The Common Mistakes of Comedy
Comedy requires a certain way of thinking that isn't possessed by most people, and perfect timing and execution of punchlines can be difficult to achieve. At least, that's how it is for smart comedy. It's easy to make an unintellectual audience laugh at fart jokes and the disabled, or to create the illusion that you're funny by talking fast and swearing a lot. That is, if you're willing to cater to the lowest common denominator. If you're not, then you must acknowledge that, while there doesn't exist any formula for good comedy, there is still a right way and a wrong way to do it.
The inherent difficulty in explaining how to write comedy is that once you explain why something is funny, it immediately ceases to be funny. For this reason, it may be more constructive to explain what doesn't make for good comedy. While I wouldn't profess to be any sort of expert on the subject, many of the comics reviewed on the Bad Webcomics Wiki fall into common traps that I can point out. That's why I've put together this list of common mistakes that I've observed. In doing so, I hope to create a simple guide for avoiding some of the common pitfalls of humor.
Surreal humor is a legitimate form of comedy. According to Wikipedia, surreal humor involves "violations of causal reasoning with events and behaviors that are logically incongruent." In their essay "Elephants and Marshmallows," Mary K. Rodgers and Diana Pien describe surreal humor as intentional failure to resolve incongruities. For example, one of the many permutations of the elephant joke goes as follows:
The humor stems from the absurd suggestion that an elephant could sit on a marshmallow and float in a cup of hot chocolate. When asked "why did the elephant sit on the marshmallow?" the logical mind imagines a normal-sized elephant sitting on a normal-sized marshmallow on the ground. However, the answer introduces the concept that the marshmallow was floating in a cup of hot chocolate, which wasn't suggested by the question. An elephant would not—and in fact could not—sit on a marshmallow and float unless it was either an absurdly large marshmallow in an absurdly large cup of hot chocolate, or an absurdly small elephant. It's a subversion of basic human logic and expectation. Now, whether or not you feel that this joke is actually funny is entirely subjective, but the point is it employs wit and misdirection. It actually is a joke.
What we think of as "random humor" is an attempt to draw laughs from the unexpected but without making use of wit or misdirection. Instead of subverting logic, random humor avoids logic entirely. A common example of random humor would be when a character blurts out a phrase that makes no sense in context, otherwise known as a "non sequitur." For example, in the cartoon Invader Zim, Zim shouts "Ivader's blood marches through my veins like GIANT RADIOACTIVE RUBBER PANTS!" while pleading to the Almighty Tallest to allow him to be an Invader.
Many comics that rely on random humor feature characters who lack inhibitions and are prone to unprovoked—and often violent—"wacky" outbursts. Such characters often have quirks to substitute for a lacking personality. It's not uncommon for them to exhibit strange obsessions, often with a particular food item, especially one with a "funny-sounding" name such as tuna, waffles, wieners, cheese, etc.
The problem with random humor is that it's often symptomatic of lazy or unskilled writing, or worse: an attempt to appeal to an easily-amused audience. A skilled writer who respects their readers should not feel the need to resort to such a tactic, at least not to the extent that some of the comics reviewed on this Wiki do. It's also often more obnoxious than it is funny. For this reason, random humor should be used extremely sparingly.
What we refer to as "fan service" is any use of gratuitous sexual implication or imagery meant to catch attention. Many comics rely on it to supplement their humor. This most commonly takes the form of a comic exploiting its female characters to catch the attention of a target demographic of high school and college-aged males (the "frat boy crowd"). Such gags often involve female characters getting their clothes forcibly removed, a man's judgement being severely impaired by the sight of an attractive woman, a male character accidentally walking in on a female character bathing or getting dressed, and in some extreme cases, blatant molestation. Gratuitous panty shots or even outright nudity are common in comics that feature such gags.
Comics that do this often feature one or two male protagonists surrounded by numerous attractive women, or one or two female protagonists that use their feminine features to seduce and exploit weak-minded men. It is not uncommon for such comics to reek of wish-fulfillment fantasies (specifically, the erotic fantasies of the author). Gags about lesbianism are also common.
The problem with this type of humor is that, obviously, it demonstrates a lack of respect for women. Female characters in comics that feature fan service are often depicted as all having the same body type (usually the stereotypical "porn star" body) and often have identical faces. It's also common for female characters to appear exclusively for sexual humor, and for this reason, they often lack personalities beyond their identifiable archetypes (e.g., "tsundere", "dojikko", "meganekko", "otenba", etc. See Wikipedia's glossary of anime and manga terminology for more information regarding character archetypes).
Sexual humor has its place in romantic comedies where it may supplement the sexual tension and awkward moments that are often the basis of the humor, but while it's acceptable in moderation, in a progressive society, it should be considered inappropriate to make fan service the focal point for any work of comedy.
A face gag is simply when a character makes a "funny" face. Such gags are often more annoying than they are funny, especially when overused. It's natural and expected to see a character's reaction to a gag, but funny faces should only be used to enhance a gag, and not be used as the gag itself.
Face gags are perhaps most common in comics drawn in a style reminiscent of Western cartoons. However, they are also common in manga-inspired comics, and it can be argued that when such comics do it, it's even worse because many wannabe manga artists rely on stock facial expressions.
One of the most common problems of manga-inspired comics is that nearly every character in a comic will have the same face. Thus, the artist only needs to master a handful of expressions rather than a full set of expressions that are unique to each character. This phenomenon isn't unique to manga-inspired comics, but is certainly the most prevalent among them. It can be symptomatic of laziness, or an inability or unwillingness to break a perceived artistic convention as many professionally-made anime and manga also do the same thing.
Contrary to popular belief, satire and parody are not the same thing, and neither of them are necessarily comedic. A satire is simply a work in which a subject is ridiculed, usually in an attempt to provoke a change. For example, a work that points out the willingness of consumers to pay full price for a new iPhone every year when a new one comes out would be a social satire because it draws attention to an absurdity of our consumerist culture. A parody, however, is a work that mimics another work for the purpose of ridiculing it. Often, a parody may draw attention to plot holes or unfortunate implications in the target work. For example, a parody of Return of the Jedi may depict the flaming debris of the exploding Death Star raining down on Endor and crushing the Ewoks, and a parody of My Little Pony may feature Applejack suffering apple-induced hallucinations and catatonia due to her inability to refuse a challenge. Learn more about the differences between satire and parody here.
Reference gags occur when an author fails to understand how satire and parody work. A typical reference gag would be when a character blurts out a catchphrase from another work of fiction in response to something that's only tangentially related, or when a character from another work of fiction makes a cameo appearance because the situation vaguely resembles something that happens in the work they originated in. A reference gag may also take the form of a character from another work of fiction finding themselves in a situation in which they would not normally find themselves, and then depicting how such a situation may play out. For example, Darth Vader getting a parking ticket.
It's also common for reference gags to not have any relation to the situation at all, and they may just come out of nowhere. In this sense, they may be considered a form of random humor. Many examples can be seen in the films of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, such as the references to Happy Feet, Transformers, and Britney Spears shaving her head in Meet the Spartans for no apparent reasons other than that they were topical at the time.
A reference gag hinges upon the reader's familiarity with the subject of the reference. As a result, anyone who isn't familiar with the subject being referenced isn't going to see the humor in the gag. For example, if a character in a comic says "may the Force be with you" and the reader has never seen Star Wars, they will not be amused. The problem with reference gags is that even when the reader does know what's being referenced, it's rarely genuinely funny. If the reader laughs at all, it's usually less of a "ha ha, that's funny" kind of laugh and more of a "ha ha, I know where that's from" kind of laugh. This isn't humor. This is simply a recognition of shared interests between the reader and the author. For this reason, reference gags can be seen as a crutch used by unskilled writers who simply exploit the popularity of another work and basically leech off of their popularity.
Running gags occur when an author comes up with a gag that they think is funny, then they reuse that same gag over and over again. Sometimes, a reader may appreciate a throw-back to a favorite moment earlier in the work, and a well-executed running gag may get funnier the second or third time around, but when the same gag is used too many times, the reader may become weary.
The obvious problem with running gags is that they demonstrate the author's inability or disinterest in thinking up new material. The author may also be mistaken in their belief that the gag is funny enough to be worth repeating.
Black humor (or dark humor) is humor that stems from dire situations, such as impending death. Black humor isn't necessarily irreverent, and may in fact be used in a satirical way to draw attention to a perceived problem or injustice in society. For example, an author who opposes the death penalty may write a comedy about an innocent man who's wrongfully sent to death row. Black comedy may also stem from an unfortunate implication.
Shock humor, on the other hand, is humor that exploits taboo subject matter with the sole intent of shocking or disgusting the audience. For example, it may trivialize or even celebrate murder, rape, recent tragedies, sexual deviancy, racism, etc. Basically, it's any humor that aims to offend a group of people, whether it be an ethnic or religious group, a political movement, a fanbase, etc. Shock humor differs from black humor because shock humor doesn't make any attempt at satire or parody, or if it does, it does so at a very superficial level (i.e., showing a character from a popular movie being raped, showing fans of that movie getting killed, etc.).
Shock humor can work sometimes because when a reader or listener reads or hears something that they know is offensive to someone else, it tickles their sense of naughtiness. When the audience laughs, it's an acknowledgement that what they're witnessing is offensive. However, the problem with shock humor is that any laughs that may be had from it are less "ha ha, that was funny" laughs and more "ha ha, I can't believe he said that" laughs. In other words, it's not genuinely humorous. It also doesn't help that when it's done too often, the audience starts to expect it, forcing authors who rely on such humor to become increasingly shocking until they reach a threshold, at which point any attempt to be shocking will just come across as contrived. In other words, an author may be accused of "trying too hard to be shocking."
Comedy that takes the form of angry rants can be done well, as demonstrated by George Carlin and Lewis Black. The thing about rants is that they aren't funny in-and-of themselves. Anybody can get on a soapbox and complain about something they don't like. That's why a rant must be interspersed with humorous observations and juxtapositions, usually to the effect of satire. For example, if George Carlin simply points out that an extra-terrestrial civilization would be disgusted by ours, that in itself wouldn't be funny, but pointing out why they would be disgusted by our civilization through a rapid succession of observations about our culture and barbaric practices makes the bit much more effective because it's satirical. However, this requires a certain delivery and sense of timing that can't really be achieved in a written medium.
In a comic strip, having a character simply yell about something that angers them isn't funny. If all you're going to do is have a character stand around while he complains about something that isn't even present in the scene, with no interesting or relevant visuals, you might as well just write an essay instead. For a rant to work in a comic, the ranting character needs one or more counterparts to play off them to exemplify what the ranter is talking about. For example, two characters might be ranting about how there's never anything good on TV anymore because all of the networks are trying to cater to the most vapid of audiences, then a third character (who's been previously established as being particularly dumb) suddenly comes in and starts talking about something that happened on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
A counterpart may also be used to highlight a logical fallacy or hypocrisy on the ranter's part. For example, a character might rant about how bottled water is overpriced, then another character asks him why he doesn't just drink from a nearby public fountain, to which the ranter replies that he refuses to drink municipal water on the grounds that he's "not a Communist."
The problem with this form of comedy, however, is that if it's taken too far, it can lead to "strawmanning". See this rant from Hathor the Cow Goddess: Hathor accuses those who are disgusted by public breastfeeding of being against feeding babies in general, which is not the case, and completely fails to address their side of the argument. For more information regarding the expression of opinions in a written medium, see The VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS by yaouhuntressearth.