LAUGHING AT TRAGEDY
I was draped over the sofa, succumbing to a bout of self-loathing, distraught over nothing in particular; naturally, I decided to watch a real-crime series on occult murders to lighten the mood.
During the second or third episode, I noticed my reactions to a string of grisly murders committed by an obsessed man who believed he was on a righteous mission from God.
Not that kind of mission.
1. The man stole money from an elderly couple. He realized that he’d have to murder them to cover up his theft. So he did. Tragic.
2. Then, to tie up a loose end, he murdered his girlfriend and realized he'd have to off her mom too. Awful.
3. When he arrives at the mom’s house he finds her in bed and prepares to kill her. Dreadful.
4. But, he sees her boyfriend asleep next to her. He’ll have to kill him too! Now, I roll my eyes and chuckle.
Do I find this fourth murder amusing because I’m a psychopath?
But, maybe it has something to do with the number 3:
Stories have 3 parts (Don’t laugh): Beginning, Middle, and End.
Having 3 characters interact with each other is the most entertaining and powerful combination to reveal true character.
Story events tend to happen with increasing tension in 3s.
If a Hero pursues his goal and achieves it the first time, there’s no suspense. If the hero fails the first time and succeeds the second, there’s some suspense but the audience still feels cheated. The third try’s a charm. But, four tries and the audience checks out.
It’s all about balance.
Okay, so four scenes of murder may have knocked the narrative off balance, but why did I laugh?
I'll try to answer this question with alchemy:
Medieval physiologists believed every person had four humors or fluids - blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. A person’s temperament was determined by the balance or imbalance of these fluids.
The 17th century playwright, Ben Jonson, called a comic character’s “ruling passion” his “humor”.
Some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his affects, his spirits, and his powers, In their confluctions*, all to run one way.
For our purposes, I’ll create three "humors" of my own:
1. Obsession 2. Reason 3. Sensitivity
A good dramatic character needs to have a balance of all three: An obsessive drive to achieve his goal, the capacity to weigh the pros and cons of his pursuit, and the ability to feel pain. These elements will create the perfect amount of empathy in the audience.
Reason and Sensitivity breed empathy and empathy kills Comedy.
To create a strong comedic character, we need to tilt the scales by draining him of Sensitivity and Reason and pumping him full of Blind Obsession. (Just like our murderer**)
When a character is fueled by obsession, fails to consider the dangers of his pursuit, and is impervious to empathy-inducing pain, the audience, freed from compassion, is free to laugh, regardless of the crime.
In The Big Lebowski, "The Dude" really wants his rug back. In the process, people die, laws are broken and relationships shatter. BUT, we laugh, impervious to nihilism.
In Tootsie, Micheal's obsession with acting will force him to become a woman and hurt those who love him most. BUT, it's hilarious, despite the fact we're rooting for a chauvinistic jerk.
Airplane is loaded with one-liners, absurd situations, and social commentary; our mind races to keep up. Our heart hasn't the chance to be sad for the protagonist's backstory, or feel suspense or fear at the spread of a lethal virus and imminent plane crash. we laugh because of the pain, fear, death, and destruction.
A good comedian is the last person you want to invite to a cocktail party; they're too busy dwelling on the dark side of life, disrupting the balance, and turning tragedy into comedy.
*n. A flowing together; a meeting or confluence.
** if the real-crime episode had focused on another character of the case (I.E. the investigator, or accomplices) There'd be more room for empathy. But, the story stuck with the obsessed perspective of the murderer, and his unbalanced rampage created an unintended comedic effect.