“People ask me, ‘Steve, how do you get so funny?’ I say to them, ‘Before I go onstage I put a fish in each shoe. That way I feel funny.'” – Steve Martin
The funny thing about comedy
Aristotle believed that comedy arose like tragedy from improvisations around specific festivals. Tragedy arose as a prelude to the dithyramb (an ancient Greek hymn in honour of Dionysus), while comedy was originally a prelude to phallic songs and processions which were part of ancient Greek fertility rites. Aristotle would be considered a snob today, and he viewed comedy as a lower form of poetry, dealing with people of lower virtue, who were unimportant, undignified and, to coin a word, ‘laughable’. By contrast, tragedy dealt with stories about serious, important and virtuous people. Unfortunately the second book of his Poetics which was specifically about tragedy has not survived (some medieval texts are believed to be translations of the original).
So in storytelling comedy describes a particular plot structure and particular subject material, and is not necessarily comedy in the sense that we all understand today. Having said that, the structure of comedy is perfectly suited to funny stories, focusing on the drama of confusing situations and confused people. Groucho Marx summarises this perfectly in the film A Night In Casablanca (1946). As the hotel manager he tells his staff, “I’m going to change round the numbers of all the rooms.” His staff plead, “But the guests will go into the wrong rooms. Think of the confusion.” Groucho Marx replies, “Yeah, but think of the fun.”
This is comedy in a nutshell. Confusion reigns.
The catharsis of laughter
Aristotle believed that comedy shared much of its structure with tragedy, and also that it could be cathartic in its own way. However, the catharsis of comedy came from the ridiculousness of the plot, rather than deeper themes inspiring ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ (the source of the power of tragedy). This often came from ‘a kind of error’ (an injury done in ignorance rather than deliberately as in tragedy) which was neither painful nor destructive (as in tragedy again). Thus the catharsis of comedy came from resolving a confusion and moving from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge and understanding. Specifically, Aristotle wrote that the difference between comedy and tragedy lay in the presence or absence of pathos. Pathos comes from greater emotional and imaginative engagement in tragedy, as opposed to a more ‘passive’ and less sympathetic involvement in comedy.
Recognition and reversal are key to the comic plot, where the protagonist(s) may do some mischief or cause confusion unknowingly or by mistake, but recognition occurs just in time to avoid serious harm. Catharsis comes from the comic laughter caused by the confusion in the main part of a comedy’s plot and the final recognition and reversal of the direction of events.
Psychologically, laughter is believed to be an emotional balancing mechanism (and perhaps a social grooming tool according to Robin Dunbar), which helps us to cope with stress and maintain positive emotions and relationships by signalling acceptance and positive intentions.
Recognition and reversal are not just key concepts in comedy dramas but also important the success of individual jokes. A joke typically creates an inconsistency which an audience will seek to understand and when finally realising that the surprise was simple and safe, laugh in relief. That is, jokes are funny because they reverse a state of mental confusion. The bigger the inconsistency (and the amount of danger felt by the listeners), the greater the relief when the inconsistency is resolved.
Every ‘joke’ has a setup and punchline. For example, ‘A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar and the bartender says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?”‘
The setup of a joke establishes the premise and gives the audience all the necessary background information, and then the punchline provides the laughs, by reversing the direction of the setup, going off in a different direction by twisting the situation in some way. Some jokes contain additional punch lines (known as tags) which build on the original and twist again, often back and forth or in a surprising new direction.
In The Comedy Bible, Judy Carter expands on this basic structure, discussing the role of topic (subject matter), attitude (direction and emotional content) and premise (pojnt of view or slant) as important components of the setup. And she expands on punchlines by adding act outs, the mix and callback. Act outs are a frequent device used by comedians to add to the humour by ‘acting out’ the punchline of the joke or using physical humour to emphasise the punchline itself. The mix is about adding ‘what if?’ scenarios to the joke and blending situations and topics to create new twists and additional punchlines. And the callback is when a comedian comes back to the same punchline but with a completely different set up. If this is done enough times, then it becomes a catchphrase, a very popular device in situation comedy (for example, “You stupid boy” and “Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring” from Dad’s Army).
Are you confused yet?
My favourite opera (and music) of all time is The Marriage of Figaro (also one of the funniest plays ever written in its original version) where confusion reigns supreme throughout the story (the subtitle of the play literally means ‘the day of madness’). And one of the funniest films ever made is Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and directed by Billy Wilder in which multiple plot twists and confusions keep the madness going until the very end and the final hilarious punchline (do yourself a favour and watch the film if you have never seen it).
The confusions in comedy involve a variety of tricks and misunderstandings, and in both The Marriage of Figaro and Some Like It Hot involve:
- characters in disguise
- swapping of identities
- secret assignations where the ‘wrong’ person turns up
- hiding in chairs, behind doors, in cupboards only to be found out
The plotting of comedy
The plot structure of comedy is straightforward with a beginning, middle and end although the middle is often very long and convoluted (as in The Marriage of Figaro for example).
At the start of a comedy we see a world in which people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and/or frustration and are often shut off from one another. In Figaro, the shadow is cast by Count Almaviva who has degenerated from his youthful heroic self (as played in The Barber of Seville, the play’s prequel) into a scheming and bullying womaniser distant from his wife and with his intentions set on Figaro’s bride to be (the day of madness is also a wedding day). In Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are struggling musicians who witness a mobster shooting (looking very much like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre). They manage to escape and decide to leave town, pursued by the mob, and manage to disguise themselves as part of an all-girl musical band heading for Florida.
The main part of any comedy plot focuses on the confusion which gets worse and worse until the pressure of darkness becomes intense and everyone is in a seemingly inescapable tangle. In Figaro the confusions are too numerous to list, but include the plotting of the Countess and Susanna (Figaro’s bride to be) to expose her husband’s scheming, Marcellina and her counsel Bartolo trying to get Figaro to come good on a promise to marry Marcellina, the protection of Cherubino from the wrath of the Count (by dressing him as a girl), Figaro’s trial at which it emerges he is the long-lost illegitimate son of Marcellina and Bartolo and the Count’s further philandering with Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter. It’s impossible to describe all the twists without seeing the play or the opera! Some Like It Hot is a little more straightforward, as the confusions arise from the cross-dressing. Tony Curtis (as Josephine) becomes enamoured of Sugar (the band’s singer played by Marilyn Monroe) and woes her by disguising himself as a millionaire with a yacht. Jack Lemmon (as Geraldine and then Daphne) is woed by Osgood Fielding III, a real millionaire. In the meantime, they also manage to escape the mob!
Finally, in all comedies there is a coming to light as things are finally recognised for what they are changing everyone’s perceptions of the situation (or maybe not). Shadows disappear and the confusion is transformed into a happier place. The key to great comedy is this transition from darkness and the stress of confusion and ignorance, into the light (and relief) that comes from knowledge and understanding. Just like any good joke!
In Figaro, amidst the confusion of mistaken assignations and identities in the darkness of the garden at night, the Countess reveals herself to the Count (who has been seducing her in the belief that she was Susanna). Having refused mercy to everyone else, the Count is forced to plead for forgiveness on his knees (his first kind words to his wife in the whole play) and she accedes. Meanwhile, in Florida, Josephine (as Joe) having escaped the mob tells Sugar that he’s not good enough for her and has been lying about who he is, but she loves him anyway. And Geraldine (as Daphne) tries to explain to Osgood that (s)he can’t marry him while Osgood dismisses all her arguments and is determined to marry. Finally, Tony Curtis throws off his wig and proclaims “I’m a man” to which Osgood in the final line says “Well, nobody’s perfect”.
Laughing (and crying) at others’ misfortunes
This plot structure which follows the path from ignorance to knowledge and confusion to harmony is not always a bundle of laughs (as I hinted earlier). Although this structure is the basis of all good comedy and jokes, it is also that of many classic stories such as Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, The Importance of Being Earnest and South Pacific as well as the more predictable The Office, Four Weddings and a Funeral and the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G. Woodhouse.
As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)
The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter (2001)