The Wheel of Archetypes: The Comic Relief

I was going to write an article for you guys today, but you see I fell in with this lovely lady while I was out buying coffee and I just couldn’t tear myself away. No, seriously, I mean she handcuffed me and arrested me for harassment.

The above is lies, obviously. Cullen McCurdy does not “go out” for coffee. He keeps it in his house so he can brew it all for himself. You hear me, Davis & Sons? You’ll not have the deep roast! It’s mine! It was bought for me! Ahem. Anyway, we’re here to talk about the Comic Relief (the “college paper” rule of blogging: no matter how clearly you state your purpose in the title, you have to restate it when you mean to start). I don’t need to cite you examples of Comic Relief from media. I mean, c’mon now… is there any character more omnipresent, more endlessly reused, more often written badly so he/she/it/yourpronounhere comes across as desperate rather than funny?

This brings us to the first problem with the Comic Relief: half the time writers become too conscious of the fact that they’re writing a character who’s supposed to be funny. In the desperate drive for haha jokelaughter puns quipping the authors often forget to give the Comic Relief any other traits to speak of. Worse, they often seem to drain the other characters of any sense of humor for fear that the Comic Relief won’t be able to do his groan-begetting duty if anyone else reveals that they, too, hold the dark power of jesting. 

Just think of all the scenes in which characters who joke and laugh and goof around at other points in a story suddenly turn dour as the North Atlantic because the Comic Relief is in the room. The worst part is that none of us should have any shortage of examples as to how people actually react to jokes that don’t work. Imagine that you and a group of friends are just hanging out. No party, no business, just lounging in the kitchen or the living room or what-have-you. Your buddy Stevo (I hope you don’t actually have a buddy Stevo) decides he’s going to toss a joke out there. Some possible responses:

Option One: Stevo’s joke is hilarious. I won’t supply a hilarious joke because I can’t think of any right now. Everyone busts out laughing and a good time is had by all.

Option Two: Stevo’s joke just doesn’t work, perhaps because it’s too obscure. “She asked me if I’d ever seen a disaster like this at the beach, so I just said Gallipoli.” This does not work because (don’t lie to me, you know this is true!) you and the others haven’t studied WWI enough to understand. Everybody emits some variation on “Oh my God, that’s awful.” Stevo is aware of this and chuckles it off. Everyone is amused by the joke’s complete collapse, making it successful by proxy.

Option Three: Stevo’s joke is horrifying. As the ring of his sickening syllables pounds through your ears, you can feel the skin-peeling heat of eternal Damnation ripple up from below, for between his outraged tears God has condemned Stevo and all who knew him to the bleakest depths of Hell for their wickedness, for the irredeemable sin of making and hearing this verbal slaughter of humanity. “Oh my God,” you murmur, “That’s awful.”

These are three equally viable reactions to the conduct of the Comic Relief in reality. Now, we all know that I hardly consider reality as unassailable (THAT BASTARD!), but in this instance it’s the fiction which falls short of reality. I have never heard any sane person object to laughing at a harmless joke (jokes that are not harmless are another matter). Pained disbelief or incandescent fury at the notion that someone you thought of as a friend could find “(unacceptable Anti-Joke here)” funny is decent drama, and one of the less-overused forms thereof. How do most characters react to the Comic Relief? With bored irritation. That’s it. And when we see so many different characters in so many different works of fiction reacting the same way to the same type of character, it’s only a matter of time before we start doing the same.

I promise you this: as easy as you found it earlier to think of examples of Comic Relief in general, you’ll now find it incredibly hard to think of ones that weren’t just tiresome and annoying rather than actually funny. Not only do the reactions of the other characters push us towards this, but it seems as though far too many writers go out of their way to write characters who are intentionally unfunny and portrayed as such. Nine times out of ten they’re not even useful, begging the question of why anyone would actually keep them around. The rote answer from said characters is usually, “He’s my friend. You stick by your friends,” without ever explaining how they BECAME friends with such a draining dipshit.

So, how to execute the Comic Relief effectively? Well, there’s a wide range of opinions, but I’ve always found that if you tie the bastard down over a stout oaken board and let gravity do most of the work… whoa! Okay, okay, you’re right, that was too expected. Take your mouse cursor off that red X and let me finish, alright? The first thing is that the Comic Relief shouldn’t be the only funny character, nor do they need to be funny in every scene. That said, you should absolutely strive to make them actually funny. I can’t offer you specific examples of my own here because a good joke needs a lot of factors to come together to work to best effect. So, I’m going to cheat like hell and borrow from my late idol Terry Pratchett, he of Discworld fame. If you don’t think the Discworld books excel in both humor and overall writing, there’s nothing more for you to gain from my blog.

Rincewind. I could go to other characters, but why? Rincewind is a character who stands out for being hilarious even by the standards of a hilarious world. A wizard whose sheer incompetence (and exceptionally quick feet) allow him to blunder his way through problems. The formula’s not exactly new: plenty of Comic Relief characters are based on the idea of an a total failure saved only by incredible luck, and more than a few of them (BIIIIIIIINNNNNNKKKKSSSS!!!!!) are full-on rage inducing.

But, unlike other bumblers, Rincewind is one hundred percent aware of how shit he is. His first response in any situation is, quite reasonably, to not be in that situation. Rather than an innocent moron, we have a fairly intelligent guy who isn’t good at anything, knows he isn’t good at anything, and keeps getting sucked into climactic encounters in spite of his very responsible decision not to be a part of them. He becomes sympathetic because it’s actually not his fault (and he’s written by Terry Pratchett, which never hurts). Caught on the periphery of actors like the much more competent members of the Unseen University and the ageless Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, Rincewind brushes against glory constantly without any ever rubbing off on him.

You don’t need much more than that. Self-awareness is always pleasant in a character (as long it’s just self-awareness and not a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attempt to smear it on the reader’s temples). Writing the Comic Relief isn’t supposed to be easy, not if they’re a character same as any of the others. Just understand that humor can’t be forced and that it’s as much in pacing as anything else, and you’ll do fine.

Next time on the Wheel of Archetypes, the needle falls at the opposite end of the spectrum, on…

THE MAN WHO RAN OUT OF FUCKS (Forthcoming)

2 thoughts on “The Wheel of Archetypes: The Comic Relief

    1. Thanks Eric! And yes, I agree. I’d posit it’s the usual difficulty of writing a character who IS supposed to be an archetype without JUST being an archetype, compounded by the fact that comedy is an art unto itself and thus also damn hard to execute.

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