Tag Archives: comedy

Humor from Role-Type Violations

[The recent success of Britain’s Mischief Theater Company in stage and video productions around the world is a reassuring reminder that the norms of comedy are alive and well.  As this essay suggests, comedy often flows from simple violations of what an audience might expect. It can be funny to see someone gleefully ransack the minor social conventions the rest of us are so careful to observe.]

There are many theories of comedy, and no shortage of academics and philosophers who have weighed in. As the cliché goes, it’s a serious subject. My favorite theory of humor in  dramatic settings proposes that our impulse to laugh flows from observing settings where individual actions violate normative expectations. We watch a play or film. The character that an actor is playing seems to be a recognizable type, perhaps a businessperson, a young suitor or a priest.  Comedy is often born in these surroundings when earnest characters fail to enact social scripts they have supposedly mastered.  That’s the premise of Mischief Theater’s The Play that Goes Wrong (2012), where crack actors portray members of an amateur troop that bungles a story that is supposed to be serious.

In traditional comedies the actions usually can’t be dire or cruel. But when a puffed up socialite gliding through a hotel lobby slips on a banana peel, that’s funny.  If the same thing happens to a child, not so much. The humor lies in the punctured dignity of the socialite’s pratfall.  It reminds us of the distance between who someone aspires to be and the mortal that they are, and it’s the essence of farce.

This is the set-up facing an earnest and tuxedoed Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1949).  He has dressed to be the perfect suitor for a shrewd young woman he wants to impress. The setting of a party is the right place to make the impression. But he just can’t quite pull it off.

Sometimes its words rather than behaviors that can be the source of violated expectations.  When Rowan Atkinson’s Father Gerald tries to perform his first nuptials in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) it becomes clear that the nervous priest has come up short in finding for the familiar language needed to help the equally jittery groom:

Another variation on the mismatch between a scene action  is to introduce into familiar surroundings a character who is physically or temperamentally out of place. Charlie Chaplin continually put his scruffy Tramp in reasonably affluent settings that emphasized the pathos of a kind little man facing a much tougher world. The contrast was greatest when he costars where beautiful women such as Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931) and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936). The effect of his efforts to romance them is both funny and sentimental.

Groucho Marx and Robin Williams created types defined more by their manic times. The often brilliant stream-of-consciousness riffs of Williams were at least echoes to the wisecracks and double-entendres that poured out of Groucho. In both cases there is comic power in characters who could leave the occupants in a well-ordered room looking like they just survived a tornado.

And, of course, that’s the point.  Comedy may seem to be only a source of passing amusement. But it is also a form of discourse that reminds us of how much social life relies on prescribed rules of conduct.

Doing What Comes Unnaturally

Source: Wikipedia.org

The experience of facing a discrepant and uncomfortable new role is universal.  Everyone knows the feeling.  We identify with the person who makes the effort to pull it off. 

Assessing someone’s comfort as a communicator usually involves comparing their perfected repertoire of roles against new roles thrust on them.  Over a lifetime we acquire all sorts of comfortable responses to settings and situations we have learned to master.  In the language of the theater, we know the scripts and we can easily pull of the requirements they place on us.

Functioning as an effective spouse, lover, best friend, reliable employee, dutiful parent, devoted son or daughter–even a competent chairperson of this or that committee–is not always easy.  Even when we think we’ve become more or less a one-person repertory company ready for prime time, life has a way of placing us in situations we did not seek. Maybe a person is absolutely uncomfortable speaking in public, finding the right words to say at a funeral, or facing the daunting task of dismissing an employee who has not worked out. We all know the feeling of being pushed into what academics would call a “discrepant role.”

Think of Cameron Diaz as “Kimberly” in My Best Friend’s Wedding. She is mercilessly set up by Julia Robert’s character to be humiliated at a karaoke bar. Kimberly couldn’t carry a tune even if she was given a waterproof bag.  Even so, her good-natured self easily triumphs over some truly awful warbling.

People who handle discrepant roles unusually well are usually called actors.  We marvel at how they can inhabit another character so different than who they are.  Theater is also a model in another sense.  Within the literature of drama the inability to successfully pull of the requirements of a setting is actually a major premise of comedy. We love to see characters having little success coping with unfamiliar social situations. Film and television stars ranging from Lucille Ball and Cary Grant to Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler have all sold plenty of tickets on the premise that a botched effort to pass off a different self can be hilarious. For the rest of us, a potential loss of “face” weighs as a good reason to recoil from what can look like a disaster in the making. And yet the existence of the familiar comedy trope of a fish out of water ought to give us some comfort. To be sure, we don’t want to be the source of someone else’s entertainment.  But the experience of facing and conquering what is for us a situational stretch is universal.  Everyone knows the feeling.  We identify with persons challenged by the new circumstance.  And we know that grace in handling the pressure counts for a lot.

For Americans public speaking is the most dreaded discrepant role. Many of us—actually about 30 percent—are terrified by the prospect. It ranks with snake-handling as a cause of fear.  And yet most of us do pretty well overcoming these doubts and finding that it is a challenge we can conquer.

There is no trick to overcoming this natural apprehension, but there is a useful method working past it.  Focus on what you have to say.  Think of a presentation as simply a heightened form of conversation about something you regard as important.  Don’t apologize for being nervous.  Use notes, but don’t memorize or simply read them.  Prepare an outline as an aid in delivering your ideas in your own words. This is called extemporaneous speaking.  You’ve prepared.  But you’ve also left yourself the advantage of delivering your ideas in your authentic personal style.  If a speech includes data like the line, “Because of epidemic in childhood obesity, many children are predicted to have shortened lives than their parents,” say it with the urgency and shock it deserves. Good remarks are simply an amplified and slightly more organized version of your conversational self.

Remember that audiences expect you to be you.  Even a discrepant role never really changes that.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu