On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief

Writing comedy can be a challenge, and all too often peoples' attempts to be funny fall down flat. So here are some things to help you improve the comedy and comic relief in your stories and prevent it from falling flat or just annoying people.

Table of Contents

Where comedy can come from… and where it can go wrong.

The unexpected, the incongruent, and the absurd is a frequent source of comedy - EG, a scenario seems to be leading going up one direction but takes a sudden swerve into expected territory that defies audience expectation, or a character might react to something in an unexpected way. But if the comedy breaks people's willing suspense of disbelief by being too contrived or incredible, people are mostly going to be confused and annoyed.

Likewise, watching other people suffer or make fools of themselves (particularly through absurd or silly scenarios) can potentially be funny… but if the audience feels that the character on the butt end of the gag deserves better than that, they're not going to laugh. Watching a character who has been established as petty, callous, or cruel get publicly humiliated is often pretty funny, but if it's a character who hasn't actually done anything to harm or bother anyone, it's a whole other story. (And it's even less funny watching something bad happen to someone established as kind and caring.)

If you aren't careful, comedy can also undermine the credibility and dramatic impact of your characters. For example, if your villain ends up being the butt of more jokes and gags than the other characters, then it can become difficult for people to take your villain seriously as a threat. This will make your villain ineffective at creating dramatic tension, and without dramatic tension the story can quickly become dull and uninteresting.

Comedy also needs to fit the tone of the work. Comedy surrounding morbid topics can work to great effect in a dark comedy (EG, Arsenic and Old Lace or Corpse Bride), but in works that don't have a dark or morbid tone, it can seem incongruent and even tacky, and thus fail to work. Gags relying on Loony Tunes physics work just fine in cartoon worlds where that's simply the way things work, but in a live-action medium (where one typically assumes basic physics to work like they do in the real world), they can seem jarring and strange.

What can make a scenario too contrived to be funny.

Let's say that we have a series that so far has been a fairly serious space opera. The story centers around the adventures of a starship that has a crew that has so far been shown to be reasonably competent. The ship has come to a war-torn planet at great risk to settle a dispute between two factions. If the crew fails, potentially billions of people will die. But rather than sending someone proven to have skills in diplomacy, the captain for whatever reason sends a snarky and socially-awkward engineer, who "hilariously" fumbles his way through the proceedings.

This is the kind of episode that would quickly be held up as a contender for Worst Episode Ever, with angry fans wanting to know what writers and producers were thinking when they had the captain make such a blatantly absurd decision. Putting people's lives in jeopardy on a personal whim isn't funny, particularly not in a show like this.

Similarly, if you had a group of people whose job or mission involves high stakes - eg, saving innocent people from the designs of evil beings - and the team brings along a character whose "funny" antics often set the team back or put them in danger and the character never gets into any serious trouble for it, people will soon question why the team puts up with this character and grow resentful. (In fact, the same could be said of any "funny" character who is actually more of a burden than an asset.)

Likewise, "comedy" that comes from a character acting out-of-character for no discernible reason isn't particularly funny. Now, a character acting in an unexpected or unusual way that doesn't necessarily contradict previously-established characterization is fine, but for the character to act in a way that makes no sense given what we know about the character tends to end up being more confusing and annoying than actually funny. For example, if a person has a job that would have required a lot of competence to get promoted to and the character has been portrayed as fairly competent thus far, gags that rely on the character suddenly bungling things left and right wouldn't be that funny.

While characters getting themselves into trouble through mistake or ineptitude can potentially be funny and work if it's congruent with the character's history and known behaviors, the story can become difficult to believe if the mistakes themselves are absurdly improbable through scale and/or number. If people can't believe that it would be possible for someone in your story's world to be that incompetent, then they can't believe in your story, and thus the "funny" scenario won't be funny.

In any case, a good rule to keep in mind is that "funny" actions or antics stop being funny when there are serious consequences to them, whether these consequences are shown, implied, or easily inferred.

Another all-too-common contrivance involves authors stilting character development in order to keep allowing their characters to end up in "funny" scenarios. However, the longer this goes on the less believable the character will become. An alien landing on Earth and ending up in wacky shenanigans due to being unfamiliar with the culture is potentially funny, but for that same alien to keep ending up in more or less the same shenanigans after spending months on Earth around Earth people who certainly would have been teaching xir about Earth things stretches credulity. You should never prevent a character from undergoing reasonable character development for the sake of preserving comedic value.

Remember that there are times when some forms of comedy are inappropriate.

While a little comedy can lighten up an otherwise dark mood, it can also backfire if it's mishandled. If you set up a serious or grave scenario and fail to treat it with the respect and dignity the audience feels it deserves, you're in trouble.

If Aida is upset because her best friend is seriously injured in the hospital and Amelia keeps cracking jokes and/or acting silly and goofy instead of offering sympathy to Aida when she realizes that she's upset, then Amelia will come off as being unable or unwilling to acknowledge other people's pain and the gravity of certain situations. As a character, Amelia will come off as flippant and insensitive - not particularly endearing qualities. (A character making a small joke while offering sympathy can be appropriate, providing the character doesn't treat the main issue at hand flippantly or disrespectfully.)

If you have a truly emotional scene playing out and for some reason your "comic relief" barges in and interrupts the whole thing with goofy antics, people who are emotionally invested in what's going on are not going to appreciate the interruption.

Also, interrupting comic relief need not necessarily be an actual person; something silly happening counts as well. If you have an intense, dramatic, high-stakes playing out and you interrupt it with slapstick gags, you're going to end up with essentially the same effect - those who are emotionally invested in the drama are not going to appreciate it, and at the end of the day a lot of people are probably going to be questioning your emotional maturity.

Basically, if you have a genuinely serious or emotional scene, don't make that scene into a joke - treat it with the respect and gravity it deserves.

And a few other things to watch out for and avoid...

Characters who contribute nothing but comic relief. If you have a comic relief character in your story, ask yourself: if you completely took the character out, could the story still go on as before with only minimal alterations made to it? If so, then figure out how to write the character's role so that xe helps to drive the plot or find another source of humor.

"Comic relief" characters with "funny" voices or appearances. "Funny" voices and looks really only work if the majority of the cast is like this. In anything else, a "funny" voice or appearance isn't going to make a bad joke any better, and a good joke won't need to be propped up by one.

Recycling or overusing old gags. People need new material - new experiences - to keep them interested in something. If you recycle old jokes over and over, they'll grow stale and boring no matter how good they originally were, and people will look elsewhere for entertainment.

Also, you might be interested in:

Basic Tips To Be Witty & Funny
On Writing Likeable & Useful Sidekicks
Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
Ensemble Cast Development Questions

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