Conventions of the Comedy Genre

Conventions of the Comedy GenreBecause we all need more joy and more comic novels in the worlds, herewith, the conventions of the comedy genre in fiction. A funny thing happened on the way to the keyboard…

The serious Lit-Crits still look down on comic novels as ‘inferior’ literature. Comic novels are downgraded for ‘insufficient suffering,’ as if no survivor of the Black Death, the Great War trenches or earthquake fire and flood ever uttered a killer line of gallows humour.

From Waugh to Woodehouse, Adams to Pratchett, there’s plenty of suffering in the comic novel, much of it the source of the humour. Because we’re human. And we’re weird like that.

So what are the conventions of the comedy genre in fiction?

The aim

The principal aim of the comedic novel is to make people laugh or smile. Even if only inside. There are many types of humour and many types of joke; from wordplay to slapstick, irony to ‘gross-out.’

The secondary aim is to highlight the funny, ridiculous, absurd aspects of life. Because it is. Get over yourself. This brings a renewed sense of perspective, of our place in the world, a different way of seeing things.

Thirdly, comedy is the art of hope. When things are dark, comedy shines a little light of laughter.

Diet and Exorcise

Where drama aims to realise the best version of a character and exorcises the ridiculous, comedy tells the truth about people. Because the best comedies are not empty. Often seen as entertaining fluff, the best comedies are a vehicle for smuggling truths past an audience. Although comedy is subversive, and truth can be a fluid thing…

The Form

The best definition I’ve found comes from screen writer Steve Kaplan:

A person struggling against insurmountable odds (perhaps just ‘life’), without many (or any) of the required skills needed to win, yet never giving up hope.

There are the staples of all story telling; a protagonist in conflict, with obstacles to overcome, in pursuit of a need.

The Protagonist

What’s different about protagonists in comedy? They are far from the ‘greatness within’ (says Kaplan) of other genre heroes and heroines. The comic protagonist is an everyman, flawed as much or worse than the reader – that’s the attraction.

Comedic novels are almost always Underdog stories. They are not about heroes or anti-heroes but non-heroes. The transformation to hero is optional.

Typically comedy protagonists begin as the:

  • Nerd, dweeb, slacker,or stoner; downtrodden, overlooked, rejected, or failed – all about to find a new path
  • Jackass, boorish, selfish, greedy, arrogant, pompous – all about to undergo some transformative or redemptive arc
  • Outsider, either a loner or in a small companion group of similar outsiders – about to find a new place or status in the world
  • Lonely, having no relationship or a relationship gone wrong – about to connect or re-connect with a person, family or society

They can’t just be a victim or a whipping boy. Two essential qualities are:

  • Empathetic
  • Sympathetic

The comic protagonist can be empathetic from the start, but just as often gains empathy by their transformation. Prompt: every lead character Bill Murray ever played.

Two key aspects of a comic protagonist:

  • Positive action – they go out and DO things. Mostly wrong. Often disastrously. But they have to be active.
  • Active emotion – similarly they have to be emotionally active. Blind optimism or sunny ignorance are as much catalysts as chronic depression or re-bounding rage.

Vital Flaws

An extension of the comic protagonist; the character is either accepting of their flaw, or unaware their flaw exists. This means they are reconciled to their status, loneliness and failures; or they have no idea how selfish, greedy, pompous and arrogant they actually are.

So conflicted

Conflict is also essential in the comedic novel; the protagonist is in conflict with the world or with themselves. The antagonist is optional.

Triumph over adversity/against the odds is optional, as long as they try.

Impure Thoughts

Before we go deeper, it’s worth saying there are fewer pure comedic novels than other genres because comedy is often the through-line of other story types. How much comedy does it take to tip the scale from Romantic-Comedic to Comedy-Romance? Is Satire a main genre or a sub-genre? What does it satirise? This is the another reason the Lit-Crits struggle to categorise and classify comedy. It’s the literary rebel that defies labels in its very soul.

Sub-Genres of the Comedic Novel

Comedy of Manners (social failures)
This might be high society, low society, or clashing social hierarchies
Heavily featured is the fish-out-of-water comedy; the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, having no skills or the ‘wrong’ skills to cope with the environment in which they find themselves (example; Cold Comfort Farm).

The Fool or the Jester tears down society willfully or negligently; else society itself is mad and idiotic and the protagonist is the only sane person in it.

Screwball comedy
Re-invented for the post-post-post-feminist age, this battle-of-the-sexes continues as the staple of Rom-Coms to this day.

All bets are off, anything goes. As long as it’s funny (examples; Lucky Jim, Puckoon, A Confederacy of Dunces).

Comic parodies play fast and loose with the conventions of all the other ‘serious’ genres up to and including memoir and the form of the novel itself (Tristram Shandy)

Gross out
A new term for the crude, lewd, dirty and profane, provocative tilt at the niceties of conventional fiction (read Tom Sharpe’s Blot on the Landscape, Wilt).

Slapstick knockabout
The physical comedy of falls, spills, dunkings, missing trousers, compromising positions, people hiding in wardrobes and so much more (read Slapstick or Lonesome No More by Kurt Vonnegut).

There’s a movable line on the Romantic-Comedy scale. Do you prefer the Romance with Comedy or the Comedy with Romance? There’s a through-line of comedy in Pride and Prejudice (Mrs Bennett, Mrs Collins). Rom-coms are generally about keeping the characters apart by means of humourous faux-pas and obstacles; the flip-side is keeping incompatible characters together (example; Bridget Jones).

Black comedy
With humour so dark it really shouldn’t be funny. You feel like you mustn’t laugh. But you can’t help it. Shocking and appalling at the same time. (read Rise and Fall, Scoop, Catch-22).

Biting the hand/leg/society that feeds it, the satire digs at values, social norms and institutions (read A Modest Proposal, Animal Farm).

Story Types

As well as genre, we can add in the conventional story types:

Status change
The protagonist goes from zero to hero, amateur to pro, apprentice to master, rags to riches (read Tom Jones, The Commitments)

Worldview/value shift
The protagonist changes their world view or set of values as a result of their experiences; perhaps through a coming-of-age or maturity story (Vile Bodies).

Friendship drama
Friends fall out, make up, lead each other on, get into scrapes, dig each other out of trouble (Swing Time, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine).

Haps, mis-haps and narrow escapes abound in the comic-adventure, embracing all those elements of satire, slapstick, fish-out-of-water, plus action. Look no further than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Like the comedy-adventure, the comic fantasy or sci-fi embraces so many other genres and story types but the ones that rise to the top of the list are principally labelled comedies (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Gulliver’s travels, The Princess Bride, Discworld)

…and Tragedy
The tragi-comic novel. Is it tragedy leavened by comedy, or comedy grounded by tragedy? Are these Yin and Yang? (Slapstick or Lonesome No More again).

Ready, Set…

The setting is often a vital component of the comedic novel. Consider how many are grounded in, and satirise, social circles, workplaces or institutions, schools, cozy neighbourhoods or alternate societies, worlds or world-views.

Dramatic structure

Comedic novels have story structure just like every other, with identifiable story beats:

  • Ordinary world
  • Inciting incident
  • The Try-fail/fail-harder cycle
  • Dark-night of the soul – realisation
  • Turning point – start of transformation
  • Overcome obstacles/antagonist
  • Resolution – closure.

Most comedic novels end with some kind of closure or transformation. It’s usually a happy ending even if not outright ‘victory’; heroic failure, moral victory, and reconciliation are stock endings. Black comedy likes to be most subversive of all by staying dark to a downbeat ending. But most comic writers, even the hardened cynics, harbour hope until the end.

What marks the mainstream comedic novel is the triumph of hope discussed at the beginning; the protagonist gets the job, gets the boyfriend/girfriend/family, saves the farm/town/world. They reject harmful values, reassert caring/sharing values and claim their identity. The true comic genius will put you through the ringer but send you home smiling through the tears.

3 thoughts on “Conventions of the Comedy Genre”

  1. Abe Lincoln's Hat

    Underappreciated genre because the critics are too stiff to actually laugh at anything on the page.

  2. The trouble is comedy is so subjective. Very difficult to appeal to broad sense of humor. Terry Pratchett is genius but fantasy satire will always sit in a niche more than Jeeves and Wooster.

  3. Pingback: Why Cheryl from Archer Said “Christ on Drums” – FuelRocks

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