You know, Anton Chekhov actually considered some of his plays comedies, which is something to this day is hard for me to wrap my brain around. I’ve actually been in a production of The Seagull, the “comedy” where the rifle introduced in the second act is the same one the main character shoots himself with in the third. And speaking of Chekhov’s guns…
Last week I touched on the very inexact (yet crucial) goal of having character actions and, especially, reactions, fit the situations they face in a way that reinforces their identities for the audience. Now one thing I didn’t bring up is that one of the easiest ways to create comedy is subverting expectations along such lines; for instance, the character of Chumley the troll in Robert Aspirin’s Myth Adventures series seems stereotypically large, mean, and ugly, until he privately reveals it’s all an act and he’s really a quite cultured chap who enjoys nothing more than a good read and a spot of tea. Even in a more dramatic story it’s not a sin to throw in a surprise here and there, because people really are surprising creatures. How many times have you given, received, or witnessed an exclamation of, “I didn’t know you could do/liked to do that!”? Comedic writing plays such revelations out for laughs, though the really stellar examples don’t just use it for a single joke but will actually incorporate it into the character after the initial shock, to where later on it seems only natural.
Put more simply, the macho (American) football linebacker who is discovered to be moonlighting as a ballet dancer is an unexpected twist. Okay, arguably that’s an old one that’s played out by now, especially since there really are macho football players who do ballet. But bear with me, because despite all the good points brought up about the benefits of ballet, showing a bunch of big burly guys wearing tutus with their football jerseys is obviously staged for the funny. And funny it is, at least in my view. Yet I find myself appreciating a comedy show like 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation which may seem like they’re just going for a cheap laugh, but then 15 episodes later may have that football player suddenly hold forth on the story behind Swan Lake and how it applies to the current crisis, reminding those of us who were paying attention that yes, he was established as having that background in ballet. It’s related to the concept of the Brick Joke, and it’s a strangely satisfying reward for loyalty even (or perhaps especially) in the midst of the absurd, because it also functions as a character moment.
Something to ponder, even if you’re not writing with humorous intent. A lot of the basic building blocks remain the same.