Being a comedy writer isn’t easy. Even if you’re a director, knowing what’s funny and what’s not, isn’t always easy. Comedy is mostly subjective, but if you’re trying to write, direct, or even act in a comedy, there are some techniques that might help. So what is comedy? We’ll give our comedy definition, examples of types of comedy, and outline some comedic considerations.
What does comedy mean?
E.B. White said that “humor can be dissected as a frog can but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” Yeah, well, we’re going to try to do it anyway.
Let’s at least define what we can.
What is comedy?
Comedy is any work that is intended to incite laughter and amusement, especially in theatre, television, film, stand-up comedy or any other entertainment medium. It dates back to the Ancient Greeks, originating from the comedy literary definition which refers to a medieval story or narrative involving an amusing character that triumphs over poor circumstances, creating comic effects. The tone here is light and satirical and the story always ends well.
Regarding the motion picture industry, the comedy genre definition is one that includes films or shows that make people laugh and have positive endings. Ultimately, comedy makes people laugh. But what is it about comedy that does that? Even though humor is subjective, there are a few things that comedy needs to succeed.
TYPES OF COMEDY
- Slapstick — physical gags (e.g., Charlie Chaplin or a pie in the face)
- Parody — deliberately mimics or ridicules another
- Spoof — a light parody, less focused on ridiculing
- Satire — mocking a section of society or politics
- Irony — when the opposite of what’s expected happens
- Sarcasm — scornful response, sometimes ironic
- Farce — extreme exaggeration of characters and circumstance
- Dark comedy — where humor touches even serious subjects
- Surrealism — abstract situations, juxtapositions, or non-sensical humor
WHAT MAKES SOMETHING FUNNY?
The Farrelly Brother's directorial debut, Dumb and Dumber, became a comedic hit.
Pretty incredible for newbie directors, making a movie for the very first time. But really, they just knew what was funny and what wasn't.
While comedy is completely subjective, there are a few obvious techniques that might help.
Timing is everything. The way a comedian delivers the punch line, or how actors deliver their lines, can affect the way the audience responds. Just one small pause can really enhance a joke. Good timing builds anticipation and then delivers.
In this clip, pay attention to the pause before Derek delivers his reaction. The bit would be less funny if there was no pause, or if the pause was twice as long.
What’s expected to happen, happens. We see it coming. And it’s still funny. Austin Powers goes to drink some coffee, but we know it’s not coffee at all. We think he’s going to drink the human feces, and he sure does. Comedy can also be gross. But the techniques apply just the same.
Conversely, great comedy also catches us off guard — it’s unexpected. This is especially hilarious when whatever happens is completely random.
Life is a bunch of misunderstandings, and usually it’s only funny way after the fact.
But in a film or show, it’s not happening to us, so as we watch the two characters make their life so much harder, we can’t help but laugh. On some level we can relate, but mostly it’s just funny.
Watch how Shaun of the Dead plays with misunderstanding in this scene. We expect Shaun and Ed to recognize this intruder for what she is (a zombie). Their misunderstanding, then, is smart and hilarious.
MOCK EPIC AND TRAVESTY
These terms come from comedic literature. But you’ve seen them in many films and shows. Mock epic is something that is so insignificant but gets blown out of proportion, like it’s the biggest thing in the world.
Conversely, travesty makes bigger issues seem inconsequential.
What’s double entendre? This just when your characters say one thing that has a double meaning. These are most often are sexual innuendos. But keep in mind, they can get a little cheesy if overdone. If handled right, you involve the audience and can really make em laugh.
THE FLAWED PLAN
The flawed plan is when a character comes up with the dumbest plan in the world and everybody knows it but the character.
Weekend at Bernie’s comes to mind. Although, I guess it worked for a little while there, (which is equally hilarious).
There are a course a ton of techniques to try, often combinations of the above mentioned, but again, comedy is really subjective. Comedy isn’t easy to dissect or determine, but I think that’s a good thing. At the end of the day, what matters is that people are laughing. No matter what it is.
WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE COMEDY?
First and foremost, people love to laugh. Comedy makes people feel good. But comedy can also expose painful truths that are just easier to laugh at.
If someone is making fun of something we personally have experienced, something that’s relatable, it can be hilarious. We don’t always know why, but it can provide relief to look at something in a new way. It’s almost healing.
Now that you can answer what is comedy, let’s take a look at some examples. Check out our next post which gets into some of the best comedy movies across the decades.
Best comedy movies of all time
Even though comedy is mostly subjective, you have a better understanding of the comedy definition as it is in literature and cinema. But theory isn’t as helpful as seeing it done. Let’s jump into some of the best comedies that span decades, and see why they’re so hilarious.