No drama is complete until the comic relief shows up to ruin it. Terrible Writing Advice will show a writer how to utilize a comic relief character to properly sink a story through the use of excessive catch phrases, bumbling slapstick, and just all around annoying your audience at every opportunity.
My Honest Thoughts on Comic Relief Characters
Much like an invasive species, a poorly written comic relief character will proliferate through the story gradually displacing the natural elements until all that’s left is a patchwork wasteland of lame jokes. So what is it about comic relief characters that seems to go so often wrong? I’m not the only one annoyed by this character type. There is a reason that Scrappy Doo gets his very own TV Tropes page named after him that is all about annoying characters.
One likely reason is that comic relief characters tend to be abruptly pushed into the spotlight, make a lot of noise, and otherwise disrupt the story in obvious ways that are impossible to ignore. For example, Jar-Jar is so maligned likely because of how obviously he sticks out in the scenes he’s in. Let’s be fair, there were a lot of bad elements in the Phantom Menace, but people tend to focus on Jar-Jar because his scenes are so loud and obnoxious compared to the more low key nonsense plotting. This results in a lot of comic relief characters becoming hate sinks for the audience. Essentially, for a bad story the comic relief character becomes a symbol of the negative elements that plague the narrative. You can see a similar effect in the Internet Culture Wars(TM) with both sides complaining about the loudest, most obnoxious elements of the opposing side. Unfortunately, as with many bad writing elements, often the annoying comic relief character is a mere symptom of larger issues with the writing itself. However, even if this is true, removing an annoying comic relief character can drastically improve a story even if it doesn’t fix the story’s underlying issues.
Speaking of underlying issues, the core reason a lot of comic relief characters go astray is because the writer simply does not treat them like a character. As I stressed in the video, treating the comic relief character like a tool to fix the tone usually results in them feeling like an alien element in the story. I’ve mentioned before the idea that scenes and characters should pull double duty wherever possible. Comic relief characters are no exception and should also take on other roles in the story to better justify their inclusion in the story.
Fleshing out the comic relief’s character also helps the humor as well. Having the humor based on the comic relief’s character traits will ground the humor better and make everything fit together much more nicely than a character who just stumbles out of nowhere, spouts an annoying catchphrase, and then stumbles out of the scene. One is an intruder the other is a natural part of the story.
Now as for humor writing itself, well that is probably a topic than needs a whole other video to address. To be honest, this is a difficult subject to tackle because of the subjective nature of humor itself. Joke writing is something I’ve always just had a knack for. To be honest, my writing process for humor is basically “that sounds funny so I’ll add it in”. That said, it does help to consider the audience. Fart jokes will likely not amuse the pop science crowd. Likewise physics jokes will be lost on a teenage audience.
Now the other purpose comic relief characters usually have is controlling the tone. This will completely fail if the writer doesn’t really understand tone in the first place. Mostly this comes down to knowing when to make the comic relief character shut up and understanding that there are also a lot of other ways to shift the tone. Often the best way to the shift the tone is through subtlety such as descriptions of atmosphere or through small changes in characterization in the cast. Comic relief characters, by contrast, have the all the subtlety of Godzilla during Tokyo rush hour. The writer can use them as a tool, but that doesn’t mean that they are the best tool to use at all times.
An alternative strategy is what I call the ‘Marvel Solution’ where basically every character takes up the role of comic relief. Named for the ever present Marvel movies, this has the advantage of versatility as the story no longer needs a dedicated comic relief character, freeing up the characters to take on any role needed. Unfortunately, this can wreck the tone as effectively as a dedicated comic relief character with the added benefit of derailing previously established characterization. This approach really only works in limited doses. I mean why would you want to copy the Marvel formula? It’s not like they are making any money.