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How to make a sad story funny - Jodie Houlston-Lau


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It may seem counterintuitive, but comedy is often key to a serious story. As a writer, you need your audience to experience a range of emotions, no matter what your genre. Comic relief is a tried-and-true way of creating the varied emotional texture a compelling story needs. So how can you create this effect in your own stories? Jodie Houlston-Lau shares some tips for lightening the mood.

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Comic relief is the inclusion of comedy within a serious work; it allows a writer to briefly lighten tension and build it to an even higher, more dramatic point later in the piece. Typically, this work will fall into the genre of tragedy; at the very least it will feature moments of heightened tension. Once you are aware that comic relief exists, you will start to spot it everywhere.

In your quest to find, appreciate and use comic relief, why not start by further exploring the texts mentioned in this video? You can learn more about The Epic of Gilgamesh here, Slaughterhouse-Five here, and The God of Small Things here.

You can also find ample examples of comic relief in the world of theatre, and the obvious place to start is with the work of Shakespeare. Immediately after the brutal killing of King Duncan, Macbeth’s porter delivers a comic scene that comes complete with an actual knock-knock joke, perfectly sandwiched between the murder and the discovery of the body, and forcing the audience to wait for the latter. In King Lear, the fool provides classic opportunities for witty wordplay and humor, but it’s also worth noting that Lear’s descent into madness itself can be very funny at times. In the same era, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a play that can, if a director chooses, be so funny that critics have resisted defining it as a tragedy!

In more contemporary theatre, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton features a darkly comic portrayal of King George III that verges on caricature, providing three opportunities for the audience to take a breath and relax. Audiences cheer his arrival to the stage, but we should note that the character also allows the play to acknowledge and comment on the real-life impact of King George III’s behaviour and actions.

Consider Disney’s Timon and Pumbaa, Tolkein’s Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Rowling’s Ron Weasley: you don’t need to go back to The Epic of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare to find examples comic relief.

TED-Ed also offers opportunities for you to learn about the three elements that make comic relief work: use these videos to find out more about why tragedies are alluring, how to make your writing funnier, and how to make your writing suspenseful.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Jodie Houlston-Lau
  • Director Joe Taylor
  • Narrator Alexandra Panzer
  • Storyboard Artist Joe Taylor, Jasmine Lister
  • Animator Joe Taylor
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger
  • Composer Jarrett Farkas
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Content Associate Abdallah Ewis
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam

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