In my last post I wrote how humor in the historical fiction Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis helped make a serious story appealing to a broader readership.
It’s the “spoonful of sugar” idea that humor can make it easier for a reader to take the “medicine” of a serious theme or a sad event. It also can make the serious part hit harder, which can be a good thing.
Last week I attended a play that was billed as a comedy. For the most part it was. However, there was one very sad bit. I wasn’t expecting it, and it hit me harder than if I’d been ready. I was angry. Why?
Because I’d been blindsided.
But comedies can deal with serious plots or themes without making their readers/viewers angry. Serious stories can include humor to help the reader/viewers process difficult things.
1. For a serious story, give the point of view character or narrator a humorous voice from page one. Like Elijah in Elijah of Buxton. The topic deals with slavery. Not funny–at all.
Yet, Elijah has the voice of an innocent child who tries, often unsuccessfully and humorously, to figure out the adults around him. The humor draws us in at the beginning, and we can’t help but follow–and hurt with–Elijah as the story becomes more serious.
2. For a comedy, make sure there is plenty of foreshadowing of serious events or themes.
3. Keep pacing in mind. Humor can give the reader or viewer small breaks in-between the intense scenes–like the times a roller coaster climbs the hills, giving riders a chance to take a breath before they start screaming again. Sprinkling humor in-between intense parts also helps keep the humor from being insensitive to tragedy.
Let’s look at the recent Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier as a case study. The movie’s premise is serious. The hidden bad guys plan to take over the world by eliminating millions of people who they deem to be future problems. However, the movie uses lots of humor, especially banter, at the beginning. As the stakes ramp up, there is less humor.
Then, before the final battle, Stan Lee makes a cameo as a museum security guard who discovers Cap’s uniform is missing, and he says, “Oh, man. I’m so fired.” This tiny injection of humor gives viewers a place to take a breath before plunging into the most intense scenes.
What are examples of comedies that handle serious elements well? What are other examples of serious stories that include humor appropriately and effectively?