A book I clandestinely delved into during my “computer science studies” in the year 1990 was a brand new copy of Popular Film and Television Comedy by Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik.

It’s a book that goes into the theory of comedy in great detail, and with many examples taken from (then) popular sit-coms and movies.

Popular film and television comedy

I took notes which I’ve kept with me to this day (the book’s not cheap, but it’s definitely worth a read, especially if you can get hold of a library copy). In a nutshell, here’s what I thought was important to jot down:

All instances of the comic involve a DEPARTURE FROM THE NORM, whether the NORM be one of appropriate behaviour, conventional dress, or stereotypical features.

The notion of “the unlike”, of departures from the norm, underlies a great deal of comic theory that stresses INCONGRUITY and SURPRISE. Gags can be totally predictable or totally unpredictable. The universe of the gag is always one or the other.

This contradicts our everyday experience, in which events are neither totally predictable or totally unpredictable:

  • Totally predictable events contradict such common sense notions as “nobody can be that stupid” and “once bitten twice shy”.
  • Totally unpredictable events are likely to be so because the natural laws of the known universe have apparently been dislocated.

The issues of PREDICTABILITY and HUMAN DIGNITY refer us to the allied concepts of VERISIMILITUDE and DECORUM:

  • VERISIMILITUDE – what is probable or likely
  • DECORUM – what is proper and fitting

There are two kinds of Verisimilitude giving rise to two kinds of decorum:

  • Respecting the norms embodied in public opinion
  • Respecting the rules of a genre or form