Elements: Frustrated Ambition

Posted on 19 August 2011

Recently, I have been teaching a class of eight to ten year-olds how to perform standup comedy. It has been an interesting task going through my notes and articles and extracting what is most basic about comedy and simplifying the concepts.

One big surprise was that the kids didn’t have a solid grasp on the concept that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This sounds obvious, because anything that exists in time automatically has these things, but not in the sense of creating a coherent story. So we had to discuss what makes up a beginning, what makes up a middle, and what an end. I will probably write an article about this in the near future.

The other discovery was that in going through my comedy elements, I seemed to have missed one widely used comic trope: frustrated ambition.

Frustrated ambition is where comic characters are overly focussed on attaining a goal, and are repeatedly foiled in their attempts to achieve it.

This often relies on exaggeration, one of our other elements. The comic character’s desire for their goal is inflated. So much so that they lose perspective on why they want this goal, whether or not they really need it, or if perhaps something better might be achieved by shifting their goal, and will take extreme measures in their pursuit. Sometimes they have lost sight of their true goal by getting overly caught up in a particular obstacle.

Probably the most classic example of frustrated ambition is Wile E Coyote. Wile E is portrayed as a scrawny desert coyote. However, he doesn’t seem to need the roadrunner for food. Otherwise, he might be willing to shift his goal from catching a roadrunner to catching anything edible. No, our coyote is a proud fellow who revels in his intellect. He must catch the roadrunner in order to establish his cunning and superiority. His desire is great, but his need is trivial…this is from where much of the humour arises.

The film Mousehunt is about two brothers who are doing all they can to rid their house of a mouse. They both start out with the reasonable desire of wanting to reclaim their lives after losing their jobs. That goal shifts to one of greed when they inherit a house that could be worth millions, then further shifts to eradicating a mouse when it seems to be in the way of their greed. The brothers get further and further away from what they need by losing perspective and fixedly following what they want. Their desire is great, their need is great, and they easily get caught up in trivialities.

In Buster Keaton’s short film “One Week”, what Buster and his onscreen bride want is to build their first home using a kit. However, one of her old beaus seeks revenge by changing the numbers on the kit boxes. We the audience know that Buster and his bride’s efforts are now doomed, but they don’t. The humour comes from the surprising ways in which their attempts to build the house fails and our empathy with their frustration in coping with a DIY project.

Frustrated ambition is the comic element that lends itself most to parables. We experience comic characters’s skewed viewpoint, and find humour in recognising how they are missing a bigger and more sensible picture. Mind you with Wile E Coyote some people come away inspired by Wile E’s humanity and indomitable spirit. “If Wile E can keep at it, despite the seeming impossibility of his task, then so can I…”

Peace and kindness,


Elements of Comedy Introduction

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