10. The Comic Character: Controlled Disbelief

LAST NIGHT I WATCHED REX REED’S REVIEW of Rob Reiner’s film The Princess Bride.  I usually disagree with everything Reed says, which is half the fun of watching him.  One comment he made in this review was worth remembering.  He said that Reiner’s idea of creating a comic character was to give him a funny accent – and for Reed, that just wasn’t enough. A wizard who talks like a New York Jew?  Who can believe that?

Reed was right in principle. Using the wrong accent can destroy the believability of a character.  I think immediately of the movie Tess, in which an otherwise powerful performance by Nastassia Kinski was deeply marred by an accent that made it impossible for me to believe her as a Wessex girl.  In other films her accent hasn’t been a problem, but Tess was an adaption from Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and in Hardy’s works the Wessex milieu is so important that to be false to it is to be false to the story.  To me it was a serious flaw in a movie that reached for greatness.

If Kinski’s accent had been right for Wessex, I would not have noticed her speech at all. Because her accent was wrong, it weakened my belief and marred the movie.  But in The Princess Bride, I thought Miracle Max’s New York Jewish accent, dead wrong for the Romantic medieval milieu, was wonderfully funny.

What’s the difference?

Comic characters cannot be believable in the same way that other characters are. They can’t be unbelievable, either.  But comedy almost always deals with pain, and comic characters almost always suffer.  If we believed in them with the same intensity we bring to straight characters, their pain would be unbearable.  Instead, the author gives the audience clues that the character is not to be taken seriously.  Something is made deliberately “wrong” about the character, so that we know we aren’t supposed to react with sympathy.  Instead we’re supposed to laugh.

That’s what Miracle Max’s accent helps to do. There’s no way he could have a New York Jewish accent.  We instantly recognize that he’s wrong, out of place in the story.  Yet he is exactly what we need: The hero of the story has just been killed, and we’re hungry for relief.  Max lifts up the hero’s arm, lets it drop limply to the table, and says, in his impossible accent, “I’ve seen worse.”  We laugh because of the wrongness of his response.

At the same time, because this is a Romance, we hope that Miracle Max’s name is for real. We want him to be able to resurrect the hero.  Max’s magical powers are not a joke – they are important, and within the context of the story, they are believable.  Max’s Jewish accent, being false, makes him comic; his magical power makes him important.

The problem is that the audience still has to believe in and care about comic characters. The goal of the comedy writer isn’t doubt, but rather controlled disbelief.  Characters must be believable enough that the audience will say, “Yes!  Isn’t that the truth!  Isn’t that what always happens!  I’ve known people like that!  That’s exactly what always happens to me!”  Yet the same characters must be unbelievable enough that the audience doesn’t feel obliged to empathize with them.  The character must constantly give the audience permission to laugh at their misfortunes.

That’s why comedy is so much harder to write well than straight fiction. The comedy writer always walks a delicate line between being too believable, and therefore not funny, and being too unbelievable, and therefore losing the audience’s interest.

Remember that comic characters appear even in the most serious works, and that even the most serious characters have comic moments. And when you introduce a comic character into a story that must be utterly believable, the fragile balance of controlled disbelief becomes even more important.

Here are some of the devices we use to signal the audience that it’s all right to laugh:

DOING A “TAKE”

The simplest way of signalling comic unbelievability is to talk directly to the audience. In non-comic fiction it has long been out of fashion to write passages directly to the “dear reader,” and in non-comic film and television, while we accept the convention of an occasional narrator who speaks to the audience, we don’t expect a character to do so.  Comedy, however, constantly breaks the convention.  Woody Allen has his comic characters speak to the audience in film after film, using both voice-over narration and on-screen comments.  On TV, Dobie Gillis spoke to the audience – but only when he was alone on screen.  In the action comedy Moonlighting, every episode has at least one moment when one character reminds another of the fact that they’re on a television show with an audience watching (“Why are we stopping here?”  “It’s time for a commercial.”)  For me, this device is too heavy-handed – it has crossed the line so far that it makes it hard for me to take the serious aspects of the show seriously; for many other viewers, however, it’s the highlight of the show.

You can have direct contact with the audience without actually speaking to them. At one point in Beverly Hills Cop – an action movie that depends on our taking pain and jeopardy very seriously at times – there is a moment when Eddie Murphy is told something that strikes him as outrageous, whereupon he turns and looks straight into the camera with no expression at all on his face.  He holds that connection for a single beat, not even a second, and then goes on.  But the audience laughs in delight.  Murphy’s momentary awareness of the camera is not enough to destroy the audience’s belief in the story, but it is a good comic signal not to take everything too seriously.

This is called a “take,” a straight-to-the-audience reaction. The late comedian Jack Benny was the master of the take.  Sometimes it seemed like he could stretch a take forever, earning laugh after laugh without saying a word.  How did it work?  Another character would say something outrageous, something that was either so dumb or so wrong or so rude that it would take a thousand words to answer.  But Benny said nothing at all.  Instead, he folded his arms and looked at the audience – a long, lingering look, with a disgusted expression on his face.  Finally he turned back to look at the person who said the outrageous thing – but still couldn’t answer.  So again he would look at the audience.  Sometimes, in despair, he would say, “Well.”  The audience would roar with laughter again and again during the take.  I never saw it fail.

But Jack Benny was doing it in front of a live audience. How does a fiction writer do a take?  One way is to insert comments to the reader.  Kurt Vonnegut used to do it all the time.  He’d pick a phrase like “so it goes” or “hi ho” and interject it repeatedly after something awful happened in the story.  It provided exactly the same degree of controlled disbelief as Jack Benny folding his arms and looking at the audience or Eddie Murphy doing his deadpan take and then turning back to the action.

You can do it less flamboyantly than Vonnegut, of course. It can be done with a fillip of attitude:

I yelled at the cat, kicked at it – finally it dropped the squirrel and took refuge on the neighbour’s porch. The baby squirrel just lay there, trembling, but it didn’t seem to be hurt.  No blood, anyway, and as I reached down it took a few steps, so nothing was broken.  I picked it up and carried it back to the tree, feeling like a hero for saving its life.  Of course it bit my hand.

The paragraph ends with the narrator in pain. But the “of course” is a take – the narrator is looking at the audience with a mixture of disgust and resignation.  You might as well give up on gratitude cause you ain’t gonna get it, says that of course.  It’s a way of putting some distance between the audience and the pain.

We can do the same thing without a word.

I yelled at the cat, kicked at it – finally it dropped the squirrel and took refuge on the neighbour’s porch. The baby squirrel just lay there, trembling, but it didn’t seem to be hurt.  No blood, anyway, and as I reached down it took a few steps, so nothing was broken.  I picked it up and carried it back to the tree, feeling like a hero for saving its life.

It bit my hand.

The paragraph break emphasizes the next sentence, calls attention to it, makes you pause just a beat to digest it. It’s a take.

EXAGGERATION

Let’s continue the story:

…I picked it up and carried it back to the tree, feeling like a hero for saving its life.  It bit my hand.

I put a bandage on the wound, but it got infected anyway. When my hand turned brown and got to the size of a boxing glove, I went to the doctor.  He injected a quart of penicillin into my backside even though we both agreed that the problem was in my hand.  As I left, he gave me several brochures about various brands of artificial arm.  “You might want to look these over and decide which you like best,” he said, “just in case you don’t get lockjaw and die hideously.”

I promised him that next time I’d take animal bites more seriously. I also made a firm resolution to look for every opportunity to feed baby squirrels to cats.

It is true that leaving an animal bite untreated could lead to gangrene, tetanus, or even rabies.  But as you read this passage, you didn’t for a moment believe that the narrator was really on the verge of losing his hand.  Nor did you believe that his hand was really the size of a boxing glove, or that the narrator would actually catch baby squirrels and feed them to cats.  The remark about squirrels was an exaggeration of his chagrin at how his kindness to animals turned out.

Note, though, that in this version the narrator does not do a take, or give any other sign of the reader that he thinks this passage is funny. A vital principle of comic writing is not to laugh at your own humour – not to give a sign that either the author or the characters are amused at their own clever wit.  It would have been deadly if the doctor’s exaggerations, instead of being delivered deadpan, had been reported like this:

“You might want to look these over and decide which you like best,” he joked, “just in case you don’t get lockjaw and die hideously.” He giggled insanely as I left.

Now, I can’t be sure that you thought the first version was particularly amusing, but I do know that this version is considerably less funny.  This time the narrator tells us the doctor was joking, which spoils the fun of figuring out that the narrator is exaggerating.  And the line about giggling insanely carries exaggeration too far.  The writer is trying too hard, the disbelief is out of control, and both the humour and the story are dead in the water.

DOWNPLAYING

The reverse of exaggeration is for a character to downplay the importance of her problems. Imagine a comic character being held at knifepoint by a vicious enemy – not usually a funny situation.

If your strategy were exaggeration, you could have the heroine immediately begin to plead for her life in a comically exaggerated way. She would start to cry, fall to her knees, grovel, whine, and if you carry it just far enough, the audience will laugh.

But you could also have her downplay her fear. She could plead for her life with comic nonchalance: “I think we’ve got a little misunderstanding here.  I don’t know how you ever got the impression that I didn’t like you.  Actually I look up to you.  I want to be just like you.  Where did you buy that great knife?”

That same exaggerated nonchalance, that comic coolness, can show up in the narration.

His ex-wife left him with so little that when his apartment got burglarized it took him an hour to notice it. He took a shower, fixed dinner, and read the paper; only when he went to turn on the TV did he realize it was gone.

 

A mild exaggeration; a mild amount of humour. But now we’ll make it first person and exaggerate his nonchalant attitude a little bit more.

I got home, saw the drawers dumped out, the couch ripped open, all the books off the shelves, and the TV missing. At first I figured my ex-wife had sent her lawyers over for another round.  I only realized it was burglars when I saw that there wasn’t a message in lipstick on the mirror.  Usually she wrote things like “Die, capitalist pig” or “Helter-Skelter.”

Not for a moment do you believe that the narrator thought any such thing. He’s just being nonchalant about the burglary – and exaggerating his ex-wife’s behaviour, too.  We aren’t expected to believe his nonchalance.  He is going through things that would make a normal person angry and afraid; but by downplaying his response to them, the narrator makes it amusing instead of infuriating.

ODDNESS

When eccentricity is taken to extremes it becomes less believable, eventually leading to farce or melodrama. Oddness is the prime tool of the comic storyteller.

The use of a Jewish accent for Miracle Max is an example of simple oddness. The misplacement of a stereotype makes us laugh, makes us take all that the character does a bit less seriously.  But stereotypes can only take you so far.

The same thing is often done with the way a character dresses. Costume is a stereotype – a construction worker dresses a certain way, a ballet dancer another.  Putting a character in inappropriate dress can also make us laugh.  That’s why we have seen so many comedies with men in drag.  Show a character wearing white socks with brown shoes and a blue suit, and we know he’s a geek.  Shakespeare makes Malvolio in Twelfth Night appear on stage comically dressed and cross-gartered as the result of a practical joke, and we laugh.  It makes him funny – but it doesn’t make us care.  Malvolio is made ridiculous by his absurd apparel; he is made important by the reasons for his strange clothing.  The clothing, by itself, would be a trivial effect.

The trouble is that oddness is a tool you normally use for minor characters.  Oddness, by itself, can’t make a character major.  It can even diminish a character.

If you have a major comic character, you’ll use all the Romantic and Realistic techniques of characterization. So what makes him comic?  It’s a matter of timing.  Very early in our acquaintance with the character, before the other techniques have had a chance to win the audience’s firm belief, you undercut those other techniques by making the character just a little too odd or extreme to believe completely.

It’s hard to imagine a serious play that couldn’t be turned into a farce using this technique. King Lear could be hilarious with Bob Newhart in the lead.  Imagine John Candy as Macbeth or Howie Mandel as Oedipus.  If you recognize these comedians’ names, you already know something about their eccentricities – Bob Newhart’s resentful meekness, John Candy’s cheerful but brutal insensitivity, Howie Mandel’s manic indecisions.  If you saw them in these plays, their eccentricity would assert itself long before the other techniques of characterization came into play.  Picture these moments:

Bob Newhart, looking slightly peeved and intoning, “Blow, winds! Crack your cheeks!”

Howie Mandel nervously rejecting several brooches until he finds just the right ones to jab out his eyes with.

John Candy’s blustering confidence in himself as he tries to deal with the witches, while Gilda Radner, as Lady Macbeth, pushes him out of their room to go kill Duncan.

You would not believe any of these performers in their roles, not if they used their comic personas.  But it is precisely their controlled disbelief that would make their performances hilariously funny.

Among these lines, it’s worth pointing out that eccentricity, if carried to extremes in a major character, eventually becomes the subject of the comedy. Ben Johnson called it comedy of humours – comedy arising from a character being completely dominated by only one desire or temperament.  Misers, hypochondriacs, hypocrites, cowards have traits that all humans share to some degree.  Exaggerate the trait enough, and the characters are unbelievable enough to be funny.  Exaggerate the trait out of all proportion, and they become either monstrous or utterly unbelievable.  Comedy of humours carries exaggeration right to the edge of unbelievablity or monstrosity.  Your story can still be funny, but it also reduces your ability to move your audience.  The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers made people laugh, but they never really made people care.

©MarshallDodgson, 1973.

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