Crafting an Effective Comic Relief

The concept art for Hunter ‘Sparks’ Nightshadow is nearing completion. Looking at this visage of my elf reminded me what attracted me to this character to begin with. What interested me in this character was the same thing that interested me in the story overall, the undoing of genre conventions. Elves and wizards are generally expected to be elegant, capable, and wise.

Hunter is wise alright. He is a wise ass.

Long story short, he is the comic relief.

It is a character trope that sends shudders down the spines of many, and rightfully so. We have all seen such characters, shoehorned into a book or a film for no real purpose other than to conjure up a cheap laugh. Each more insufferable than the last, each serving absolutely no useful function apart from getting someone from point A to point B (if they do that at all) they either drag down a good movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) or make an already bad one all the worse (Dungeons & Dragons.)

The reason for this is pulling off a comic relief is a very tricky thing, but it is not impossible Sometimes the most likable character in a movie is the comic relief. Since they are all in the same archetype, why is it that some work and some don’t? This article will not be me gushing over my own creations, as tempting as that may be. Instead, let us take a look at the tropes dos and don’ts.

1, Not Every Line Has to Be a Joke

One of the major failings of most comic characters is they joke a lot. Like a lot a lot. We all remember the soul crushing moment in the first Star Wars prequel when the thing that shall not be named showed up for the first time.

The jokes started and they never stopped.

Plus the jokes were not very funny.

Now, just what did these jokes contribute? Did they add any depth to the scene? Did they forward the plot along? Or did they only serve as a distraction that destroyed the moment? Imagine if in Jaws, little Alex gets ripped in half and suddenly Ralph the wise cracking lifeguard makes a comment to the mortified chief Brody. That doesn’t want to make the audience laugh. It makes you want to shove Ralph into the wood chipper.

There is a time and a place for a laugh. Some scenes don’t call for it. Even the unfairly maligned Temple of Doom understood this.

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While Temple of Doom is often called a failure due to its comic characters, I beg to differ. Short Round acted like any ten year old would in such a situation, and Willie, for all her whining in the beginning, does grow up by the end of the film.

Above all else, they don’t joke all the time. When the slave’s heart is ripped out, the scene is played straight. When Willie is lowered into the lava, the scene is not marred by a joke. During the escape from the temple, there are no laughs or pratfalls, just a run for the exit. They have moments devoted to things other than laughter, such as Short Round and Indy sharing a hug, or Willie killing three guards with a right hook during the mine cart chase.

While their delivery certainly could have been toned down, if you watch the film you will see that the serious moments are kept serious, and the jokes are put on the back-burner for when they are called for.

2, Make Them Useful

Another major failing of such characters is they are often completely useless. Take for instance these two.

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Sorry you all had to claw your eyes out of your skulls. I will pay for whatever medical and therapy bills you have once we are done. Enduring Transformers 2 again, one thing becomes immediately evident. These two characters do nothing.

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Their contributions to the plot don’t even qualify as miniscule. They offer no critical exposition, do not assist the characters in achieving any major goals, do not grow or evolve as individuals and do not move the plot forward at all. They just stay in the background to draw your eyes, force their way into the foreground right into your face, or blow something up occasionally. Even in scenes that are supposed to be emotional, they come in and pander to the audience.

Every line they say leaves the audience wondering “Just why are you here?”

Now, lets take a look at a successful comic relief, Hudson from Aliens.

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Hudson is a soldier with false machismo who is reduced to a frightened buffoon after his squad is eviscerated in James Cameron’s seminal work. Though he spends a lot of time whining, he is one of the most oft quoted characters from the film. His ‘Game Over!’ rant has become a staple of popular culture, and he is cited as one of the highlights of the movie. How did he become so beloved?

The reason for this is he is not a stereotype, but a character, and still contributes more than his whining. Hudson is the technical expert of the group, pulling up schematics of the battlefield and aiding in the upcoming battle. He restrains his whining when Ripley tells him his panicking is doing no one any favors. Last but not least, he saves Newt from a facehugger attack in the med lab, preserving one of the principal characters of the film. He even shows moral fury when he finds out who is responsible for Newt’s brush with death, and demands that the villainous Burke be executed.

He may be there for laughs at times, but that is not his only purpose. This should be the case with every comic relief. As with any other characters, they should only be there if the story calls for them, and Hudson was a character who was needed.

3, Deliberately Annoying is Still Annoying

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Remember that scene in Superman III? You know, the one we all try to block out? The one where the legendary Richard Pryor delivered one of the most unfunny performances of his career when he reenacted Superman’s antics with a tablecloth on his back?

Remember how everyone watching in the scene seemed annoyed?

If the characters in the movie are annoyed, why should the audience feel any different?

Though I still stand by Willie and Short Round, there is no denying that this is one of Temple of Doom’s flaws. Indy may be complaining about Willie’s antics, but that doesn’t mean the viewer shouldn’t. If you create a character with the express purpose of annoying your other characters, there is little endearing or funny about it. It is, once again, just a distraction for the audience.

Worse yet, it is a distraction for your characters. Annoying them at the wrong time doesn’t help. It hurts the situation and may even put them in danger, and who wants such a character to threaten the hero?

A viewer doesn’t like to be annoyed. They like to laugh, so the character should be legitimately funny, such as this guy right here.

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Though Kurt Russell’s meathead Jack Burton is the main focus of Big Trouble in Little China, he is still the comic relief. All of the humor of the film comes from his actions and dialogue, and he single handedly makes an otherwise serious scene hilarious.

Jack does annoy people, but not the heroes. They compliment his bravery and go get em attitude. Who does he annoy? Jack Burton really gets on the nerves of David Lo Pan, an ancient Chinese sorcerer and the film’s main villain. From running him over with his semi truck, to insulting the sorcerer as being crazy, Jack really gets on the nerves of this ancient supernatural evil.

And it helps the heroes. Jack’s annoyance of Lo Pan gets him to slip up and make mistakes, and the audience delights in seeing a demigod reduced to a tantrum amidst Jack’s sharp whit. Here Jack annoys the right guy. Remember, to annoy your heroes is to hinder their efforts, and the audience will not side with anyone who hinders someone they like.

4, Ethnic Stereotypes are Not Funny

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 10.27.36 AMI feel this one speaks for itself.

These are things I tried to remember while writing this character, and you should too when writing such a character.

Time will tell if Hunter winds up as a Skids or a Hudson, but knowing what to look for does make the writing process easier. In the meantime, here are those updates. The partially completed visage of Hunter is pictured below.

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With this concept art almost up, the character sections are nearing completion. Once they are done, I will post a notification so you all may go and check out the new up to date pages. Any new concept art will be added to the page as it is made available.

Thanks for reading and catch you all later.

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