Types of Comedy: Part Three – Situational Comedy

Posted on 30 November 2011

By situational comedy I am not referring to sitcoms. Though obviously, sitcoms will use the tropes of situational comedy. I am speaking of comedy that flows from a situation rather than one-liners or pratfalls. A good anecdote or shaggy dog story will use situational humour. What I love about this comedy is the jokes eventually write themselves.

Three elements make up the situation: characters, environment, and events. One, two, or all of these will need to be comedic in order to make the humour work. It’s possible that none of these elements separately could be comedic, but by bringing together the peculiarly disparate, comedy still ensues. However, I suspect that only works because characters start over-reacting, thereby making them comedic.

Characters

When you are performing on stage you will always be playing a character of some sort, even if that character is a humorous version of yourself. Rarely in situational comedy do you have a normal character, they will always be an exaggeration, even if it’s subtle. A character that is maintaining a sense of propriety in an out of control situation is demonstrating super-human abilities in remaining calm. Background characters who are serving as props to the main characters can be normal. Once a character gets entangled in a comic situation, they lose normality.

In Francis the Talking Mule you might be tempted to think that Peter Stirling (Donald O’Connor’s character) is the straight. After all, the talking mule is what makes the situation comic. You would be wrong. Francis delivers the straight lines and Peter over-reacts. Even Peter’s eventual acceptance of this absurdity is fantastic. Stand-up routines with puppets will often take this route.

Of course simply putting together apparently normal characters with widely varying agendas will create a similar humour without having to be quite so fanciful. Kindergarten Cop derives its humour from tough guy Arnold Schwarzenegger interacting with children. Cops are part of our normal experience. Children are part of our normal experience. A police officer trying to get the cooperation of a room full of five year-olds creates exaggerated misunderstandings and strange solutions.

Environment

Environment can be used to create “fish out of water” situational comedy. The Mr Bean series frequently uses this trope, but most especially in the movie Mr Bean’s Holiday. The title character wins a vacation to France. Early on in the film “fish out of water” is made literal by Mr Bean encountering an expensive French seafood platter and not knowing what to do with it. He is given instruction on how to eat the oysters. Sadly, he finds them nauseating and so pretends to consume them. The results are a lap full of oysters in need of disposal. Each step in this scene has its humorous consequences which leads to the next series of humorous consequences.

The film Galaxy Quest involves a story about actors who play space travellers suddenly having to confront actual space travel. They know how to deal with their fictional world on a television set, but have to draw on unusual personal resources to deal with the real thing. Role reversal stories also carry an element of environmental humour: a pauper having to cope with the complexities of royal living, a parent suddenly having to confront technological challenges teenagers take for granted.

A comedic situation brought about by a shift in environment involves exploratory and “sensawunda” humour. A character is in an unfamiliar place, they check out the objects, foods, vegetation, and people. From their ignorance they are placed in a childlike status and will make childlike mistakes, though perhaps to a monumental scale.

Events

Unexpected and outrageous events are the soul of situational comedy. They are what pump up the funny. The film Baby’s Day Out is set in the city and is a story about a child being kidnapped from rich parents for ransom. This could easily be a drama or thriller, except events lead us elsewhere. The baby sees a bird which it follows out onto the ledge of a tall building. When the baby crawls onto a two by four, it safely crawls across to another building and escapes. The movie is then a series of one unlikely event that rescues the baby after another.

A standard fantasy storytelling form is the quest. The Lord of the Rings features the quest to destroy the “one ring”. Other quests include to kill a dragon, rescue a princess, or retrieve a magical item. Each of these quests usually requires a certain set of steps in order to achieve their end. This structure easily provides opportunities for comic vignettes from each step/event. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure features Bill and Ted questing for historical figures who can help them complete a history project at school. The process of gathering each figure leads to laughable misunderstandings and mishaps.

Raconteurs such as Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, and Ed Byrne love playing with this aspect of situational comedy. One of the most amazing live comedy experiences I’ve had was hearing Ed Byrne tell a story about his girlfriend while intertwining it with the story of Cosi Fan Tutte. One event after another paralleled each other, until Ed brought the story to a spectacular operatic culmination.

Conclusions

Entire shows have been successfully made focusing only on physical, verbal, or situational comedy. A certain special pleasure comes when a skilled storyteller manages to combine all three. Such classics as The Princess Bride or The Pirates of Penzance come to mind. It’s well worth the effort to try each yourself, just to see what new places it may take you as a writer/performer.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine

Types of Comedy: Part One – Physical Comedy

Types of Comedy: Part Two – Verbal Comedy


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