if you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself.
- Let your voice and attitudes, as well as those of your characters, flow. Humor always has an agenda and attitude.
- Don’t try too hard. It will make your humor feel stilted.
- Don’t sacrifice truth for a funny effect. Good humor always contains a grain of truth.
- Don’t let your characters laugh at their own jokes. This is the prose equivalent of a sitcom’s laugh track. Let the reader decide what’s funny.