When Sean O’Neal announced he was leaving the AV Club, it was a common observation that O’Neal could turn off his legendary snark when writing obituaries for something sweet and sincere – as beloved commentor DJ JD put it:
…to me, those were what really set him apart. They’ve had a few solid snarkers there, even sensitive, clever snarkers, but he could turn around and be real on a dime. Knowing that made me read the snark differently.
It got me thinking about what I’m going to call ‘dramatic relief’ – when a comedy suddenly drops the Laffs for the sake of a real emotion. One of my favourite examples of this is Futurama – the most famous expression of it is Seymour, the dog that waited, but he’s actually not even in my top five emotional moments from the show; it’s affecting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of a reverse-punchline that relies on a generic love of dogs as opposed to anything specific about Seymour. My favourite example is “Time Keeps On Slippin'”, which takes an ordinary part of the show’s mythology – Fry and Leela’s relationship of Will They/Won’t They? – and uses it as a jumping off point for a scifi story; Seymour’s fate is a kind of Outer Limits twist, a cruel short-story-esque gotcha that’s more like a punchline than a story beat, but Fry’s fate at the end of “Time…” feels earned and so more intense. I think it’s because it ends with him actively choosing to accept his situation (“…Nothing.”), and that resigned despair is so specific and yet so universal as to leave me moved – Bender sadly whistling the Globetrotter’s theme is silly, but a real expression of that feeling.
But it’s DJ JD‘s final sentence that’s on my mind. Mixing comedy with seriousness is a very delicate balancing act (perhaps this is simply a specific variation on a question of tone); I like to refer to Futurama as 75% ironic, 25% sincere, and the sincerity blends well with the irony; by contrast, I don’t believe in the emotions of Family Guy because the sincerity and irony go together like oil and water. The sincerity and the irony have to come from the same place; that is to say, there has to be some kind of sacred cow the show’s not willing to slaughter in the name of comedy. On Futurama, that’s frequently the emotions the characters feel, though not always – there’s also “Godfellas”, which takes the question of “how should God act in the world?” seriously while allowing absurd expressions of the answers.
There needs to be a clear vision and morality for Jokes and Emotions to go together, creating a sense that they both came from the same person. When done correctly, the jokes become imbued by the emotions, and the emotions go down easier assisted by the jokes. What do you think of comedies going serious? What are you favourite examples of a comedy dropping the Laffs for a minute?