The characters in comedy, as I discussed in Casting Your Stories 2: The ensemble of characters, have been categorized and explored at least since the Renaissance, and can help you see the comic possibilities in your work. I’ll take a different cut at it this time.
Danny Simon said two things were most important to make a scene as funny as it could be:
- Have the right characters present.
- Make sure all the characters contribute through action, reaction, or dialogue.
For the present purpose, we’ll consider four kinds of characters. I’ll call them the Straight Man, Wile E Coyote, the Fool, and the Trickster.
In comedy teams (which used to be common), the straight man was the one who set up the jokes. The other team member — the comic or the banana man — got the laughs. So, here, the Straight Man keeps the scene on track. Usually, the Straight Man is seeking calm, order, and reasonable solutions. While his frustration may be funny, the Straight Man isn’t ridiculous, exaggerated, or (usually) needy. The Straight Man can be used to sharpen the timing of a scene by speeding up or delaying the payoff. He’s great to entrap in running gags and, because he is trying to bring something to resolution, he adds tension and encourages escalation. Watch Abbott and Costello (Who's on first?) or Burns and Allen (Say goodnight, Gracie) or Laurel and Hardy (Here's another fine mess) on YouTube. One of the best straight men in a sitcom was Judd Hirsch in Taxi (Reiger). Choose almost any episode, and you'll see him adeptly keep stories moving forward even as they threaten to spin out of control.
This character is less fun to play in its pure state. Someone like Sam in Cheers is only a part-time Straight Man. When he’s being the bartender, he’s serious and in control (often with an ironic perspective). But he also can be oblivious (playing the Fool when Diane is three steps ahead of him) or needy (when he is a Lothario).
I gave character 2 the Wile E Coyote name because the most obvious contribution is wanting something… that’s unobtainable. The Coyote will never catch the Road Runner. Lucy in I Love Lucy
will never become a professional performer. Cliff in Cheers will never be respected for his intellect. Louie in Taxi will never satisfy his lust or greed. In most cases, Wile E Coyote is typified by two things — persistence and lack of self-awareness. Wile E Coyote will never give up, always moving onto the next tactic. He’ll also never evaluate, understand why he has failed, or stop sending his money to Acme.
A Wile E Coyote is the most reliable source of laughs. He is laser-focused on his goal. He goes to extremes. The audience is always waiting for his reaction, expecting another stumble. The trick is making the stumble fit while still surprising the audience. Classically, showing someone approaching a banana peel sets up the expectation of a slip. Some laughter might come if the character steps on the peel and falls on his butt. But there will be more laughs if the character evades the peel at the last minute only to fall into a manhole.
There are variations here as well. In The Honeymooners, Ralph will do anything to get rich, but his schemes always fail. However, there is momentary self-awareness at the end when he has to deal with Alice. In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sally never will get a husband, but she is almost painfully aware of this, making self-deprecating jokes ("Listen, if any of you out there have a lazy brother, an unemployed uncle or a nutty nephew, you send 'em to me!").
The Fool doesn’t get it. Often, he gets it wrong. This can be a mechanism for stories that rely on misunderstandings. And poignant moments can be created when other characters work to protect the Fool. Latka ("") and Reverend Jim ("I wonder about things, like, if they call an orange an 'orange,' then why don't we call a banana a 'yellow' or an apple a 'red'? Blueberries, I understand. But will someone explain gooseberries to me?"), both of Taxi, are two of my favorite fools. One is a foreigner and one drug-damaged. It can’t be guaranteed that either will understand instructions or explanations. Like most fools, they are generous and want to be helpful, and the execution of these positive impulses can lead to disaster.
In general (and unlike Wile E Coyote), they don’t want anything for themselves. The audience waits for their input, but it’s difficult to anticipate what that might be. Writers are free to create crazier, more surprising responses. Often, their answers inadvertently lead to the solution to a story (or scene) problem. At times, it turns out that the Fool is removed enough from reality to provide answers that are truly wise. (Reverend Jim: If you find yourself in a confusing situation, simply laugh knowingly and walk away.)
Like the Straight Man, Fools often are given another dimension with time, especially in a sitcom where the character is likely to deepen in over multiple stories. Latka was, at times, not afraid to play the fool to get what he wanted.
The Trickster may be the rarest character in comedy. I suspect that’s because Tricksters are difficult to connect with. They stir things up and revel in chaos. They owe nothing to anyone else and often lack empathy. They don’t change. Ferris Bueller is my favorite example. He is the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Though he satisfies his desires, he mainly wants to stir things up. Though he catalyzes needed change in other characters, he has no compunctions about causing them anxiety and distress. You can count on the Trickster for practical jokes, sarcastic (even cruel) remarks, and unexpected truths. The Trickster doesn’t make things go sideways unintentionally. He is deliberate and amoral.
Though Hawkeye Pierce in MASH often wanted to satisfy his desires ("Life, liberty, and the pursuit or happy hour."), I think most of what he contributed in the early seasons of the show was almost pure Trickster. Breaking rules was more important than what he got from doing so. He disregarded authority and sowed the seeds of rebellion. He added energy and excitement and revealed what was inside other characters (usually, but not always, their flaws). Hawkeye was given more direction and moral standing in later seasons and he connected with other characters and even became vulnerable to them, but that’s not how it all started.
All of these are at your disposal for sweetening. Do your characters fit any of them? For a scene that needs to be funnier, are the right characters there? Do they show up and do their schtick throughout the scene? If not, imagine the scene with the right characters intruding when they normally would (either to get something or to help or to get things back on track or to stir things up). I suspect you’ll discover new opportunities for making the scene (and the story) funnier.
I have three online courses coming up: The Promise of the Premise, a Storytelling Workshop, and Developing a Web Series. The first is traditional, with lessons posted, exercises and interaction with me and among students via text. The other two are Zoom meeting, with writing, sharing, critiquing, and lectures. There will also be handouts.