The Funny Thing About Humor Part 5: Humor Under Stress
This is Part 5 of my series on humor.
Have you ever been in a stressful situation where someone says something not-so-funny, and everyone has fits of hysterics, but no one really knows why? You try to relate it to someone later but you give up before you embarrass yourself. “Guess you had to be there,” you mumble.
I’m not talking about nervous laughter, exactly. That is when people try to laugh to reduce tension, but they are not happy. It doesn’t do much for the tension, either.
In fact, laughter is such a part of our normal speech that we stick it in conversations that replace normal speech, such as texting, and even emails. omg ew! lol 🙂
Consider two young people on a first date. They are both nervous, so he tries a self-deprecating joke, like: “Sorry I’m late, but I had to run this shirt by my mom.” She replies with a shy smile. They drive to a restaurant. He tries a couple more jokes in the car. She smiles at the first and laughs the second. During the meal he keeps the gigglefest rolling. Later that night he drops her off and is rewarded with a peck on the cheek and a squeeze of the hand.
The next morning her friends swarm her for a recap of the previous night. She says he has a great sense of humor, although she can’t remember any of his jokes. That’s okay, they weren’t that funny anyway. But they did their job.
That kind of humor typically doesn’t work in fiction, unless the audience is truly caught up in the scene. It’s more of a visual thing too. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put that kind of dialog in your scenes — you should, because that is how people speak — but don’t expect your audience to find it as funny as you do. Or you would, if you were there.
It’s like the irritating “laugh here now” cue, otherwise known as the laugh track. It works in TV shows but books are spared this form of coerced mirth.
Hmm… maybe we could put it in a footnote?**
FYI, the laugh track was born on radio in the forties and found its way into television a decade later, where it became more and more popular, because it was cheaper than having a real audience. By the sixties it was a sitcom staple. It was even used in cartoons; they figured kids were too dumb to realize there could be no real audience for a cartoon. Or they didn’t care what kids thought.
Think the laugh track is gone? Sitcoms that are “filmed before a live studio audience” are still recorded, so they are not really “live”. This allows sound engineers to use “sweetening”, where they add artificial laughter to saccharine up the real laughter, or they wipe out the studio laughter altogether then dub in a laugh track using the real laughter as a cue. You would think that would hurt their critical potential, but even the Emmy Awards uses sweetening. It’s all about control, people.
There is a physiological reaction to note here too. Ever had the problem where you can’t stop laughing? Laughter stimulates emotional and endorphin release, which makes us feel good. This releases more endorphins, which makes us feel better. We get high on laughter. Jokes should be illegal.**
Anyway, what I’m really talking about in the context of this essay is the need to vent the pressure cooker of a tense scene or sequence of scenes, to let out a little steam before the pot (plot?) explodes.
This technique occurs all the time in fiction. It’s called comic relief.
The simplest form of comic relief is tossing in a joke now and then. The ideal timing is while the tension is building but not too close to the climax. You can use Humor in the Unexpected or draw on Instant Humor.
Let’s take two examples from The Avengers. In this movie, the forces of Earth face annihilation, and they are “hopelessly and hilariously outgunned”. So they call on a group of “lost creatures” to save them. Enter our superheroes. They are as different as superheroes can be, they don’t get along well together, and they didn’t ask for this. Oh, the possibilities for conflict!
First, recall the scene in Stark and Banner’s laboratory on the aircraft carrier, where they confront Nick Fury about what is really going on. The rotating rapid-fire arguing ratchets up the tension, released periodically by Stark’s witty insults and the beginning of a grudge match between Captain America and Iron Man.
In the meantime, the real climax is building without anyone noticing. This conversation is a distraction! It ends with a bang (actually several, from without and within) and our heroes see how Loki has been manipulating them the whole time.
A second example is near the end of the final battle, when The Hulk confronts Loki in Stark’s tower / mancave. Outside, the battle rages and Earth’s future is still in doubt, but the writers need the tension to last a little longer. So they introduce a little comic relief.
I won’t spoil it in case you have not seen the movie yet (see it! it was an incredibly well written and directed film) but I will say I have never heard an audience laugh so hard in an action movie. I couldn’t hear the rest of the scene. For the writers, it was mission accomplished: this bit of comic relief allowed the director to keep the action going for much longer than an audience could normally stand.
Another popular reason for introducing comic relief is to liven up a story that would otherwise be bleak and uninteresting, either because of the setting, or because the main character is the strong silent type. Many movies introduce a character specifically for this purpose.
Much better is to create comic relief from a “real” character based on his or her own traits. It should be predictable in that it fits the character, such as Humor in the Expected, and/or unpredictable in that it doesn’t fit the situation, such as Unexpected Humor in the Expected.
For example, contrast the characters of Jar-Jar Binks and Han Solo. Jar-Jar was a blatant comic relief character. The story needed him because the other characters were so dour (they were Jedi, that was the point), but he was otherwise superfluous to the plot. He was also dumbed-down for kids, and as a result most adult moviegoers hated him. So let’s ignore him and move on.
Instead, look at Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. He had a cavalier attitude toward life and was flippant in stressful situations. He was integral to the plot, likeable, and he could behave unpredictably sometimes because that was part of his character. Thus he was perfect for providing comic relief when the story needed it.
Remember when Princess Leia tells Han she loves him just before he was about to be frozen into an uncertain future? He only responds, “I know.” That’s Unexpected Humor in the Expected. It lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker, and then the lid slams back down as the carbonite seals him in. The climax of the scene hits harder because of that tiny release a minute before.
So in fiction, a little comic relief is not just for introducing humor for its own sake, it is to intensify the drama. It is the calm before the storm. It’s standing in the eye of the hurricane. It’s getting a brief respite from the battering winds, enough to take a breath and inspect the damage, and then bam! they blow you over.
From cooking metaphor to storm metaphor. I could write for Hell’s Kitchen.
Stay tuned for Part 6: Un-Humor.