Monday, December 31, 2007

Humor and Characters

I like humor. I think that everything is better with humor in it.

But, like most people, I have humor I like and I have humor I don't like. For example, I can't stand South Park. I have never laughed at any part of South Park. There are occasional moments of mild amusement. That's it.

I guess everyone gets used to giving half of all humor a hairy eyeball.

Sometimes, though, things get a bit odd.

There are a lot of comics out there that I don't like. For example, Pearls Before Swine. When I read it, I don't see humor I don't like. I could deal with that, just dismiss it. Instead, I see inept humor. I see weak punch lines, poor pacing, and talking heads.

I assumed that it was simply bad. I can see what they seem to be trying to do, and I can see them fall short. So it's bad, right?

Apparently not. It's one of my dad's favorite comic strips, and it gets pretty solid reviews.

I had the same theory about Todd and Penguin, but it gets some pretty good reviews as well...

Looking into it, I find that the big thing that people seem to like about these comics are the characters. They enjoy seeing what the characters do and how they interact. This is not something I feel, even after reading hundreds of these comics. They all seem so painfully bland to me.

I didn't really think that my sense of humor was excluding characters. It's not that I run around saying, "ooh, it's got a character in it, I don't like it!"

But now that I think about it, that's pretty much the case. I like situational humor rather than personal humor. I like the tornado-torn house with a sign saying "landscaping by Jim". I like the Ministry of Silly Walks. I like Terry Pratchett. I like one-liners and absolutely terrible B-movies. I even like Scrubs.

All of these things have one thing in common: they have really strong situational humor. There are characters, but in most of them, the characters aren't really the point. They're just there to get us in and out of situations.

Scrubs is an exception: it's got situational humor, but it's also got a lot of character humor. And now that I think back on it, I have a clear line as to what I found funny and what I didn't. I find it funny when the radio wristwatches bounce around screwing scenes up. I don't find it funny when the ex-wife walks onto the stage and makes someone's life more miserable.

Looking at more examples is pretty easy. I can't stand Napoleon Dynamite. Why? Because it's basically a bunch of characters going around being extremely uncomfortable and/or idiotic. Doesn't interest me in the slightest. The situational humor is almost nonexistent: instead of the characters serving to take us from situation to situation, the situations serve to take us from character to character.

It's not that I simply don't find it funny. I actually find it acutely uncomfortable.

Most character humor revolves around making a character miserable or worthless. Humiliation, pain, idiocy... I don't like it. Character humor which uses milder approaches is simply boring to me.

But it doesn't bore me any more, because now I'm looking at it from a "meta" perspective. Even though Pearls Before Swine occasionally tells the same joke that a situational comic might, they tell it with a radically different focus and sense of pacing. Here's an ideal example (link will stop working in a few weeks): link. This is the funniest one I could find.

I look at it and all I see are flaws, because I'm looking at it from a situational perspective. I have the instinctive urge to cut half the dialog, maybe even try for single-panel or nested-panel, like the Far Side. But at least I find the underlying concept funny.

Rewind or fast forward, the strip is surrounded on all sides by character humor. You can clearly see the kinds of humor I just don't get.

I think this is interesting.

Do you see what I'm talking about? What kinds of humor do you like?


Teri said...


Textual Harassment said...

Character comedy only works if you allow the characters to grow on you. When you watch The Office or Keeping up Appearances for the first time you just see a bunch of silly people doing silly things. But after a few episodes you get a feel for the characters and the humor changes from "what a comical turn of events" to "Let's see how this person is going to react".

I don't agree with you that character humor is mainly about being cruel to the characters. I don't like it when a character is about to get humiliated for no reason; it literally makes me want to stop watching. However if I learn something about the character I'll watch. Micheal Scott from The Office is a really pathetic character but somehow they make it enjoyable to watch him. I think it's because every time, you feel you're a little closer to figuring him out.

I remember laughing at Napoleon Dynamite but I also remember beer being involved. YMMV. It's more difficult in movies because you have a very limited time to get your audience on board with the characters. You have to use shortcuts and stereotypes. And if the audience doesn't follow your cues they will hate the character.

Scrubs is too situational for me. It's tiring and I don't care aout the characters. They all feel fake but the show tries to make me care about them anyway. Shut up, show.

Craig Perko said...

Re: Teri's post

Yes, happy new year to whoever wants one.

I find this kind of comment interesting. It's their first comment, it's off topic, it's basically spam, but it's so inoffensive that people won't bother to delete it. It increases their web presence by a tiny bit, maybe that pays off, especially if they have a bot auto-post them.

His-her-or-its blog is kind of bizarre. I can't rightly call it a classic spam blog, as it has actual content. Sure, the content is cut and pasted from Wikipedia, but it's not like it's linking to anything.

The site is full of ads (and buckshot keywords), which is presumably the purpose. By creating a few dozen of these inoffensive blogs, they might rake in enough to make it worthwhile...

Fascinating. If "teri" checks back, I'd love to hear about it. If he, she, or it speaks English...

Craig Perko said...

Re: Textual

I agree for the most part. I also agree that you are disagreeing with me about cruelty: I find that most character humor is cruel, even if it's not very vicious.

Much of what makes Michael Scott funny is the way that he makes every situation uncomfortable.

On the other hand, the same kind of thing - a character that makes the situation uncomfortable - can be used for situational humor. For example, Ted the Lawyer in Scrubs.

All of his scenes involve him being really, really awkward, which is basically a mild cruelty. But the bits I find funny are when his awkwardness radically recasts the whole situation, such as when he brings in his a capella group and sings the Underdog theme.

Technically, the situation is arguably still being cruel to Ted: his friends and him are humiliating themselves without even realizing it. But the focus isn't on the character, it's on the fact that they're bizarrely out of place. The humiliation is left in the background.

A lot of episodes, however, Ted is there only to be awkward and humiliated in passing. Instead of recasting the scene, he is serves to highlight it.

In those situations, I don't find it funny.

Olick said...

I enjoy Ted's Band quite a bit.. And I enjoy the early seasons of scrubs. The later seasons: not so much. The character conflict is supposed to be 'still there' but a lot of it becomes forced. Still I sometimes appreciate the sappiness of the endings.

I can definitely see the humor in character situations where the character, being who they are, changes the situation into hilarity. But I definitely agree that cruel character humor is probably more common, and I rarely find my hilarity in it.

However, I think that the "character changes the situation" humor vs the "character reinforces stereotype" humor brings up a different comparison of humor types. Namely the difference between humor that reinforces a standard and one that breaks a standard. For example, Ted getting his hopes crushed is reinforcing the standard that Ted is a pathetic loser. Whereas Ted singing amazing a capella is challenging the standard that Ted is a pathetic loser (even when the characters treat it like its nothing, or even annoying).

I think that doing nothing but reinforcing standards makes for a weak joke, but combined with other elements could be a good one. Like absurd hyperbole. It might not be funny if a bank charges a 5$ withdrawal fee for a 100$ withdrawal. But having the bank charge a 100$ fee for the same withdrawal, and having the customer only be marginally surprised, lends absurdity to the situation, while playing off the standard that bank fees are unreasonably large. Maybe not laugh-out loud funny, but delivered properly could be worth a chuckle.

Anyways that might be a little tangential to the point of character vs situational humor... I guess its not depending on how the character relates to the joke, if it is a prop (that is, a static element to the joke) or an actor (that is dynamically telling/changing the joke).

Man, humor is surprisingly complicated once you get into the details.

Craig Perko said...

Humor is so complicated that there has to be some kind of underlying core concept. The "E=MC^2" of humor.

Unfortunately, not only do we not know which things are M and C, we also probably don't even have the concepts they represent.

Right now we're in the Ether Era of humor. I'm trying to think of a joke for that, but I've only been awake for an hour.

(Why isn't the "sup" tag allowed?)

Patrick said...

You didn't consider the probability that Teri is a woman that finds you interesting enough to initiate communication. Glad to see you haven't changed over time. :P

Personally I love character humor and like situational humor, but prefer the prior. I've also occasionally felt like my life is a sitcom, a self-fulfilling aesthetic if there ever was one. Curb Your Enthusiasm is my current gold standard.

As far as games go, it seems like character humor is more achievable in an algorithmic way, what do you think?

Craig Perko said...

Ha! I was thinking the same thing. In fact, I wrote a whole paragraph about how it would probably be easier to generate character humor rather than situational humor.

But then I thought again. Character humor requires less content, but it requires a much stronger algorithm that really understands how to make players feel ways about characters. On the other hand, situational humor just requires you to do the "Family Guy": stick a lot of stuff in a hat and pull them out at random.

So it's a toss up: more content, or harder algorithm?

Re: Teri. That was never an option. It was obviously spam.