P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

There's something about comedy theory

Jakob Isak Nielsen

The following article has a dual purpose. The primary purpose is to help us better understand the comic strategies and organizational principles of a canonic scene in the gross-out romantic comedy There's Something About Mary (1998). In order to do this the article introduces some key theoretical perspectives circulating within the literature on film comedy. The secondary purpose is to test whether the empirical evidence can actually teach us something about these theoretical perspectives. Do the theories have explanatory power? Does the scene suggest we introduce nuances and distinctions?

Comedy is supposed to make us respond in a certain way, e.g. smile, giggle, laugh. Arguably, this is the chief defining characteristic of comedy films. However, we do not have definite answers as to why we smile and why we laugh. Of course, one could argue, as does Dirk Eitzen, that we laugh and smile because evolution perpetuates "behaviors that result in social bonding in humans" (1999, p. 96). Indeed, many researchers have argued that laughter and amusement have more to do with social interaction than with the structure of jokes or private physiological responses (e.g. Provine 2000, p. 3).

These are fascinating aspects about comedy but they are also vexing problems for anyone writing about the genre. There are a number of valid explanations of why we laugh or smile or giggle that do not necessarily have much to do with the film that we are watching. We may laugh at a scene because our date is laughing or find ourselves chuckling at an un-funny scene because the rest of the audience breaks out into a roar of laughter. Or we may laugh because our girlfriend tickles us.

Nevertheless, none of these explanations provides analytical tools that enable us to understand more fully the organizational and compositional principles of comic scenes in fiction films. Given that a taxonomy of causal explanations does not exist at the moment, we will have to look elsewhere for such analytical tools. Very generally one can boil down the theories of comedy to three types:

  1. Superiority theory
  2. Relief theory
  3. Incongruity theory

Eitzen refers to these as "second-order explanations" (the evolutionary explanation being the primary one) but given their position within the literature it is worth testing their potential as analytical tools. [1]

The scene
About eight minutes into There's Something About Mary nerdy, insecure, vulnerable and awkward Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) drives up to a big house in Rhode Island suburbia to pick up his date for the 1985 prom: the beautiful and confident Mary (Cameron Diaz). About ten minutes later (screen time) he is driven away in an ambulance with his private parts torn to pieces - and the entire neighborhood standing by as witnesses.

Ten minutes is a long time to dedicate to one single scene. Clearly the position of the scene within the film can be explained and justified by its ability to sustain our interest by generating amusement and laughter. But what comic strategies does the scene subscribe to?

At one point Sheila says that her husband is a "laugh a minute." This is a meta-commentary on the scene itself because it too attempts to trigger a "laugh a minute". Nevertheless, the comedy is not chaotically dispersed throughout the scene but follows a fairly clear spatial structure. I propose that we take that spatial structure as a basis for discussing the comic aspects of the scene:

a) The front lawn: Ted drives up to the house, walks up to the front door and Mary's stepfather Charlie (Keith David) answers the door. Charlie pulls a stunt on Ted and tricks him into believing that Mary has already gone to the Prom twenty minutes ago with her boyfriend Woogie (Chris Elliott). Mary's mother Sheila (Markie Post) laughingly punctures the joke, saying "Charlie, you're so mean" and the three of them walk into the house.

Fig. 1. The tan-and-taupe colors of his suit match those of his car.
  Fig. 2. "What the hell do you want?"

b) The living room. Mary comes down from the staircase to meet the others. Ted attempts to give Mary's brother Warren (W. Earl Brown) a surprise present (a baseball), but unwittingly places it right behind his ear (Warren has a "thing about his ears", fig. 4). Warren lashes out at Ted so that he falls on his head and breaks the sofa table, then tosses him across the floor, punches him in the stomach, picks him up, spins him around the room before tossing him down hard on the ground (fig. 5). The girls comfort Warren whereas Ted faces an angry step dad and verbal abuse (fig. 6).

Fig. 3. Mary comes down to meet the others.

  Fig. 4. "Then I think I saw it right behind your ear."

Fig. 5. Warren tosses Ted around the room.

  Fig. 6. "Are you yelling at me in my own house?"

c) The bathroom. Mary and Sheila go up to fix Mary's dress whereas Ted goes to the bathroom with a bleeding lip. Ted takes a pee and experiences a moment of tranquility as he spots two cackling doves outside the window. Suddenly the doves take off. The camera racks focus to reveal the off-screen space behind the birds: Mary undressed in a top window and Sheila aiding her. The girls spot Ted spotting them. Sheila covers Mary up and hurries her away from the window. Ted realizes how the situation can be misconstrued when viewed from their perspective. To them he appears to be masturbating to the sight of a half-dressed Mary. His protestations fail ("Oh no, I wasn't...") and he zips up his pants in a hurry. We see him give out a high-pitched scream. Half an hour later Ted is still in the bathroom. First Charlie, then Sheila walk into the bathroom and come to see that Ted's genitalia are stuck in his zipper. Suddenly a cop appears in the window: "The neighbor said she heard a lady scream." Then a fireman walks in: "Somebody's got to move that station wagon so I can get the truck in here." The two of them think they find a solution to the problem: "You've already laid the tracks [...] Now we're just gonna back it up." The policeman counts: "And-a-one, and-a-two, and-a..."

Fig. 7. Silly grin or tranquil moment?

  Fig. 8. Ted's p.o.v. of the doves.

Fig. 9. Record scratching terminates the Carpenters' song, the birds take off revealing Mary and Sheila. They see Ted seeing them.

  Fig. 10. Ted as seen from Mary and Sheila's perspective. He looks down realizing how the situation could be misconstrued.

Fig. 11. Sheila and Mary seem to think that Ted is spying on Mary.

  Fig. 12. "Oh no, I wasn't..."

Fig. 13. Ted says "shit!" and zips up his pants in a hurry - with dire consequences.

  Fig. 14. "Don't worry, she's a dental hygienist, she'll know exactly what to do."

Fig. 15. The policeman and fireman come up with a "solution."

  Fig. 16. A paramedic screams "We've got a bleeder" and Ted is rushed to the ambulance.

d) The front lawn: There follows a direct cut to a paramedic shouting: "We've got a bleeder!" The front yard is crowded with people as Ted is being rushed to an ambulance. In the background we hear Warren repeatedly shouting: "He was masturbating." The paramedics drop the stretcher that Ted's tied to but ultimately manage to take him away in the ambulance.

Much comic action in the scene is not apparent from this brief outline but I will try to mention as many as possible when discussing the comic strategies at play in the scene.

The palette of devices
While the spatial structure of the scene gives us a rough outline of the sequenced arrangement of comic action, it does not wholly explain how the scene utilizes a whole palette of devices to elicit comic reactions:

  1. Make-up and costume design. E.g. Ted's suit, hairstyle and braces.
  2. Production design. E.g. a wedding photo on the wall outside the bathroom shows us Sheila in a white wedding dress and Charlie with a huge afro. Most of the time production design does not in itself elicit laughs but it facilitates a number of misunderstandings and gags. E.g. the surprisingly low-sitting window in the bathroom makes for a comic moment as the policeman suddenly pops up in the window.
  3. Blocking and compositional design. The careful orchestration of the characters' positions and movements within the frame set up a number of misunderstandings that the scene plays for laughs
  4. Editing. In particular, there is one crucial instance where a punch line is relayed by means of a cut rather than by means of comic performance. The policeman's "and-a-one, and-a-two..." raises suspense about the dreaded event on the count of three. Instead of including the painful event there is an elliptical cut to a paramedic shouting "we've got a bleeder!" The cut to this line jumps over a link in the chain of cause and effect and thus manages to give more punch to the punch line.
  5. Performance. A lot of the comedy is based on performance - particularly that of Ben Stiller:
    • Dialogue. Comedy is sometimes delivered verbally as when Charlie brings Sheila into the bathroom arguing "She's a dental hygienist, she'll know exactly what to do."
    • Pratfalls/physical comedy. The way Ted falls face first on the sofa table and on the floor, his desperate rattling on top of Warren (as a turtle on its back).
    • Small gestures such as Ted brushing away the fringe of his hair (fig. 2)
    • Mimicry. E.g. Charlie's grin as he tells Sheila "You gotta see this."
    • The sounds that characters give out, particularly Ted's high-pitched sounds: the "ouhh" as Warren drops him on the floor, the screams after he has zipped up his pants, the "auw" as the paramedics drop him on the ground.
  6. Diegetic sound, particularly off-screen sound. E.g. the "squash sound" as Ted zips up his pants.
  7. Non-diegetic music. The Carpenters' "Why do birds suddenly appear every time, you are near..." is played for comic effect because of its disjunctive relationship to the shot of geeky Ted taking a pee (fig. 6).

All of these devices are in play and each of them can be discussed in relation to some of the large-scale explanations (superiority, relief, incongruity). In other words one can understand the devices as the means of orchestration and the large-scale explanations as dominants that determine the overall comic strategy.

Superiority theory: "Take a look at what this numb nuts did"
If you look at the scene as a whole, the chief impression is that the scene elicits comic reactions by means of ultimate humiliation. From the perspective of superiority theory you might say that we laugh because we experience "some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others" (Thomas Hobbes). Or you might say that the scene is funny because we enjoy what Nietzsche calls "the guiltless pleasure of another person's misfortune" (Schadenfreude). [2] The film uses a string of devices to make the viewer feel superior to Ted: Ted's appearance, his lady-ish sounds when in pain, the awkwardness displayed in his interaction with other characters and of course, the humiliating experiences that he must endure.

Superiority theory emphasizes an important aspect of comedy: the status and position of the viewer in relation to the characters. Invariably, this has to do with how we engage with characters. In the case of Ted, the set-up (the social situation) is familiar enough for us to understand exactly how embarrassing and unfair the turn of events really is. Ted has good intentions and we recognize his vulnerability. He certainly earns our sympathy but precisely because of our superior perspective we do not feel his embarrassment and anger. In Richard Raskin's terminology [3] one could argue that there is appeal (Ted has our sympathy), projective participation (the set-up is familiar enough for us to imagine ourselves in Ted's shoes) and volitional participation (we want Ted to succeed) but not empathic participation (we do not feel what Ted is presumed to be feeling) and internalization (we do not wish to be like Ted). This perspective is the reason why our pleasure is guiltless.

Relief theory: "He was masturbating!"
We may find it mildly amusing when Ted faces Charlie's verbal abuse at the front door, but it is only when it is revealed to be a joke on Charlie's part that our laughter kicks in. This may be explained by superiority theory, i.e. only when Charlie's joke is revealed can our enjoyment in Ted's misfortune be guiltless. However, another explanation is offered by relief theory or tension-relief theory. The Freudian explanation of comedy would go something like this: Through laughter we gain an otherwise prohibited pleasure, combined with the release of build up psychic energy. [4] What can be said to trigger our laughter is "the amelioration of a socially stressful situation" (Eitzen 1999, p. 94) - in this case not experienced first hand but triggered because we engage with Ted.

From the perspective of superiority theory, Warren's line "He was masturbating" is funny because our sense of social worth is reaffirmed. From the perspective of relief theory Warren's line is not - or not only - funny because it provides a guiltless pleasure of Ted's misfortune but also because it belongs to a long line of utterances that we normally prohibit and suppress.

In other words, tension-relief theory can explain why we find the transgressive humor in the scene funny (taboo comedy). The basic assumption is - in a Freudian perspective - that we use psychic energy to suppress those thoughts and actions that our primal drives urge us to harbor and perform. By this account a comedy such as There's Something About Mary is a culturally and socially sanctioned "safe place" where this psychic tension can find an outlet.

Incongruity theory: "She's a dental hygienist, she'll know exactly what to do" All of the three theories offer very general explanations of what triggers laughter but incongruity theory offers the opportunity of introducing more nuances to explain the comic strategies at play. I would argue that one can locate many forms of incongruity that elicit amusement and laughter - some of these are not mutually exclusive but can co-exist. [5]

1. Physical incongruity. The most well-known manifestation of physical incongruity is revealed by various constellations of comic teams - short and fat versus tall and skinny (Laurel and Hardy, Fy og Bi for instance) - but we also see physical incongruity at play when a 135 pound Jesus "el Savior" Christ is put in a boxing bout with 320 pound Beelzebub in Southpark (episode 108). In There's Something About Mary amusement is elicited by the incongruous pairing of short and nerdy Ted with tall and beautiful Mary (compare fig. 3 and 7). Another instance of physical incongruity occurs at the front door. Since Mary is a blonde from Minnesota and is likely to have Scandinavian ancestors (we later learn that her surname is Jensen) we are surprised to see a black man opening the door (fig. 2).

2. Social incongruity. Through cultural learning we know that to particular situations there follows a manuscript of proper conduct. Clearly, stepfather Charlie does not respond in the way expected of him: "What the hell do you want?" (fig. 2).

3. Characterological incongruity. Laughter is also triggered by a mismatch of a character's psychological disposition and his actions. Throughout a film we can come to understand a character's thoughts, emotions, beliefs and so forth. This provides the filmmaker with ample opportunity to stage actions that are incongruous with these very properties. There are two slightly different ways of staging characterological incongruity. The first is when a character is performing a task that we know is foreign to his or her persona as when Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is forced to drive a car in Los Angeles to try to win back Annie Hall in the movie of the same name. [6] There is a very subtle example of this in There's Something About Mary when Ted fails to put the car to a smooth stop but must re-brake when he drives up to the house. Clearly, we understand Ted to be the kind of insecure and nervous character who is not a regular and experienced driver.

Another type of characterological incongruity occurs when a character acts in a way that is surprisingly different to the way we - given our previous knowledge - expect him to behave. The first big laugh of the scene in fact combines physical incongruity and this latter variant of characterological incongruity. In the first scenes of the film Ted is keen to ingratiate himself with Warren and Warren is surprisingly fond of him. Therefore we are both surprised to see Warren go amuck on Ted and similarly surprised to see Ted's suddenly - though oddly - hitting Warren on the head during the "fight."

4. Perspectival incongruity does not rely as much on surprise (sequential action) as it does on perceived or intelligible misunderstanding (simultaneous action). In the case of There's Something About Mary we see both Ted's correct understanding of the situation and other characters' incorrect or imprecise understanding of the situation. This is a well-known sight gag that has its origins in slapstick comedy and before that in the theater. [7] Carroll describes the essence of the gag in the following way:

[I]t is staged in such a way that an event, under one description, can be seen as two or more distinct, and perhaps in some sense mutually exclusive, series of events that interpenetrate each other [...] we can see that both [interpretations] could be plausible, often plausible relative to different points of view. (1991, p. 28)

By this definition there are two instances of perspectival incongruity. We see that Ted puts a baseball in his pocket and we see that he really does place it behind Warren's ear. Through careful blocking we also see that Charlie, Sheila and Mary cannot see the baseball because Ted unwittingly blocks their visual access (fig. 4). The perspectival incongruity established through the staging of the shot sets up the misunderstandings at play in the response to the fight (Charlie: "What baseball?" "Are you yelling at me in my own house? Don't let me open up a can of whup-ass on you"). [8] The culmination of this forking off of perspectives on the action is Charlie's apparent acceptance of Warren's hilariously unfair accusation: "He broke the table. I didn't do it."

The most effective example of perspectival incongruity is of course the scene in the bathroom (fig. 7-12). The brilliance of this particular case of perspectival incongruity is that Ted also realizes that the situation can be misconstrued when viewed from Sheila and Mary's perspective. In fact, Ted's realization (he looks down at his penis) only seems to affirm Sheila and Mary's incorrect suspicion (fig. 10-11).

5. When Dirk Eitzen describes the jest of incongruity-resolution theory he argues that from this perspective "the chief pleasure of humor arises from the satisfaction of anticipating and discovering solutions to problems (albeit incongruous or surprising solutions, in the case of comedy)." (1999, p. 94). In my experience one is more likely to find these solutions in comedian comedy. [9] Silent comedian comedy in particular is rife with examples because they often showcase the ingenuity of comics finding surprising and incongruous solutions to the various predicaments that they find themselves in. [10]

Ted is not blessed with such ingenuity. On the contrary. Ted attempts to find incongruous solutions to some of his predicaments but it is exactly the ludicrous and desperate impossibility of those attempts that elicit comic reactions. For instance Ted tries to argue that he wear his shirt over the front so that it covers up his genitalia: "Look, I can go to the prom and we can deal with it later!" (fig. 15). This comic strategy here is the same as when stepfather Charlie calls in his wife to help solve Ted's problem: "Don't worry. She's a dental hygienist, she'll know exactly what to do" (fig. 14). These lines flaunt incongruity and it is precisely because they are not solutions that they are funny. [11]

6. The five forms of incongruity mentioned above are the primary ones in this particular scene but there are other less prominent examples: certain objects have an incongruous placement in the scene - most notably, the axe that the fireman carries around with him (fig. 15). One could also argue that the contradistinction of Ted's blissful face and The Carpenters-song Close to You represents a case of incongruity.

Certainly there are limits to the explanatory power of superiority, relief and incongruity theory. For instance it is easy to imagine incongruous situations that are not comic, and scenes stirring feelings of superiority without eliciting laughter and alternate forms of relief that do not involve laughter. Furthermore, they do not enable us to assess why some scenes are funnier than others.

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to lower the stakes and use them to better understand certain compositional principles of film comedy. In other words, I think it is possible to unshackle these theories from absolutist claims: one can recognize them as strategies without arguing that they automatically elicit laughter.

From my perspective the scene in There's Something About Mary is fascinating because it forces one to explore a whole range of analytical procedures. I have mainly focused on comedy as an independent form of expression but of course, one could also consider another contested aspect of comedy theory: the interrelationship of comedy to narrative. Is the comedy of the scene generated by narrative structure or inversely, does it distract or impede the viewer's engagement in narrative? (i.e. the viewer's engagement in fabula construction). On the face of it the comedy of the scene takes on a life of its own devoid of obligations to narrative structure but, in fact, the culmination of the scene is also the culmination of the first act (the set-up) and in terms of the film's narrative arc, this is actually a clever "boy loses girl-scene" where the implications raised by the scene are carried on into the remainder of the film.

The intersection of narratology and genre criticism becomes particularly interesting in this respect and there is much at stake, not only questions of film form but also notions of spectatorship. [12] What is the chief pleasure of watching movies? How many levels of engagement are operative when we watch a film like There's Something About Mary? This ability of raising significant critical and theoretical questions often characterizes canonic scenes. In a number of ways - including a remarkably literal one - this scene fully displays what V. F. Perkins referred to as the "embarrassing richness of the cinema's aptitudes" (1972, p. 60). (fig. 17).

Fig. 17. "The embarrassing richness of the cinema's aptitudes."

1 Dirk Eitzen (1999) summarizes these three theories as incongruity-resolution, superiority and tension-relief theory: p. 94-96.

2 These condensed summaries of Thomas Hobbes' and Friedrich Nietzsche's explanations of laughter are taken from Richard Raskin's book on Jewish jokes: Life is Like a Glass of Tea (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1992): p. 8.

3 These categories are presented in an unpublished working paper from 1983 that suggests a four-phase model of identification. My distinction between projective and empathic participation is not as clear-cut in Raskin's model. Murray Smith's categories recognition, alignment and allegiance partially overlap with Raskin's categories. See Murray Smith. Engaging Characters (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1995)

4 This is a slightly modified version of Richard Raskin's summary in Life is Like a Glass of Tea (1992): p. 8.

5 Arthur Schopenhauer is generally held to be the father of incongruity theory. He argued that "laughter always arises from nothing other than the suddenly perceived lack of congruence between a concept and the real objects" (2008 [1819], p. 93). Like the two other major theories incongruity theory now comes in many guises and Schopenhauer's particular brand of incongruity (between a concept and the real object) can be seen as merely one variant.

6 Allen stages this action as a kind of mock grand gesture before it was even a probably established narrative figure in romantic comedy.

7 NoŽl Carroll has an incredibly long term for it: "The mutual interference or interpenetration of two (or more) series of events (or scenarios)" (1991, p. 28). I prefer the term perspectival incongruity. Carroll argues that Henri Bergson identified it with respect to theater in Laughter (1900).

8 Granted, the incongruity not only issues from sight lines on the action. Charlie is a little brash and does not have an eye for nuances or other points of view. For instance, he misconstrues Warren's actions: He is actually not into "the MTV thing" on the TV in front of him but is busy with a Rubik's cube. Only a few seconds later, Warren puts it away - solved!

9 See Steve Seidman's seminal book on the subgenre: Comedian Comedy - A Tradition in Hollywood Film (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981) and Frank Krutnik (ed.). Hollywood Comedians, The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2003).

10 As when Buster Keaton is balancing on the front of a locomotive in The General (1927) burdened by a railroad tie that he has just removed from the tracks and comes up with the solution of using that tie to bounce off another on the tracks that is threatening to derail the train.

11 There is of course one classic scene in the film that offers an incongruous and surprising solution to a problem. Unlike the Buster Keaton example the solution is not found by the comedian but arises out of a misunderstanding: When Ted finally does masturbate before the "big date" with Mary, she takes the sperm hanging from his ear to be hair gel, which is certainly a surprisingly incongruous solution to Ted's predicament!

12 Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's accounts of classical narration (both 1985) as an intergeneric phenomenon have provoked some interesting arguments on this point. See Eitzen (1997, 1999), Crafton (1995) and Gunning's response to Crafton (1995). See also Neale & Krutnik (1990, particularly pp. 26-42).


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Bordwell, David (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Routledge).

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Carroll, NoŽl (1990). "Buster Keaton, The General, and Visible Intelligibility," in Peter Lehman, eds. Close Viewings: an Anthology of New Film Criticism (Tallahassee: Florida State University): 125-140.

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Neale, Steve; Krutnik, Frank (1990). Popular Film and Television Comedy (London & N.Y.: Routledge).

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Schopenhauer, Arthur (2008 [1819]). The World as Will and Presentation, Volume I (N.Y. et al: Pearson Longman). Translated by Richard E. Aquila in collaboration with David Carus. Originally published in 1819 as Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

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