A definition of comedy according to a The Teaching Company lecture I downloaded is that comedy lies in “an inversion or an undermining of expectation” I like this definition because our expectations can only come from reality as it’s our only frame of reference to draw from and further still it is inevitably our own subjective “take” on it;
For instance something that really made me laugh recently came from the most unlikely of places (for me) and I fully recognise that it won’t be for a lot of people and that my finding it funny is wholly a product of my own mind, say what you will about Seth McFarlane (probably needs a new thread) however it was in an episode of American Dad;
The irreverent storyline saw the son Steve purchasing some hot pants from a slick, smooth talking salesman who promised it would bring them popularity with girls or something, later when it really works Steve is celebrating with his friends when one of them say’s fondly “I wonder if we’ll ever see that saleman again” and Steve confidently and wistfully reply’s “Something tells me we will” We then cut to the sales man in the back of a cargo train slumped in a coma, frothing at the mouth, the hotpants strewn everywhere with needles up his arm, the carriage shakes violently and his body is thrown off a really high bridge into a lake. I found this hilarious as it was firstly very much an inversion of my expectations following Steve’s romanticism and furthermore the depiction of a shyster salesman drugging himself to death whilst presumably skipping town rang very true for me. Sure the episode as a whole was forgettable and exaggerated as they come but it was the little bit of reality within all of that that caused me to find it so darkly amusing.
A friend of mine always says “it’s funny because it’s true” so his definition of what’s funny lies in his identifying with certain situations or characters, for instance he doesn‘t necessarily appreciate it when Peter fights a chicken for ten minutes, neither do I that being said if you weren’t expecting it then it is still consistent with the definition of comedy as stated above, some people won’t find it funny because they do expect it because they know Seth Mcfarlane, in which case the joke becomes the audacity with which it’s drawn out the most recent case being almost half an episode. I think this is why so many shows in general seem to diminish in quality over time they hit upon a formula that works (or is at least marketable), it gets done to death and by season 10 we all know what to expect and have grown tired with it’s tricks. I’d wager this would still be the case in a perfect world where writers don’t change, run out of ideas, die or continuity doesn’t get spoiled; even in that world a Breaking Bad faithfully continued to Season 20 by Gilligan himself would still suck I bet because people get bored and need new things or else you might as well watch Coronation Street. Sorry tangent over.
With any Comedy you will constantly refer to your knowledge of the real world by default and therein lies the basis for the laughs, your real world knowledge of the workings between these types of people or that kind of situation and it’s almost always amusing when you identify something to be true and/ or have your expectations undermined. I stand by that!
To try and expand on and thus complicate Robin’s purple apple example here’s a dialogue where the purple apple, ‘purple’ being the exaggerated element, could be used for comic effect:
Robin “Hey Jim, you’ll never guess what”
Jimmy (Sigh) “What is it now?”
Robin “I just ate a purple apple… and it was rotten inside”
Jimmy “Err Robin… those weren’t apples”
Robin “Aww Jeez!”
The comedic element here is no longer the purple apple for which we have no frame of reference but rather the inversion of the expectation that the apple was indeed something else, potentially harmful and Robin’s misconstruence of it to be an apple to the annoyance of Jimmy the humour therefore is derived from Robin’s cluelessness of what an apple looks like and Jimmy’s reaction to this. Ok if I saw this in a show I would put something through my screen, I also don’t mean to imply Robin can’t identify an apple I am however making the point that by including the elements of real world identification and an inversion of expectation we can make something seemingly random adhere to the “funny” formula.
I don’t watch HIMYM simply because the unreality and randomness of it is a reason not to invest in the characters for me and so nothing makes me laugh. I very much adore early Frasier and Friends simply because whilst having the exaggerated elements thrown in at times, the joke isn’t just the exaggerated element the crux of the comedy lies in the coherence of the plot, the consistency of the characters and the way the punch lines are woven in naturally with the dialogue and the way the world reacts to it. Frasier resorts to wordplay all the time but it is done in such a way that isn’t a jarring list of puns being reeled off in the vague hope that one sticks, his wordplay is portrayed as a very real character quirk that everyone around him can’t stand and that makes it funny because we’ve all met an incessant Punslinger at some point (I’m betting) and so aren’t constantly reminded that the show’s “strings” are there every time a character gets away with something zany in front of a nonchalant world (Dwight comes to mind).
I would finish by referring to the British Office and why that was so successful as a comedy but the case for comedy being grounded in reality is made much more strongly if you just watch it!
Apologies for the epic length of this post and for any lack of clarity in it’s points. I see where you’re coming from Immortalfreiza however I have to say I’m with Robin on this one, I’ve been following this site for a few years now and he is a man who clearly knows his television and he has a habit of getting straight to the point of what makes something work or not work and can articulate it perfectly right after watching it. I think the main point of contention here is a difference in taste, where some might like the edgy randomness and throwaway exaggerations of HIMYM or Family Guy (and sadly The Simpsons for the last ten plus years) Robin appreciates comedy which gives you a reason to care and that just happens to mean good script writing, a solid narrative oh and funny jokes based on good realistic observations. That doesn’t necessarily mean one show is ‘better’ than the other, it just depends what you watch television for, if you watch a lot of it and like to give it some thought, you tend to want something with more substance that holds up to scrutiny as it aids your suspension of disbelief and can only work to heighten your enjoyment whilst still being relatable.