Zero Laughs: Dissecting the Comic Relief Character

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I frequently watch and link the shows of Linkara and Spoony, two reviewers who are or have been part of the site That Guy With The Glasses. There are actually a ton of reviewers who have been attached to that site over the years including others I enjoy watching like Comic Book Issues and the Nostalgia Chick.

Oddly enough, I’ve only recently started watching the videos of site founder, Doug Walker, best known for The Nostalgia Critic. (And for those who do follow the site, this is not an invitation to discuss the drama and infighting that goes on behind the scenes of TGWTG, just an explanation as to where this tpi came from).

Last week, I watch Doug’s review of the famously terrible first Dungeons and Dragons movie.

I actually own the damn movie. Not by choice, I got it as a Christmas present. I have, however, watched it to mock it MST3K style many many times and I have to say… Doug doesn’t even do this clunker justice because he is not a D&D player. If you know what the movie is trying to do, it’s even worse than if you just thoughtt hey were trying to make a movie and failing.

Really, it was pathetic as a D&D film. The two nominal ‘dungeons’ were three rooms and a straight passageway with zero traps or monsters respectively, there was a beholder reduced to a guard dog, and there was so little action, you would think they were playing checkers instead of D&D.

I’ll give points for the dark-skinned elf, but then I have to take them away because she’s dark-skinned purely to make it ‘okay’ for the (black) comic relief character to have the hots for her (we black dudes can only be attracted to our own, you see—which will be a shock to every girl I ever dated, let me tell you).

Buuuut here is where we link up to today’s topic: the comic relief character. In this case, it’s Snails a cowardly thief as portrayed by Marlin Wayans.

He is awful. Every line out of his mouth is a joke that falls flat, nothing he does actually contributes to the movie, and frankly removing him improves the movie greatly (it’s still not good but…). And this isn’t a rare occurrence for this kind of character. Jar Jar Binks, Short Round, and may-he-rot-forever Scrappy Doo.

They exist, in theory, to bring levity to the story, but more often than not, they bring the whole thing down. Yet they keep getting put into stories over and over again.

This got my thinking about the hows and whys of comic relief and where they fall down as characters. Because not all comic relief types are bad characters, but a staggering number of them are. What I came up with was a list (surprise) of problems that cause these would-be clowns to go astray.

Number 1 – They’re Out of Place

Back in the gnome article, I talked about how gnomes have this niche where the rest of D&D treats them as a joke without having really any humor at all in the rest of the core game. That’s sort of the same problem here. Consider Start Wars: the film series is the epitome of Space Opera with dramatic twists, life or death action and honestly frightening villains. Ignoring some of the… -ahem- ‘whimsical’ names for side characters, the whole thing is pretty damn serious save for some of the interactions between C-3P0 and R2-D2 or Han and Chewie. It’s fun but in the sense that adventure is fun with enough humor for it not to be grim or dry.

But then you have Jar-Jar or that kid who couldn’t act in the first movie and they’re just… wacky. Where the humor of C-3P0 (and even he was pushing it for some people) came from his situation (a protocol droid stuck in an epic adventure) and Han managed to be funny because he had great one-liners, Jar-Jar especially feels like a foreign entity in the films because his antics don’t really fit the story he’s part of. He’s a bunch of stupid slapstick happening—and distracting from—the space opera elements.

Like a lot of problems, I chalk this up to lazy writing. It’s obvious that the creators wanted a child-friendly character to sell toys (more toys than awesome spaceships and toy laser swords? Really?), they didn’t seem to care what kind of character this was. R2 arguably already is this character, young Obi-Wan, as an idealistic, wide-eyed neophyte Jedi could have been this character, but instead they went with a slapstick character with a strange speech pattern because those are easy to do if you’re not doing it well. ‘m going to get into this later, but everyone thinks they can do comedy well, especially physical comedy and… they can’t.

But like all thigns when it comes to worldbuilding, you have to match proper humor to the proper story. Henry Jones, Sr from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Arc were good comedic characters because they were witty characters in a pulp story about a guile hero. Short Round from Indiana Jone and the Temple of Doom was not because he’s meant to be a precocious smart aleccky kid in the same.

Of course it doesn’t help that for a lot of them…

Number 2 – The Joke Machine Effect

Because a lot of these characters are put into the story specifically to be funny, they have a tendency to be afterthoughts. “This story needs something funny,” says the writer, “Let’s add a character to be funny.”

Well, by the time they’re tossed in, all the actual roles that have anything at all to do with the story are already taken and the comedy relief character has nothing to do but try to be funny. And because they’re usually in most scenes with the main cast, they have to be ‘on’ and trying all the time.

Even if they are genuinely funny, this can get grating over time, and for reasons I’ll get into soon enough… they usually aren’t funny.

If you’re a child of the 80’s and grew up on American TV, your mind probably instantly leapt to Snarf and Orko from Thundercats and He-Man respectively and you’re right. Characters like this add nothing to the story but their attempts at being funny. Usually this ‘funny’ manifests as ‘incompetent’ and that incompetence is sometimes used to instigate action. Which admittedly is kind of a contribution to the story, but not a positive one.

When this is the character’s main problem, you will sometimes notice the writers correcting this by giving them character development. They’re still funny, but they aren’t trying (and trying too hard) all the time; they have other things they can do instead of to while being funny.

I know I talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender a lot, but one of the most triumphant examples of this would be Sokka, who was very and distractingly silly at he top of the series, bu through the magic of getting spotlight episodes and thus character development made it so he became the defacto planner and still managed to be one of the funniest characters in the series.

A special mention has to be made for two special classes of comic relief: The Coward and the Bad Jokes Guy.

The Coward is an odd duck. They usually have every right to be scared and yet the story often makes their behavior out to be bad. They might not have any business being in a situation with tons of ghosts and monsters, but they aren’t really unreasonable. At best, you have Shaggy and Scooby Doo, who tend to run away a lot and in the process get themselves into amusing situations. At worst, you have gibbering whiners like the aforementioned Snails who WILL NOT SHUT UP. Every situation has them flying into a panic attack and making annoying noises—which is odd, since you would want to be quiet around monsters trying to eat you. Somehow, the noises are supposed to be funny even though evolution designed us not to want to hear those noises. Ugh.

The Bad Jokes Guy is (apparently) supposed to be funny in that he isn’t good at being funny. I honestly think this is an honest cop by a writer who feels they need to add comic relief but who accepts that they aren’t actually funny. The weird thing is, they usually appear in stories where everyone else is witty enough that they weren’t needed anyway. Sometimes this is also an honest character trait, usually an indicator of childishness or innocence (building off the idea that the best comedy is cruel, the character can’t summon that cruelty and thus is left with the kind of things that come in kids’ joke books—whether one agrees with it or not, I’ll leave that for another post).

Which of course brings us to what can be the most glaring problem:

Number 3 – The Author Just Can’t Do Comedy—Or That Brand

Okay, tough love time: most people are not Funny. Capital ‘F’ Funny that is. They may be witty, amusing, diverting and fun at parties. They may make people laugh in conversation on a consistent basis. Many, like me, are just plain funny-looking. But they aren’t funny.

Funny is a talent.

That’s why Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Kyle Kinane, and Gabriel Iglesias get paid a ton of money just to go on stage and be funny at people. That’s why it’s taking so long for the next Douglas Adams or Sir Terry Pratchett to emerge. Funny isn’t a think you are, it’s skill you hone and study and try to master.

And a lot of writers don’t get that.

In fact, a lot of writers seem to think that writing is a single, monolithic skill: Writing. As if being really good at writing supernatural teen dramas automatically translates into adult superhero writing chops (Joss.), or being good at, say writing thrilling action means you’re also good at romance or worse… comedy.

I see this all the time in self publishing circles: writers chasing trends trying to make money off the rebound of the hot new series forcing themselves to write genres and tones they have neither the passion nor the talent for. It’s not a knock at their actual talents—many of them are very good at what they do when not trying to pretend something that aren’t.

Action scenes are a big one. If you like action, you can tell when a normally drama-centric writer makes themselves write action: it’s very stilted, very choppy and it never really gives you the feeling of motion. This happens a lot in fanfics where a writer wants to write a romance but the show is action-oriented and they want to stick to original flavor.

And this is where a lot of bad comic relief characters come from. The writer really thinks they’re writing something funny, but they just don’t have the punchy sense of timing, of wordplay, or painting a funny visual with words that a comedy writer is capable of.

When this is done in the movies and television, sometimes an actor can save this. For example (and Nostalgia Critic bring this character up) Ruby Rhodd from The Fifth Element. Ruby is of the ‘squealing coward’ school of comic relief. His is played by Chris Tucker, whose voice sort of tends that way anyway, but who, when he’s not doing that bit, plays the character so… I don’t want to say ‘serious’ but ‘straight’ in the ‘they don’t think they’re being funny’ sense that he really does embody the kind of self-absorbed celebrity he’s portraying. It doesn’t hurt that Rhodd does have some measure of character development that’s sold by another actor, Bruce Willis’s, evolving attitude toward the guy.

Mind you, The Fifth Element didn’t really need Rhodd, but he’s stopped from being detrimental by the performance when the writing makes him extremely punchable.

In prose, however, it’s really all up to the writer and the thing about comedy is that being ‘okay’ means you’ve failed. Either you get a laugh or you just wrote something stupid. There are no other options. And yes, there are different tastes in humor, but you still have to actually land the joke; that’s non-negotiable.

I think the thing the compounds this problem is that just because something is funny in your head, that doesn’t mean is will come out of your head that way. Comedians try out jokes all the time, fine tuning them to make them work or discarding them. You write something down or put it in a script and there’s not a lot of space to pull it back and work on it some more.

Keep in mind, I’m just talking about specific attempts at comedy. I’m not talking about witty dialogue or a sprinkling of humor. While those are still an acquired talent, I feel that most people can muster a few gems in that regard—it’s when they need to do it continually for a joke machine type character that they start getting into trouble because you might not need all of those lines to be gold, but you need copper or higher the majority of the time you dig?

And no, this isn’t me saying I’m Funny with an ‘F’. I’m not. At least I don’t think I am. What I am is self-aware enough that I don’t try to be—as Dave Chapelle would say—Jokes n’ jokes’ n’ jokes. That’s why I don’t try to write the next Hitchhiker’s Guide or Discworld: I’m pretty sure that’s not where my talent lies.

Now if we could just convince about ten thousand other writers of that…


For those interested, I’m going to be starting a new forum game running alongside the Prelates of Quinn Bluffs campaign. This one is Pathfinder, set on the World of Ere near the beginning of the Age of Tragedies. If you’re interested, drop by the forum where I thread will be set up by the time you read this!

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. I hate bad comedy relief characters as much as the next person, if not more, and I kind of hate mediocre ones as well, but dissecting them seems a bit harsh…

    I’m not sure I agree about Henry Jones Sr. being a comedy relief. While he had a humorous aspect to him he was also central to the plot.

    • Well that’s the point, isn’t it? He was funny, he lightened the mood, but he wasn’t pointless and he had stuff to do. He was a funny character done right.

  2. Comic relief characters don’t seem to show up in writing as often as on the screen. One of the advantages of not having a boss to tell you what to put in I guess.

    A bit of humor is more to my taste than the overwhelming stuff in some Discworld books. I don’t think that the only reason we don’t have more Terry Pratchetts is that comedy is hard to write well; there’s probably more of a market for action or romance with a bit of comedy than there is for comedy with a bit of action or romance.

  3. Basically every time I get annoyed at a comic relief character I start thinking “why can’t they be done as well as Sokka?”

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