Stories, Comedy, and Emotion

Posted on 13 March 2012

Why do we like films? Why do we like television series? Why do we like comedy? Two key elements are having the opportunity to observe other people’s lives and to share in other’s emotions.


We are constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with the people around us and the people we experience in stories, whether the stories are fiction or non-fiction. When we diverge from what seems to be standard or what we set as our standard, we question ourselves. That questioning includes whether we are feeling the right things at the right moments. Humans are a pretty insecure bunch.

On a less insecure level we are also curious about the diversity of human behaviour and experience. It’s useful to practise empathy. Empathy makes civilisation possible. More problematic is when we have cut ourselves off from our own emotional experience and seek vicarious emotional rushes from the extreme behaviour of others.

Emotion and Subtlety

When writing comedy we want to take people on an emotional journey. People tend to better remember those moments where we inspired tears or laughter, than what only intellectually engaged them. So, we want all the fervency we can pack into a five to sixty minute routine or sitcom. The problem is you can’t start with trying to deliver an emotion. You have to start with a story.

Story provides context. We know certain situations are sad, happy, or funny. If we plunk a character within sad, happy, or funny circumstances, people will automatically start interpreting that character’s behaviour as being reflective of those circumstances. Subtle acting and storytelling techniques are often the most effective, because audiences more frequently experience having to interpret emotion, rather than being confronted with someone emoting at them. They are more likely to believe subtlety.

Sergei Eisenstein is one of film’s and film theory’s earliest pioneers. He demonstrated that when you create a montage of terrifying events, if you then follow this montage with an image of someone’s face, that face can be completely neutral, but the audience will see it as expressing terror. Putting certain types of music behind a neutral face will also encourage particular interpretations.

Emotion and Exaggeration

Now you may be saying to yourself: but I do comedy, and comedy often uses emotional exaggeration. Yes, it does. You still have to understand the subtleties in order to more effectively wield your giant comedy hammer. Not everyone in a comedy routine or story is going to be exaggerating or using the same sort of exaggeration. Your comedy leads may be playing off straights in order to create a comic contrast. Your comedy lead may be mostly straight, and it’s funny when they lose their cool in an exaggerated manner.

In the new Australian comedy Woodley, Frank’s estranged wife is practical, down-to-Earth, and sober. He wants to win her back and knows he needs to bring a seriousness to his behaviour that just isn’t part of his character. So when we sense she is assessing Frank and he is making increasingly outrageous mistakes due to his nervousness, the dynamic feels right. Our own mistakes feel exaggerated when we are squirming under what we assume is a judgemental eye. We empathise with Frank and find the whole thing exceptionally funny.

Show Me the Emotion

Woodley is a particularly good example when it comes to emotion, because it almost entirely follows the old film dictum, “Show us, don’t tell us.” When Frank is standing on a bridge dressed as a giant mascot egg and is about to jump, he doesn’t tell us he’s in despair, he shows us. He doesn’t even tell us why he is in despair, we are shown that in flashbacks. We then share some of his feelings.

As comedians we often base our routines on our own lives. Humour is a way to gain perspective on our lives, but it doesn’t guarantee perspective. When we feel something deeply or strongly, the temptation is to try and enforce that feeling on our audience. So we may over-describe or over-emphasise the importance of an event. We may say “I was SO ANGRY!” rather than showing the audience angry or simply presenting circumstances that would make anyone angry.

In the end you can’t demand people feel things. You can only provide the context whereby they may allow themselves to feel emotion. This is where you have to be honest about your own feelings and you have to respect other’s feelings every time you tell a story. The better artist avoids emotional manipulation. The better artist educates us in what our emotions are and how we can make them a part of a mature and fulfilling life.

Peace and kindness,


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