What makes a character funny? A quick wit? Robin Williams. A dry wit combined with a stiff uneasiness? Johnny Carson. Or is it the clown? Lucille Ball. The short answer is it’s all of them. Big help, right?
It comes down to four comic quality components, perspective, flaws, exaggeration and humanity. Yes, loyal readers there’s a list in your future.
1. Perspective: A comic character looks at the world through his own quirky lens. It’s the engine that drives his humor. The stronger the perspective the funnier he is. According to The Comic Toolbox, it’s a mathematical function you can actually graph. Don’t worry. We aren’t going to do any math. That is way too left-brained.
The great news is anything can be filtered through a comic perspective and any point of view. Some will be harder than others and some won’t work out the way you want. You’ll have misses and ho-hum outcomes, but the more you experiment, the better you get.
Examples of perspectives: Gracie Allen—innocence, Chevy Chase—bumbler, Lucy—clown.
2. Flaws: Every comic character has them. The best comic characters have their flaws and perspective at war. Flaws reflect their true nature, perspective is their fantasy self-image.
Flaws don’t have to be negative (Louie from Taxi was venal, corrupt, lecherous and mean-spirited). They can also be positive (Charlie Brown had a trusting nature.)
The flaws you choose open a gap between readers and character so that the character becomes the other guy and the reader feels comfortable enough to laugh at the other guy. Don’t distance your reader too much. They still have to care.
3. Exaggeration: Exaggerate and humor emerges. Take the movie “Up.” I took my son to it. I told him I had a kid, so I wouldn’t look silly going to kid movies. He informed me that ship had sailed since he was thirty. Then, of course, we went in to the whole grandchildren thing and we nearly missed the movie. Sigh. Anyway, the equation (Whoops, this sounds frighteningly like math and I promised no math.) looks like this. One sad grumpy old man plus a big developer who owns all the property around grumpy guy’s house (At this point it can go either way. A sad story of a man against big business. Not so funny.) plus a persistent Boy Scout in need of his last badge equals a trip to a hidden land and the acquisition of a misfit dog. Still no humor.
But if you exaggerate the perspective, humor emerges. Sad at the loss of his wife, the old man decides to tie a boatload of balloons to his house and float away. He doesn’t count on being the target of the plucky kid. The odd pair float away to an island full of talking dogs and their evil leader. Voila, you’ve got adventure and humor.
The key is to exaggerate events and perspective up to an illogical level, but not to the status of ridiculous. Watch for that red line.
4. Humanity: The reader has to like your character. You’ve used flaws to put a gap between the reader and the comic character. Now I’m going to ask you to build a bridge over that gap. If your reader is going to stay with you, they have to care. They have to know that the comic character will do the right thing in the end. But that isn’t enough. You can’t just plop something in It must be integral to the character.
One great example is Robin Williams as Mork. His innocence creates distance and closeness.
Start building a library of the above characteristics. Notice how nearly all jokes or funny situations are a function of someone’s comic perspective.
What makes you laugh?