Friday, February 15, 2013

Genre Savvy: Humor

Drama and Comedy were separated because the Greeks felt hope was evil and didn't want to deal with it.  Comedy meant silly things were to happen, which made people smile, and that wasn't hope, so it was good.  Humor continues that tradition of making people smile, laugh and generally feel good.  So much so, Humor is often leaks into, well, everything, even it's fellow over-genres.  Nothing escapes Humor, but often Humor escapes people.

As great and powerful as Humor is, it's also completely subjective.  I mentioned that some people enjoy depressing stories in the Drama article, but it doesn't make the events any less depressing.  At best, tragic events will anger someone over that stupid choices and actions of the characters, but even so, it'll be because it created sadness, not because they have a different perspective on what sadness is.  Humor, however, varies greatly between people.

For example, I love the movie Airplane!, a film that pokes fun at the string of 70's disaster films that dominated Hollywood for a time.  It's a great comedy, and if you haven't seen it, for shame.  The thing is, I think I like the sequel, Airplane II:  The Sequel, better.  Yet the films are quite different.  The original was based directly on an actual disaster film, Airport, so much so they were nearly copying it frame for frame, while inserting jokes as necessary.  The sequel takes all the jokes from the original film, and amplifies them and adds in other films (like 2001:  A Space Odyssey).  They're so different that even the makes of the original film had NOTHING to do with the sequel.  The result:  Some people hate the sequel with a passion.  Others, like me, like it all the more.

Actually though, both films represent the elements that make Humor work.  The first, of course, is laughter.  Both have them, of course, thought Airplane 2 has more jokes per second.  They come fast and furious, tapping into not only sight gags but reference gags to things only people around at the time would get.  It's funny watching William Shatner rattle off this rambling speech why a space shuttle crashes through the window, and he doesn't seem to even notice.  It's over the top and keeps going until the final moments (the film AND that speech).

So why, if the sequel builds on the jokes of the first, do people not like it?  If Humor is about making one laugh, then it should be better than the original, right?  Well, that's because jokes alone do not make humor.  As I said, the original Airplane! is based on another, serious film, Airport.  They modeled the acting and actions on that film, even having the film on the set so they could review it while making their comedy.  This dignified drama was thus given a full treatment of jokes at it's expense, like doing an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but with actors and sets rather than shadows and puppets.

Dignity, that's the opposite pole of Humor.  Without it, the jokes aren't nearly as funny.  A hobo slipping on a banana peel is funny, but a well dressed billionaire doing the same is hilarious.  Meanwhile, a bumbling billionaire slipping on the peel isn't nearly as funny as a hobo who acts like a gentlemen doing the same.  Watching someone who thinks highly of themselves knocked down a peg, even if it's only for a one off gag, is far more entertaining, and thus funny, than someone who is already a clown.  Might be why clowns aren't viewed as all that funny by many, they are meant to be the butt of jokes, and that lacks the punch.  Same with the difference between the two Airplane! movies, one is much more dignified than the other, so the humor is stronger.

So this is the point at which I pull out some webcomic examples, but for once, I've got WAY too many choices.  I'd say more than half of all comics on the internet are Humor comics.  From gag a day strips like Station V3 and Cyanide and Happiness, to long form comics like 8-Bit Theater, Humor comics run a massive gambit of strips, to the point of absurdity.  It also doesn't help that Humor is so subjective that finding a great funny comic is hard for me to do and justify beyond "well I think it's funny."  Is 8-Bit Theater's long joke funnier than the gags in Station V3?  Maybe, from a certain point of view, or perhaps they're equal, or the other way around, or neither are very funny at all.  Thus the riddle of Humor is forged:  Is it really funny, or is it just me?

Next time, I conclude this series, but not in the way one might expect.  Until then kiddies.

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