Well, I’m still in the mood for writing about the comedy genre. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at the subject of comedy and shock value. As with all creative things, there are no absolute “right” or “wrong” answers here and this article is just my opinion. After all, everyone has a different sense of humour.
Like with the horror genre, one of the things that good comedy has to do if it wants to work well is to shock or surprise it’s audience. Like good horror, good comedy often relies on playing with the audience’s expectations. To use a non-controversial and well-known example, just take a look at the classic joke “A man walks into a bar… Ouch!“.
As you probably know, this joke works because the beginning of it is similar to many other jokes (eg: “A man walks into a bar”), but the audience’s expectations are suddenly proved to be wrong when it’s revealed in the punchline that the “bar” is actually a metal bar. Although it’s comedic power has long since been blunted by common use, this joke relies on (mildly) shocking the audience in order to amuse them.
Of course, comedy often works in much more subtle ways than this. Good comedy is unpredictable and rebellious in one way or another. Whether it’s something as simple as a writer telling a story which occasionally goes in whimsically surreal directions, whether it’s a parody of a “serious” story or whether it’s very cynical and irreverent humour about a taboo subject, good comedy often relies on “shocking” the audience in some way or another.
Like with the horror genre, comedy – by it’s very definition – can’t be too “realistic” (unless, of course, you’re parodying an unrealistic movie or story).
Comedy has to rebel against expectations, conventions and realism to some level or another in order to work. Comedy relies on exaggerations, twists, taboos, irreverence, offence and other such things. It’s an anarchic and impishly unpredictable genre.
Of course, the real art form here is trying to find funny ways to shock your audience. Merely shocking an audience is not always, in and of itself, funny. After all, horror stories also rely on shocking their audiences too.
In other words, you have to find clever ways to either create expectations (or to go along with your audience’s pre-existing expectations) and then to break them in well-timed and unexpected ways. The only real way to learn how to do this well is to read, listen to and/or watch as much comedy as you can.
But, to give you an example, an ordinary person saying a four-letter word isn’t inherently funny. After all, unless you’re an extremely prim and puritanical person, you probably use your fair share of these words on a daily basis. It’s nothing special and nothing shocking. But, if a prim and puritanical person was to use one of these words, it would be funny because the audience wouldn’t expect it.
This contrast between a person and their actions is also why, for example, things such as [NSFW] these widely-publicised allegations about the (British) prime minister from last year resulted in widespread mockery, ridicule and general merriment rather than disgusted outrage.
If an ordinary person was accused of doing something like this, then it would quite rightly be considered to be disgusting rather than funny. But, because a prime minister (let alone a conservative one) allegedly did something revolting – but also technically harmless – it’s absolutely hilarious because it’s literally the last thing that anyone would expect.
Then, of course, there’s the somewhat trickier question of what is and isn’t “too shocking”. My personal view on this is that, because everyone has a subtly different sense of humour, there shouldn’t really be any formal or informal limits on comedy.
It’s kind of like food – I mean, you can buy hot chilli sauces and you can buy very mild types of mustard. Both of these things are spicy, but you probably prefer either one or the other or, more likely, something in between. If you’re more of a “mild mustard” kind of person and you accidentally end up eating chilli sauce by mistake, then it’s probably not going to be a pleasant experience.
No one would bat an eyelid if you then made the decision not to eat chilli sauce again as a result of this or even if you said that you personally don’t like eating chilli sauce. However, most people would consider it to be laughably ridiculous if you then earnestly called for chilli sauce to be banned from supermarkets and restaurants just because it didn’t fit into your personal tastes.
Not to mention that, as soon as you start trying to put limits on comedy, you also set up expectations… which comedians will just end up breaking for laughs. So, trying to censor or restrict comedy – however shocking it might be- is something of a fool’s errand.
So, yes, whether it’s extremely shocking or very mildly shocking, comedy has to be shocking.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂