While driving into work yesterday, I started thinking about humor for some reason. I guess I was thinking of practical jokes, of the variety that Ashton Kutcher purveys on Punk’d, and why I find such jokes shallow and cruel and not very funny. It seems to me that such jokes are funny because the audience knows something that the subject does not. It puts the audience in a position of power and superiority over the subject, which is particularly pleasing when the subject is a figure of authority or popularity. Then if the subject reacts violently or aggressively upon the joke being revealed, the audience can feel even more superior because the subject “can’t take a joke”. It’s an exercise in reversing power relationships, which, while I can make up some pop psychology to justify it, doesn’t really amuse me. It’s a cheap laugh designed to make people temporarily feel better about themselves at the expense of others.
So that leads naturally to the question of what does amuse me? My preference is for humor that flows naturally from character. Stuff is funny to me when it is an outgrowth of who people are. The best examples I can think of are from fiction. Buffy was funny when it took well-established characters and put them in wacky situations, and just let them be themselves. The scene in Becoming where Spike and Joyce are uncomfortably sitting together in the living room having coffee is absolutely hilarious because each character was so well-defined that the incongruity of the situation spoke for itself. They didn’t have to say a word to make it an incredibly funny scene. Or the dinner party in Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, where she basically spent half the book giving us the character background necessary for us to appreciate the shenanigans that happened when their storylines all collided at the dinner party.
On the flip side, I detest most sitcoms for the same reason. The humor is so broad that you could put any character in that situation without changing the humor value. And since the show writers don’t need character development, they don’t do it, leaving shallow caricatures.
Thinking about it some more, I realized that the same applies to drama vs. melodrama. Drama is driven by character traits, by characters being forced to make more and more unpleasant decisions because of who they are. And it doesn’t work without well-developed characters; otherwise, the audience is left going “What a stupid decision!” For it to work as drama, the character must have reasons for continuing down their path towards self-destruction, whether it’s pride or fear or anxiety. We must be able to sympathize with the character, to be able to place ourselves in their position, because if we can’t understand how they would make that decision, it doesn’t work as drama. I mentioned some similar ideas in my review of This Is How It Goes.
The sitcom equivalent in drama is melodrama, where the situation is so broad that it is not character-specific. Children dying, natural disasters, amnesia, all melodrama. It’s tear-jerking crap. I’m not saying that you can’t construct drama out of such situations, but it is often a lazy device to allow writers to save the effort of writing good characters.
Anyway. Random thoughts from yesterday’s drive in that I wrote up last night, but didn’t get around to posting until this morning.