Jun 292006

I am of the belief that we find things funny which are incongruent to our expectations. I find this theory has held up to some scrutiny and it adequetely explains most funny things. For example, a stately business man in a suit is not expected to trip and fall. Therefore, when he does, it amuses us. Of course, once we’ve seen it and come to expect it, it is no longer funny, such as when you know the punchline to a joke already.

A skilled comedian or comedians know this and work hard to lead the audience one way but then surprises them. This can be done in a number of ways, including dress and behaviour. Take the Daily Show and Colbert Report as examples. We buy into the illusion that they are a real news show because we want to and because they do their part to make it seem like it is by wearing suits and talking like them. So it’s funnier when they say something insane or crazy than if they wore shorts and talked in slang. However, there are ways to break that illusion or accepted reality. If one of them starts laughing when they’re saying something, for example. That’s why I believe Colbert is more successful than the others from the Daily Show. He says everything with a completely straight face. He makes it very easy to make us believe that he is a real pundit, and therefore the incongruencies are funnier.

It is for precisely this reason that shows like Canadian Air Farce aren’t funny. They are a comedy show and you are always made conscious that they are comedians playing a skit rather than creating the illusion that they are real people being filmed. They make faces, smile and act unnaturally. It doesn’t work.

House, MD is one of my favourite shows on TV and works in a similar principle. It breaks the expectation that doctors are supposed to be compassionate and caring by portraying House as a callus rebel. The real comedy comes in the outrageous things he does. They become even funnier when you juxtapose them with the audience’s acceptance that the patient is actually very sick and could die. We buy into it as a drama show and find it funnier when he does crazy things.

The Office works this way as well. They create an illusion or a reality for us to expect and then once we’ve accepted that reality, they defy it in subtle ways. To understand the appeal of The Office, you have to understand what a documentary is expected to do. Documentaries have a sort of claim on the truth. When you watch a documentary, you are expecting to see the truth. In that way, we accept that these characters are real people and that is further accentuated by the actors’ natural delivery. We come to accept them as real and normal people and we expect them to do normal things simply because we expect humans to act normally. Then, when they do outrageous things or act like idiots, it’s all the funnier.

Perhaps it is just my bias because I like to do satire and parody work, but I feel that to create a truly funny show, you must be breaking expectations that you set up and/or reinforce. To create and defend those expectations until the very last instant when they are completely shattered is what creates a trully funny show.

PS: I finished the animated logo for Insanity Studios Inc. and it looks, sounds and feels damn good. It’ll be in front of my next video, which will be a trials video. Keep an eye out for it in this space.

  2 Responses to “On Comedy”

  1. I used to think Air Farce was funny.  Then I moved on to 6th grade.  Interesting theory I guess.  Sort of idolizes the deadpan delivery.

  2. I do idolize deadpan delivery but that’s not what I was driving out. House often says the most insane things with a smile on his face. But it’s in character. You don’t expect people to be so cynical or mean but when they do, it’s funny. House and Dr. Cox are about the same. Comedy is about expectations and surprises. Air Farce doesn’t setup or reinforce any expectations. The writing isn’t creative or witty and thus isn’t funny at all.

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