Comedy is an incredibly tricky genre to write. What people find funny is subjective enough. But then you factor in the story element, which is just as subjective. Meaning that you need to hook your audience not once, but twice. First with the story, second with the comedy within that story.
But in the end, it all still boils down to one thing: characters.
If you nail a character in a comedy, the rest should come with ease. Just look at the early years of the Simpsons. Each character was distinct in both visuals and personality. Each time they were put into a situation, they reacted in a way that was a) befitting of their character and b) the funniest way they could in that given situation.
The problem is that a lot of characters boil down to a very similar kind of joke. For example: Homer Simpson was a lazy glutton, so they made lots of jokes about that. Bart Simpson was a troublemaker, so they had him cause as much havoc as possible. So on and so forth.
That begs the question: how do you make that same kind of joke funny? Unfortunately, many people answer with the same response: just go bigger.
A lot of comedy writers will focus on the funniest aspect of their character, then make the joke even bigger than it was before. Did the character do something stupid that was funny? Well, obviously, they’ll need to do something even dumber! That’d be even funnier, right?
For the first few times, it is! But the thing is: you can only go so far until it starts to become boring.
Take, for example, Kevin Malone from The Office. In the first few seasons, he was just a normal accountant with a big gut. But as the seasons went on, the writers started making him progressively more stupid for the sake of comedy. By the final season, the dude was basically autistic.
Another fantastic example from the same show was the character of Jim. Specifically, his pranks. In the early seasons, they were simple things. He’d stick Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O, move his desk bit by bit, harmless stuff like that. You know, like a prank your co-worker would actually pull on you.
Now compare that to the last seasons, where he’d set up elaborate pranks that likely consumed half of his annual salary.
This escalation is often the cancer that kills a comedy series. Sooner or later, you’ll start going too big. You’ll lose your audience who had become attached to the characters of old. When you replace your cast with caricatures of themselves, you’ll eventually lose them.
So, how can you avoid this problem? Well, the first solution is simple: end your series before the problem gets too bad. This escalation only gets unbearably bad when your comedy goes on for too long. If you end your story before the gags overextend their welcome, then you’ll avoid the issue just fine.
But what if you don’t want to end it anytime soon? What if you’re like basically every American television network and you want to drag this shit out as much as possible? Well, that’s when you sit down and draw a line.
A fantastic example of this is in Bob’s Burgers. The story stays reasonably grounded in reality, never becoming too absurd. All the situations the Belcher family end up in are grounded enough that it never requires the characters to overaccentuate their funniest character traits. Rather than trying to constantly one-up the last joke, the show satisfies itself with staying on the same level consistently.
There are many approaches to this issue. Again: comedy is a really tough genre to write for. For every one good comedy, there are twenty that fall flat on their faces. It’s an extremely tough line to walk.
But when you walk it well? You can create some truly amazing stuff.
That’ll be memed to hell in a couple years. There will always be memes…
4 responses to “The Escalation Problem of Comedy Characters”
I never thought about Bob’s Burgers as one of the rare examples do not doing this. That’s crazy that an animated show is one of the few not to make this dumb and ubiquitous mistake.
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[…] on Twitter about power creep in shounen titles, and pretty much everything I said over there could be applied to comedy, as this post from Jonah’s Daily Rants […]
Exceptional write and read. Has me going “Hmmm.” Thanks.
“This escalation is often the cancer that kills a comedy series.”
Kills a lot of series… Action series (glances quickly at Jack Ryan) often suffer from the escalation.
I think the Flanderization trope also applies here (to sitcoms): https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Flanderization
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