Elements: Fear Followed by Relief 8/10

Posted on 25 September 2009

Laughter when something seemingly terrifying turns out to be harmless is a classic form of tension release. I’ve seen this happen with bungee jumping. People who jump off that bridge with a bit of bungee attached to an ankle (and a body harness for backup) may respond by vomiting, crying, or laughing. The ones who laugh are more likely to recover from their fear and perhaps try it again.

This comedy element works best within stories where the audience is emotionally engaged with events. This way you can build tension up to the deceptive climax. In the Pink Panther series of films Inspector Clouseau institutes a training program where his hired assistant Kato must attack him “wherever and whenever I least expect it.” This becomes a running gag. However, because Inspector Clouseau is regularly in real danger, the audience is never sure whether it’s the villain or Kato who has just gotten the better of him, and laugh in pleasure and relief when it is Kato.

Comic horror movies regularly use this trope from The Evil Dead to Shaun of the Dead. The clever twist used in Shaun of the Dead was the audience would be shown something that was genuinely dangerous within the world of the film, the protagonists would at first feel threatened, then come up with an explanation that made their fear seem ludicrous and laugh, but the threat was real and they had just managed to unwittingly escape it.

In more dramatic movies you might find a character who upon being told they have cancer burst into fits of wry mirth. The laugh can be ironic or just the quickest way to cope. We may not get any physical relief from a traumatic situation, but the laughter provides the emotional relief that generates resilience and personal heroism.

Fear-relief humour can work for the individual raconteur on stage, and literature has made it work now and then. I remember one moment in the Harry Potter books where this was used. I remember many times laughing at silly ghost stories we used to tell when I was a kid at a slumber party. Probably the most effective media for this element are theatrical productions and film, where it is much easier to generate the sort of emotional focus and climatic tension necessary for big laughs. Give it a try sometime and let me know how you go.

Peace and kindness,


Elements of Comedy Introduction

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