The Funny Thing About Humor Part 3: Unexpected Humor in the Expected
This is Part 3 of my series on humor.
So now, we have a character who reacts in an unusual way to a new situation, but it still fits the character.
For example, remember the scene in Friends where Monica and Chandler dropped a cheesecake so good they are willing to eat it off the floor? Joey catches them in the act, and the audience expects a look of disgust or a disparaging comment. Instead, after a dramatic pause, Joey whips out a spoon and says, “Ohh-kay, what’re we having?”
This being unexpected, the scene would be funny with any character in it. They could even drag in an extra from the street. However, it really needed to be Joey. Why?
Well, we know the character of Joey and we have an emotional connection with him (everyone loves Joey!). Plus, we know Joey thinks with his stomach. Thus the writers have met the three requirements of Humor in the Expected.
Now, the writers throw in something Unexpected. We have never seen Joey walk around with a spoon, but then again, why not? For any other character, the spoon and his reaction in the scene would have been funny. When it’s Joey, it’s funny, but more importantly it is memorable because it resonates with the audience.
So this is kind of like the Rule of Three on a much grander scale.
Incidentally, the reverse doesn’t usually work so well: when a character reacts unpredictably to a situation we have seen him or her in many times. This has the character breaking a pattern that is already set for him or her. In fiction, breaking a pattern already strains believability, and needs careful setup. Throwing humor in there is usually too much.
Having a character react unpredictably to a familiar situation is a popular way to create drama though, such as an incident to move us from Act 1 to Act 2, or to resolve a climax. Humor here would sap the strength of the drama.
For example, consider the climax to The Truman Show. Truman finally sails to the end of his world despite all the obstacles its creators have put in front of him. Most of the movie is played as a comedy, with various funny things happening to our hero (hell, it’s Jim Carrey) but with a serious undertone. This isn’t a farce or sendup, our hero is trying to accomplish something.
So instead of another gag, to resolve the plot, the writers want Truman to make a fundamental change of character. Therefore, it must be dramatic. Truman makes his decision, he breaks out of his world into the greater world beyond, and his life is changed forever.
Once the climax is over, the humor can resume. Truman’s reaction to this new world and its reaction to him could have been played for laughs and it wouldn’t have lessened the climax. Done right, humor after the fact could have cemented the character change and intensified the climax. But that’s another story.
Stay tuned for Part 4: Instant Humor…