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The trick to comic violence

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Barbara Thomas 12 months ago.

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    Shaula Evans

    Seen as slapstick, Basil’s treatment of Manuel [in Fawlty Towers] (similarly Blackadder’s treatment towards Baldrick [in Blackadder]) is ‘acceptable’ and a valid component of situation comedy. If Manuel were to end up in a hospital intensive care ward with multiple fractures, after one of Basil’s attacks, then clearly that would be unacceptable. As an aside, Andrew Sachs really did have to go to hospital twice whilst filming the series – he suffered serious concussion after being hit over the head with a saucepan in episode 1.3 and his arms were severely burnt during the fire stunt in episode 1.6 – in the broadcast series the Manuel character is un-harmed by the very same incidents.

    – Mike Corke, Why Audiences Laugh

    I have been thinking a lot about comedy and violence because my GOYOQ script is a black comedy that includes a lot of murders.

    I think Mike Corke’s quotation here covers half the ground of comic violence.

    1. If the physical comedy is violent, the violence has no real consequences.

    E.g., in Fawlty Towers, the character of Manuel never really suffers from the violence he receives at the hands of Basil Fawlty.

    2. But the flipside is, if the physical comedy has consequences, then the violence itself is never shown.

    E.g., in The Ladykillers (1955), several characters are murdered by being dropped from an overpass into the path of an oncoming train. But the deaths are never shown! Instead, what we see is the train advancing, the baddies dangling their victim over the drop, the steam of the train obscures our view and then… the victim is gone, presumed dead, but the act of violence itself and the consequences are never shown.

    My theory is that in comedy, you can show violence OR you can show the consequences of violence, but never both–and the greater the degree of violence, the less you can actually show. (Which is fine: the audience is happy to do the work of filling in the gaps for you, and they’ll swear up and down they saw scenes and moments that never make it into the actual film.)

    What do you think? And if my theory is right, does this help you with writing or revising your violent physical comedy scenes?



    That’s very interesting. In a way, I suppose, the defining characteristic of comedy is that it has no consequences. At the end of the film/episode, everything and everyone is the same as they were before, except perhaps for a cosy, simple moral lesson they’ve learned. Which explains why comedy characters on TV can’t change and grow, because that would be a consequence and break the safe comedy cocoon…


    Shaula Evans

    Yes, that’s especially true of sitcom characters: the world “resets” after every episode.

    I wonder if that’s the different between sitcom and comedy drama: sitcom characters are stagnant but comedy drama characters have growth and character arcs over multiple episodes?



    That’s probably it, isn’t it?

    Hurrah, I actually know something about comedy!!


    Shaula Evans

    Related discussion: The power of suggestion


    Barbara Thomas

    It also helps if the victim is unlikeable or somehow deserves his fate. (although that isn’t the case with Manuel or Baldrick).

    I’m thinking of A Fish Called Wanda; Ken is a sympathetic character on the whole, but his various injuries occur during his attempts to kill an innocent old lady, so he sort of deserves it. Otto is a jerk and has relentlessly tormented Ken, so we cheer Ken on when he runs him down with a steamroller.

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