If you think comedy is about humour, you must be joking! People associate comedy with humour because many situations in comedy provoke laughter. But many stories that follow the comedy plot are not particularly humourous. And of course not all humour is comedy!
So far, all the plots we’ve explored have a five-fold development. Comedy is remarkably versatile and one reason is it has fewer steps. The first two are typically missing; if they are present, you are likely to have another plot with humour!
- We are introduced to a small world under a shadow, where everyone is confused, uncertain and frustrated. Usually the reason is a powerful figure who has taken the wrong path and so everyone has to work around her or him. The people affected work separately and so all their little schemes confuse one another.
- Confusion increases and leads to nightmare consequences, eg someone will be executed or made to marry the wrong person.
- New information comes to light that reveals the truth about the dark character who either sees the error of their ways or leaves unreconciled. With shadows dispelled, there is a seemingly miraculous transformation and everyone joins in a joyful union, often around marriage of the right people.
Evolution of Comedy
Most plot types are ancient and their origins lost in the mists of time. Comedy evolved during recorded history, it is only a few thousand years old. I’m not going into a lot of detail, you can find an account in Booker but there are a few things worth highlighting.
The key to comedy is the point of recognition, where everyone suddenly sees clearly what has gone on before. Recognition reveals the key dark character as a hypocrite, who either fesses up or departs never to return. It is this key revelation that is distinctive to comedy. This revelation prevents bad things from happening and so results in a happy ending.
Not quite so ancient but from a very early stage, lovers kept apart form comedy’s main preoccupation. Frequently the resolution revolves around one or both lovers identities.
We naturally find, in these stories, the pompous powerful figure shown up for their hypocrisy, hilarious. Think of Basil Fawlty, who is manager of a well-run hotel (in his own mind) and spends most of his time covering up the chaos happening behind the scenes.
Traditional comedy then has four key ingredients. You are likely to find vestiges of them in any comic story.
- The dark character softens or else is shown up or paid off.
- The true identity of at least one character revealed.
- Recognition of the true love so that right people pair off by the end.
- Division, separation and loss repaired.
There are many traditional comic devices and if they happen you are likely to be enjoying a comedy. These include disguises, mistaken identities, lost objects found, overheard and misinterpreted conversations.
Three basic variations go back to the earliest forms of comedy.
- The dark figure is a third-party and acts as a barrier to the lovers. This figure is often the father of the heroine or may be a rival to either the hero or heroine.
- The dark figure is either the hero or the heroine. The other must show constancy and eventually bring them round.
- There is no dark figure as such but things are generally confusing. The hidden truth revealed resolves the situation.
Note in the second, the dark hero or heroine must turn around to bring the story to a happy ending. In the first, the dark figure can be unreconciled and so removed from the story. This is unlikely where the dark figure is a parent and more likely where it is a dark rival.
Note too that for much of history, women lacked agency. So, in comedies they are likely to disguise themselves as men. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies use this device.
Above and Below the Line
Given a powerful person deluded is often the reason for confusion in the story, the question is: from where will they be opposed? They have power and often the rule of law on their side, so parents decide who their children marry, for example. The nightmare comprises power misused. The wielders of power do not have all the information and so think they are acting rationally. The audience sees the full picture and so knows they are mistaken.
Opposition must come from those below the line, those without power. This may be the dark figure’s wife, children, the lovers and servants. They may form an alliance to overturn the dark figure.
Below the line is the source of both opposition and insight. Think of Jeeves, who applies wisdom and helps Bertie out of the tight corners he gets himself and his friends into. Or Pierre in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. Here the dark figure is Napoleon and Pierre learns wisdom from the old man he befriends when taken prisoner by the French.
Is Comedy Artificial?
Perhaps of all the story types, comedy is the most self-conscious and contrived. It is easily burlesqued and the crucial recognition is often missing or the situation is reset at the end of each episode of a situation comedy.
Why then is it so rooted in modern Western literature? Perhaps because it is about handing on to the next generation. These stories are about the powerful older generation coming to terms with the new generation coming up to take their place.
Modern storytelling, often separates the serious love story from the comedy. We have stories like War and Peace, which is essentially a love story, with two main couples and little humour. Or else we have comedies like Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, where the lovers take second place to the humour.
Comedy and Business
Is it possible to use comedy in a business environment? Note this is not the same as use of humour. Certainly the heavy dependence on lovers and marriage suggests perhaps only for dating agencies!
However, from the earliest times, comedy pivots on a truth hidden from the players in a story revealed. Anyone who can say they were unable to see clearly and their misunderstanding confused others, may have a real life comedy story.
A Typical Business Comedy
A small business is in a state of confusion. The business owner is no longer clear about the orders she gives. She gives contradictory orders to her staff, or else they make no sense or someone else has already completed the task.
She plays the staff off against one another and does not encourage them to collaborate and in their efforts to please the boss, they compete and become more confused. Eventually a few realise they must confront their boss and tell her why she is no longer able to lead them.
Gradually it emerges the boss faces some life crisis and her attention has been elsewhere. Now all the staff can rally round and help her sort out her affairs and get the business back on track.
OK this is not a brilliant story but the point is to see the overall shape. A situation like this is rarely funny. It can be painful for everyone who lives through it. Usually businesses resolve such issues because the boss must leave or everyone else will.
Business people telling their life story often recount how something got in the way of their business, eg alcohol or depression. In telling the story, they often focus on their own experience and rarely on those around them.
Someone going through a personal trauma might say they were going into work wearing a cheerful mask. People see the mask and perceive the contradictions under the surface.
This story type may be helpful to those who can tell a story of personal pain and the impact it had on their immediate community.
The positive ending depends upon that crucial insight that opens everyone’s eyes so they see reality as it is. But what happens where the revelation never comes or comes too late? What happens where the dark figure triumphs and precipitates those around into tragedy?