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The Elements of Comedy: A Reference Guide

Updated on May 16, 2014
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Comedy has a rich history spanning many eras and styles. Within the last hundred years or so (particularly since the birth of the movie industry), we as a society have depended on comedy to see us through life. We all have our favorites, though their routines fall into the same categories: slapstick, stand-up, improv, sitcoms, props, and adaptations. Though our senses of humor may vary, the formulas remain similar.
The Early Years: In the early nineteen hundreds we were treated to silent films in black-and-white. These relied on clever quips portrayed in caption screens, but they also depended on the actions of the performers. Not only did these comedic actors need to have expressive faces, but they also needed to know what to do with the props they had at their disposal (i.e. pies). As they made the transition to talkies, these sight gags still remained essential to certain acts. However, the delivery of lines became even more important. Inflection and diction came to the fore and were vital for these movies to succeed; it was one thing to look great but they also had to sound great.
This era was marked by comedy icons we still know of today: Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello. Rounding out the end of this era were the Three Stooges, whose nostalgia has been recently recaptured in a feature film. As we all know, slapstick and physical comedy were integral to these acts as well as the clever jokes they were known for. To those familiar with their schtick, their influence shows in duos and groups from the latter half of the century like Kenan and Kel, Drake and Josh, and Saturday Night Live/All That. The aforementioned are also well-known for their unique material as well as spoofing that of those who came before them.

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Adaptational Humor: In bringing foreign works to the domestic audience, translators may not be able to make a joke in the original language funny if there is no English equivalent. In that situation, they must insert their own jokes. While there can be similarities between foreign and domestic comedy styles (Osakan stand-up being very reminiscent of vaudeville slapstick from the early years in America), some things only make sense or are funny in the culture from which it came. Examples of titles that pulled this off well include Azumanga Daioh (the dub of which stayed true to the original and adapted the jokes to near-perfection) and Samurai Pizza Cats (the English version of Kyatto Ninden Teyandee, which is just as zany though adapted for a different audience).
However, there are also dubs that take the original material and play fast and loose with the translation; essentially, they run away with it, rewriting dialog and inserting jokes where there weren't any before, in dramatic pauses and prolonged silences in particular. Long-time viewers of the Digimon franchise will recognize this practice, mostly the work of writers and voice actors Steve Blum and Jeff Nimoy. While annoying at times, that doesn't mean they can't have fun with it; some of the most valuable comedy gems can be found in the outtakes, as Funimation has proven time and again.
Abridging is also a type of adaptational humor, on par with spoofs. While the word "abridge" just means "shorten," these web-based series (controversial for using copyrighted material under fair use) have the added definition of "make funnier." They often rely on sarcasm and subversive humor as a start, depending on a writer's personal narrative style and ideas. 4Kids Entertainment tried to mimic this formula, but as they were a professional studio tasked with remaining as true as possible to the source material, their attempts at adaptational humor were not well received. Web-based review series may also fall under the heading of adaptational or transformative humor, also subject to legal question.

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Stand-up Comedy: Stand-up comedians point out what is funny about everyday life, carrying on a mostly one-sided conversation with the audience. These discussions are often topical, and as such must be continually updated. However, topical or timeless, their routines can become immortalized in their own television specials or series. As well as their timing and delivery, relateability also matters. A successful stand-up comedian is an Everyman or Everywoman with whom the audience identifies (the basis for the competition reality show Last Comic Standing), though humor is subjective and audiences can be fickle. Stand-up comedians can also teach us something, revealing certain truths about the world we may or may not be aware of. Some of them may even lead interesting lives, though most acts are comprised of embellished versions of these stories. While some critics may not appreciate a comic saying "this is all completely true" when in fact it isn't, you have to realize that that is also part of the act and that these stories do most likely contain grains of truth. Charisma is the key to getting the material across; whether or not it's true, it has to be well-presented.
Improvisation: The scripted material compiled by all prior categories is impressive in its own right. Practicing your same material until it's perfect or changing it when necessary is one thing, but it takes skilled professionals to go into a gig blind and come up with jokes on the fly based on suggestions from the audience. Not everyone can do it; the transition between scripted and unscripted can be as difficult as the one between the silents and the talkies. It takes a quick wit and fearless attitude to take on such a daunting task, even if the performers make it look effortless. The most successful have been at it for years, such as the comedians who have appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and its spin-offs. As with the scripted forms of comedy, they often fall back into routines that have served them well for many years while keeping up with the changing modes and topics of the times. The teams and duos that have evolved from such collaborations are also not to be denied as they work as well together as those of yore.
To conclude, everyone has a different sense of humor, and the same act or style of comedy will not appeal to everyone. However, we can still respect and appreciate the long history of comedy with which film and television have provided us for going on a century. Though the names and faces have changed, the formulae by which comedy functions have not changed much since then, as even outdated acts are still relevant by today's standards.

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