What is Comic Relief?


What is comic relief

Think about the last time you were in an argument with someone. You’re both hurling insults at each other.

You’re looking for ways to win the argument. But then… somebody farts.

You’re not quite sure who did it. In fact, whoever did isn’t fessing up.

But determining the culprit no longer matters. By now, you’re both doubled over with laughter.

All of a sudden, the tension from before is gone. It’s been dismantled by this innocuous sound.

You continue to laugh because that’s all there is to do. And you can’t even remember what you were fighting about just seconds before.

This is just one example of comic relief. When things get too serious, comedy can free us from the tension at play.

Especially at work or a corporate function, comedy can certainly lighten the atmosphere. Ever been to a corporate event hosted by a comedian? Let’s just say, the mood is much lighter and brighter! 

This example is rooted in accidental comedy. But comic relief is a tool that storytellers have used for years.

It is fair to say that people enjoy dramatic films, movies, or plays. But sometimes, too much tragedy is simply too much.

Comic relief provides a break from the despair on screen. It gives the audience a chance to laugh and break away from the world of pain. 

And they’re much more ready to engage after that respite. In film and television, comic relief is used as a plot device.

This plot device might make up a single moment of accidental comedy like before. Or, there can be entire characters dedicated to providing comic relief.

In this way, comic relief does not have to be a single moment. It can be an entire character of its own.

See Related: Why Are Some People Funny?

Why do we need comic relief?

You might think that comic relief can diminish a story. But it actually does the opposite.

Think of yourself as a pot. Just play along, trust me.

When you’re a pot, you’re given something to hold. You’re consuming the world of the film or play at hand.

And all of the storylines you’re taking in are tragic. You are now holding the entire emotional world.

And you’re looking for a way to lighten the load. Now imagine comic relief comes along and pokes a hole in your pot.

Some of the tragedy you were holding now spills to the floor. Your pot doesn’t necessarily break.

But it became just a little bit lighter. Humorous moments or characters give us a moment to re-engage.

They save us from drowning in these tragic storylines. Instead, they urge us to search for lightness.

They even provide a kind of hope. In situations that feel helpless, comic relief can remind us to laugh.

It is similar to how we handle things in life. Some situations are just too overwhelming for us to take on.

Ever wonder why you laugh when you’re nervous? That’s the body’s way of telling you to ease up.

It’s not always easy to find comedy in these life circumstances. But comic relief in art teaches us to brighten the perspective of our own world.

Character examples of comic relief

#1. The gravediggers from Hamlet

Comic relief provides levity to a dramatic scene

Shakespeare is known for both his dramatic and comedic writing. But Hamlet is considered one of the greatest tragedies in all of literature.

And yet, the two gravediggers make humorous remarks in the most depressing of circumstances. They come in around Act V.

Hamlet has just learned that Ophelia is dead. And he is muddled with grief and ready to give up on life.

At Ophelia’s graveside, Shakespeare includes an extended scene between gravediggers. And they proceed to relate humorous comments to one another.

It seems rather inappropriate to joke on somebody’s grave. I mean, would you be caught dead doing that in real life?

But the gravediggers intentionally break from the despair of Hamlet’s world. They provide a new life perspective.

Their very job is to bury people. So from a literary standpoint, the irony of their humorous affair is all the more bewildering.

But it is also necessary for them to do their job. No one could be a gravedigger and take each site so seriously.

Instead, comic relief allows them to compartmentalize. And as relief comic characters, the gravediggers in Hamlet allow us to partake in that too.

#2. The porter from Macbeth

Like Hamlet, Macbeth is yet another one of Shakespeare’s serious plays. But comic relief is hidden in its depths if only you search for it.

On the page, King Duncan of Scotland has just been murdered. The writing swells with emotion and takes in the evils of this murderous affair.

Then, enter the Porter. His silly dialogue and bumbling personality are nowhere near related to the murderous circumstances of before.

At first, this comic relief can feel a little jarring. But Shakespeare knows exactly what he’s doing.

In Hamlet, the gravediggers were certainly employed for comedic relief. But they were also kind of sardonic.

I mean, joking at a gravesite? That’s pretty dark.

But the porter is completely innocent. He knows nothing of the previous murder.

He just enters oblivious to the circumstances he’s walking into. In this way, he’s a completely innocent character.

And this makes his comic relief innocent too. This will be a theme with characters who provide comic relief.

Some are simply there as innocent bystanders, observing the world. But others, as in Hamlet, will be a little more cheeky with their humor.

#3. Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove

Comic relief can either be executed as innocent or sardonic. But Kronk is the perfect example of a comic relief character who blends both of these elements.

Kronk works for the main villain Yzma. So by default, Kronk seems like an evil character as well.

But throughout the movie, he constantly measures what is good and what is bad. And this is where his comic relief comes in.

On the page, Kronk can come off as silly or stupid. And this is where the innocent comedic character lies.

But to the world, Kronk is seen as a bad guy. He does all of Yzma’s evil bidding.

And, for the most part, he does it without question. But when he does question her authority, he breaks from the stress.

He goes through the moral implications of his actions. And what might seem like overanalyzing, in fact, becomes the audience’s own comic relief.

He ultimately proves himself as a character we end up rooting for. And all because his comic relief reveals his inner humanity.

Characters like Genie from Aladdin are an example of comic relief

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#4. Genie from Aladdin

Voiced by Robin Williams, Genie is already set to be a comedic blast. But the comic relief Genie provides is more about how he upends the audience’s expectations.

What comes to mind when you think of a genie in a bottle? A wise old sage telling you to be careful what you wish for?

Or a somber character who provides examples of how too much wishing can ruin your life? That’s typically the stock answer.

But Genie is the opposite of all of that. He opens up the world to Aladdin.

He leaves Aladdin free to make as many wishes as he wants. And he makes every scene an unforgettable ride of hilarity.

Aladdin has to deal with some severe consequences throughout the movie. But audiences can rely on Genie to provide that comic relief.

We wouldn’t have gotten “A Whole New World” without Genie. After all, he’s the one who encouraged Aladdin to seek out Jasmine in the first place!

#5. Donkey from Shrek

Previous Shakespeare examples highlighted comic relief characters in tragedies. But that does not mean comic relief cannot exist in comedies too.

Shrek is the perfect example of a comedy that has characters designed for comic relief. The circumstances of the film are already funny.

But adding in comic relief characters adds just another level of pizzaz. Donkey similarly goes against the audience’s expectations.

The only other donkey the world was accustomed to was depressing Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. But Donkey is a free spirit, ready to crack a joke in the search for friendship.

During the more tense moments of the film, Donkey gives the audience a break. He reminds us that the movie is still a comedy.

And that each scene has the potential to turn into a farce. As a comic relief example, Donkey blends substance with silliness.

He is a fully-fledged-out character. So he does not exist for the sole purpose of providing comic relief.

#6. Dory from Finding Nemo

You might think about Finding Nemo as a Pixar comedy. But just think about the premise for a moment.

Marlin the clownfish is looking for his lost son. That’s actually pretty severe when you think about it.

In almost every scene, Marlin is anxiety-ridden. But once he meets Dory, the film starts to lighten in certain ways.

Dory is sweet and innocent. While she struggles with memory loss, her demeanor overall still makes us giggle.

Dory is a great example of how comic relief characters can still deal with their own drama. They are not just ploys or plot devices.

They are dynamic and dimensional beings. Comic relief has certainly changed over time.

If you don’t believe me, just go back through this list. Shakespearean characters were written for the sole purpose of being a relief comic.

But modern Disney and Pixar films employ comic relief in a new way. These later examples prove that a relief comic can still be human too. (Or fish, in this case).

Lighten a scene with a comedic moment that diffuses tension

#7. Olaf from Frozen

Frozen is perhaps most known for its hit song “Let It Go.” But when you look at the storyline itself, like Finding Nemo, it’s also rather dark.

Elsa must conceal the fact that she has this phenomenal superpower. And when her secret is discovered, she is run out of her own town.

Her sister, Anna, attempts to find her. And along the way, she meets Olaf, a lovable snowman who dreams of summer.

Olaf seems like a simple yet funny fool. But the very core of his narrative is the perfect example of dramatic irony and comedic genius.

A snowman in summer. I mean, who wants to break the news to him that he would melt?

Nobody really does. And that feeds into the comedic storyline overall.

With such innocence, Olaf manages to capture the hearts of everyone he encounters. And luckily, his dream of summer ultimately comes true.

That is, with the help of Elsa and her powers to sustain his ice-like state. Olaf: the perfect example of a fool who gets others to feed into his comedic shenanigans.

#8. Timon and Pumba from The Lion King

Based on Hamlet, The Lion King carries over similar themes of grief and despair. But, like the gravediggers, Timon and Pumba do not disappoint in lightening the mood.

Simba has just been scared away from his home. And his uncle has killed his father to take the throne for himself.

Enter Timon and Pumba. The comedic duo and an example of how to lighten an otherwise heavy plotline.

Their silly humor reminds the audience to enjoy the movie. Such dark matters will return and carry out the rest of the film.

But for at least a little while, Timon and Pumba invite viewers to laugh. Taking Simba under their wing, they similarly indulge in some dramatic irony as well.

A meerkat and a warthog take in a young lion cub. They raise him and teach him how to lead a life of leisure.

Only later does it occur to them that they’ve raised their very predator. But the love they’ve cultivated makes their bond an unbreakable one.

An emotional scene needs comedy to re-engage the audience

Make ’em laugh

Comic relief cannot be underestimated. It might seem like putting in a joke here and there.

But the experience it provides the audience is one they’ll live to be grateful for. No one can sit through a serious movie or play with no levity whatsoever.

There needs to be a lift from the fog. And even just a moment of laughter provides exactly that.

Often, comic relief gets dismissed as immaterial. But as a plot device, it is a strong way of re-engaging the audience.

So don’t be afraid to make others laugh. Sometimes, the very thing a serious scene needs is a little joke to lighten the mood and keep the momentum going.

Keep Reading: How To Do Stand-Up Comedy

Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a corporate entertainer, magician, and virtual speakers.