259893 is a quasi-random number.

Comédie et Tragédie

July 15, 2008 essay

Comedy :)

I think I can classify most kinds of comedy into two broad categories: pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. I don’t consider this groundbreaking stuff by any means.

Pattern-matching comedy, much as its name describes, involves humor found by comparing some pattern A with some pattern B (or more, depending on how tricky you wish to get). There are varying degrees of subtlety. At its most blatant, pattern-matching is basically a night show monologue. “Have you ever noticed…?” or “Today it was so hot…/How hot was it!?” Pattern-matching includes parody and satire, some of which can be notably difficult to distinguish from the real thing. This kind of comedy relies heavily on the fact that the audience will recognize both patterns. Moreover, the more subtle the joke is, the more weight is put on the presumption that the audience can match the patterns by itself.

This is what gives rise to lowest-common-denominator humor. It makes the apparent popularity of bodily-functions- and sex-as-comedy pretty straightforward: they are about the most universal experiences we have. Even the crass rise of pop-reference-as-comedy is taking for granted the ubiquity of culture to provide easy laughter. Humor as pattern-matching is a pretty simple explanation for in-jokes and memes. The further you go outside of 4chan, for example, the less interesting many of its memes become, even if they are voraciously devoured by 4channers. It’s because outsides don’t share those same patterns, and can’t match them. Thus, humor doesn’t follow. Hilarity doesn’t ensue.

4chan also tends to mash up patterns in strange ways, or take memes in absurd directions. This is pattern-breaking comedy. It is humored derived by skirting expectations. Pattern-combination is a subset and, in fact, may lie on a continuum between pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. If one could combine two memes that have no outward relationship to each other, but somehow merge into a weird, synergistic humor, this would fall under pattern-breaking. Pure pattern-breaking — simply eschewing the expected — is absurdist comedy. It is surreal and usually hard to grasp out of context. Williams Street cartoons tend to do this, to greater or lesser effect. They are sometimes glorious non-sequitors, sometimes ineffectual randomness.

But because there are still patterns at work — a pattern still had to exist to be broken — it is very difficult to make pure pattern-breaking be universally funny. If the initial pattern makes no real impression on the viewer, then the subsequent break will simply be nonsensical, not funny. Everyone brings their own patterns to humor; some patterns are more dependable within certain social constructs. People who go to see quirky indie movies are going to appreciate quirky indie humor. People expecting explosions will probably be less amused.

Tragedy :(

So, on the other side of the scale, there is tragedy. There are, I would hazard to propose, also two kinds of tragedy: pattern-fulfilling and pattern-breaking. Tricky — eh? — as both comedy and tragedy involve pattern-breaking.

Pattern-fulfilling tragedy is simply the misfortune of the inevitable. It is the knot that forms in one’s stomach when the obvious, unfortunate truth presents itself early and refuses to go away. It is something of a specialized pattern-matching, and as such it depends on the audience being able to follow a tragic story to its conclusion before the story is done. Because of this, most people are uncomfortable with pattern-fulfilling tragedies. In the case of film, it is hard to predict the tragic ending and then sit helplessly as it plays out. For that reason, pattern-fulfilling tends to play better as shorter narratives. This is why Pixar can get away with it for their shorts, but not their features.

It is interesting, on the other hand, to consider pattern-breaking tragedy. Romeo and Juliet can be considered a prime, if not archtypal, example of pattern-breaking tragedy: where elements of the plot seem to suggest things may not end tragically — that they, in fact, may turn out well — but near the end are twisted in terrible ways. The naturalness of this twist tends to have its effect on the audience; if it feels too forced or absurd, they will react infavorably: the tragic break does not feel right by the pattern that has set it up.

Patterns and humans being what they are, tragedy can have the unintended consequence of comedy, and vice versa. When one person looks at a story and is striken by grief, and another is filled with laughter, then the fickle fracturing of patterns is at work. Not only are different patterns brought to bear upon a narrative, but they and the new pattern are interpreted in personal ways. And this experience forms new patterns, reinforces current ones, or occasionally shatters them.

See what I did there? “Hilarity ensues” is a meme. If you’re familiar with it, you may have reacted pleasantly to it, or found it obvious and uninteresting. If you were not familiar with it, you may have assumed it was a joke you didn’t get, or perhaps ignored it outright. Even though I threw the word “doesn’t” in there, I wouldn’t call this pattern-breaking.