Screenwriting 101: Humor and Bathos Done Right

By Valerie Kalfrin · December 14, 2017

Humor is a peculiar tool for a writer. Laughter can add layers to a character and woo an audience, but it can backfire when the jokes drain emotion from an otherwise powerful moment.

The late John Hughes had a knack for knowing when to sneak in a gag and when to let a moment breathe. Consider National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a holiday staple for which Hughes wrote the screenplay that blends sentiment and lunacy. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants nothing more than to host an old-fashioned family Christmas with all the trimmings. “[T]he silent majesty of a winter’s morn… the clean, cool chill of the holiday air,” he tells his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), as he gazes out the window in one scene.

Then he notices what no one expects—or wants—to see. “An [expletive] in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer.”

Cut to his uncouth Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) outside, tending to his RV with a jaunty wave, a “Merry Christmas,” and a succinct but foul explanation.

Yet for all its zaniness, the film lets Clark talk about his financial worries and what the Christmas star means to him without undercutting his sincerity. Clark even kisses Ellen outside in the snow at the end, beaming about how he’s pulled off his holiday get-together in spite of one calamity after another.

It shows a dexterity in using humor, particularly bathos, to deepen our sympathy for Clark but wisely reins it in when the story calls for a heartwarming smile instead of a guffaw.

Bathos is an often-unintentional anticlimactic feeling created by a mood change from the sublime to the ridiculous, or lofty to trite. Eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope reportedly coined the term to describe amusingly failed attempts at pathos, or poignancy.

Superhero films of the past few years tend to hit bathos regularly, with mixed results. It works well in 2012’s The Avengers when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) pontificates about how awesomely powerful he is, only to have the Hulk grab him by the ankles and smack him around like a rag doll. The mood change shows how the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has no patience and spares the audience the trope of a long-winded villain.

But when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) looks in the mirror and at last embraces his power as a master of mystic arts in his 2016 stand-alone film, it’s distracting to have his cloak’s collar interrupt him by tickling his cheeks, even if the cloak has a mind of its own. Strange gets annoyed, and on repeated viewings, so do we.

The YouTube channel Just Write calls this “dramatic kneecapping” that creates a laugh but “destroys any drama the piece was going for.” It works well for parodies, but it’s “not a recipe for lasting storytelling.”

This fall’s Thor: Ragnarok shortchanges character moments throughout with such unexpected humor. The film is an entertaining lark, with a color palette and wild sets reminiscent of 1980’s Flash Gordon, and Chris Hemsworth’s comedic timing gives the formerly staid Thor a stronger personality. (Audiences have responded warmly, with the film grossing about $802 million worldwide since its November 3 release.) But the laugh-out-loud moments overall keep us from getting too invested in the story’s stakes.

And there are serious events in the film. (Spoilers follow.) Thor’s home, Asgard, is left in ruins. His father dies. He loses an eye.

Teaming Thor with Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), the Hulk’s alter ego, is inspired, as the Hulk is always better in smaller doses, and Ruffalo plays confusion at being on a strange planet affably. But Banner gets the worst of the bathos.

Mystified and a bit disturbed that he’s been transformed as the Hulk for two years, Banner fears that he might not be able to return to his human self so easily should he become the Hulk again. Banner sets that aside, as a hero would, to jump out of a spacecraft and help the residents of Asgard at a key moment late in the film. What good does it do for that moment – and the sacrifice he’s likely making – to have Banner face-plant onto the Rainbow Bridge? He transforms into the Hulk seconds later, but the buildup to this heroic moment is lost.

Humor often works best when its unexpected absence highlights a character’s empathy. In 2016’s Rogue One, reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) doesn’t sugarcoat anything for his Rebel colleagues, particularly his distrust of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). But when Jyn gives him a firearm to defend himself at a key point, his wisecracks subside. “Your behavior, Jyn Erso, is continually unexpected,” he says, a remark all the more touching because of its understatement.

This fall’s Justice League has a flawed story because of its villain. But it does feature some strong character moments, such as when The Flash (Ezra Miller) confides before an attempt at rescuing hostages that he’s never battled anyone. “I’ve just pushed some people and run away,” he says.

“Save one person,” Batman (Ben Affleck) advises. “Then you’ll know.”

Sure enough, after zooming one hostage to safety, Flash lights up with the confidence he needed.

Entertainment Weekly recently named Wonder Woman one of the year’s best films for its earnestness toward its protagonist, delivering action and humor but never at her expense.

Matt Zoller Seitz of also applauded the film for similar reasons. “Wonder Woman is radical because it presents the heroine’s values in a straightforward, uninflected way, then calibrates the entire movie around them. It trades the traditional raised eyebrow for a poker face, and is much stronger for having done so,” he writes.

By all means, give us humor. Stories need it. Life requires it. Even give us bathos when it works with the goals of your characters and your story.

But don’t fail to let your characters shine, too. Their emotional journey is a writer’s gift to the audience—one that should keep giving every time we watch.

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