Nobody Expects the Unexpected

Through no particular plan, I have been consuming a lot of media in a broadly comic vein recently – the first couple of the Thursday Next and Jack Sprat books, Black Snow by Bulgakov, psuedo-British sitcom Episodes, a couple of forgettable Tom Sharpes, while re-watching select episodes of Fawlty Towers, Archer and Allo’ Allo’. I even almost paid £3ish to re-watch Happy Gilmore with Clare so that my out-of-context quotation of that film would make a bit of sense to her. This captures quite a range of different comedic approaches in a relatively short time, prompting me to think about why I’m laughing at some and not others, feeling emotional engagement in some and not others, and what the basis of the comedy in each is.

The starting point for it all has got to be a hilarious routine from Ed Byrne where he explained how to tell jokes. The key, he said, is a surprising juxtaposition and so the perfect form of your basic joke is a sequence of three things, where the third is different somehow. The human mind’s search for meaning is so relentless and all-encompassing that just two things is enough to form a “pattern” for the third to break. The meta-form of comedy is the unexpected juxtaposition and it’s almost trivial to point out that this is also the meta-form of horror, which is why there’s always an uncomfortable transition where we laugh at the most horrific things in horror films. This is a structural inversion of tragedy, where we hope for the pattern to break but are inexorably pulled down into a disaster we understand only too clearly.

When academic texts discuss things like the centrality of weddings as essential to comedy, they really mean a very specific kind of comedy practiced by Shakespeare, and they don’t really address this central operating mechanism of the improbable juxtaposition. The example I have pinned on my dartboard is the description of detective stories as comedies because in the Agatha Christie tradition they do usually end with a wedding. The wedding is not an inherent feature of the basic design principle of the surprising juxtaposition and so it serves some other function. I suggest instead that weddings in both express a resorative/conservative ideology. The better argument for trying to include detective stories inside the widest definition of comedy is instead the unexpected nature of both the crime itself and the eventual denouement. The best detective stories lull the reader into thinking they understand the situation only to violate that understanding in the concluding moments. This is what makes them so easy to parody: they are already structurally comedic, all you need to do is change the emphasis of the revelation.

Where comedy gets interesting is when it just gives you the third item in the sequence, the pattern breaker. If we’re thinking about Agatha Christie as a comedic writer because her novels end with a wedding, we’re thinking about a storytelling convention that’s so well entrenched that it has become synonymous with the genre in which it occurs. The unifying stroke of genius then in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels is just that it exactly violates this basic rule: Wooster emerges from each novel as a bachelor. You could take this line even further, to say that what P.G. Wodehouse does in each novel is basically the same thing and in thus large part his comedy derives from things unfolding precisely as you imagine they will, but they are so tremendously counter-balanced by the convention-bound romance novel that it is still somehow surprising and delightful.

This basic stratagem relies upon an act of interpretation, because if you lack the wider context of the romance novel then you won’t understand in what way P.G. Wodehouse is violating its rules. This is the fate of Jane Austen, whose works are now sublimated into the straightforward romances which were the object of her gaze. The observer and observed have been unnaturally merged. This suggests that in some senses comedy is a fundamentally analytic genre. This helps us to make a distinction between “comedy” and “satire”, namely that satire is not necessarily intended to be funny in and of itself but is rather meant to show the incongruities and absurdities inherent in the object being satirised. Satire might also be funny in and of itself. Lots of really terrific creative works occupy an ambiguous space between the two, but my go-to example is Scream, as I have elaborated elsewhere.

This analytic stratagem means that comedy has often mimicked the form of another work even when not directly satirising that work. For example, Aristophanes’ Frogs involves a trip to the underworld to fetch back a recently dead playwright because his death has left a dearth of great tragedians in the Athenian theatrical scene. It uses the form of an epic quest, but it is not really satirising the quest directly. The central set-pieces of the play are about debating the value of art, which is the real target and the quest to the underworld has been a framing device for that debate. In fact, as a quest, it is entirely satisfactory. Poor Euripides is the real object of attack.

Without having articulated quite this theory of comedy in the past, I think it is this inherent purpose in the fictive work that has characterised my favourite comedies, and why I have struggled to some extent with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. Fforde has populated the books with all kinds of weird and interesting ideas, but I generally can’t quite see what pattern they break and so I don’t find the novels all that funny on the whole, which makes the parts that are obviously supposed to be funny a little jarring for me. For example, in the second novel, Thursday joins up with literary detectives from inside fictional works. Her mentor is Miss Haversham from Great Expectations, who is a fiend behind the wheel and has a rivalry with the Queen of Hearts. Hijinx ensue, but there is no obvious analytical frame for this apparently humorous interlude. I think for me, the disconnection between the character expressed in Dickens’ novel and the character who interacts with Thursday is too big. I can’t reconcile them as one character, and so it’s not so much the breaking of a pattern as a wholesale appropriation and re-purposing. For me, this version of the character doesn’t shed any light on the original either – so its potential satiric function is not realised. In the end, I have been engaging with the books as a kind of surrealist speculative fiction, rather than as a comedy; a form of engagement in which they seem perfectly satisfactory … it’s just that they are written as if I’m supposed to laugh. To a large extent I find the same thing with the Laundry files too.

I think there is a really lamentable trend in a lot of comedy to try and be reductive, to target the low-hanging fruit of the gross-out and the simply surreal, without the aim of really shedding any light on the matter. The worst comedy I’ve watched recently was Murder by Death [1976], because it told me absolutely nothing new about its nominal comedic target. It simply dialled up the absurdity already semi-inherent in the genre, so that you have these scenes which you’re supposed to find funny solely because they are a heightened version of a traditional country-manor scene. Clue [1985] just about gets away with it through sheer charm, but Murder by Death squanders any goodwill via heavy-handed denunciations of the genre from within the fiction. What results is a very odd disjunction where scenes have been lifted wholesale from country manor films acted in an slightly over-the-top way not uncharacteristic of the originals accompanied by a tirade from the putative victim of the film. In essence, that trades on that idea that the subject is inherently funny, so no new spin is necessary for laughs. If anything, Murder by Death most properly demonstrates how little the writers understand about the genre they’re aping. I suppose you could argue that this is a kind of meta-commentary on how the original genre allowed itself to get so ridiculous that a satire of it had nowhere to go.

The best comedic spin on detectives out there at the moment is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, precisely because it retains a central interest in the genre it mocks. It understands and represents the story interests that are familiar to its audience from Hill Street BluesNYPD Blue and others. It points out the ridiculousness of those originals, and their contrivances, but it never becomes lazily self-reflexive: it’s not trying to be in on its own joke, it tries to genuinely create the pattern-breaking behaviour that is the basis of comedy on the substrate of a “straight” narrative.

This is what makes comedy the most difficult genre to get right, and why comedy is the most dangerous tool for critiquing power. In The Name of the Rose, Eco spells this out – Aristotle’s Poetics of Comedy is perceived as a threat because laughter creates doubt. The mad abbot will stop at nothing to prevent this: murder is a lesser evil than laughter to those who secretly fear themselves to be ridiculous. This is also why the most successful – i.e. funniest – comedies are also the most cutting. If your comedy isn’t a little dangerous, chances are it isn’t a little funny.



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