Know your comedy: bathos

Frozone experiences bathos

I have to confess that I just learned the full meaning of bathos in comedy. Previously, I thought that bathos was just the term for “unintentional comedy.”  There are times when actors or directors try very hard to be serious, but mistakenly generate laughter.  That is only one form of bathos.  

Of course, nobody wants to unintentionally create laughs, so I didn’t pursue it further. Now I have a new tidbit for you to impress your friends and colleagues with.  If I get to revise my book, I’ll add this new material. Wikipedia has this description of bathos:

… a literary term, coined by Alexander Pope in his 1727 essay “Peri Bathous”, to describe amusingly failed attempts at sublimity (i.e., pathos). In particular, bathos is associated with anticlimax, an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one. This may be either accidental (through artistic ineptitude) or intentional (for comic effect).

So, in bathos you have a character whose mind is engaged in a serious endeavor. They may think very highly of themselves. Then, in an instant, they have to deal with very down to earth matters. As always, it’s best to describe such things with examples. 

In the Marvel cinematic universe, the superheroes have tremendous powers. To make them more relatable, a fair amount of the comedy comes from putting them in awkward human situations. At the beginning of  Thor: Ragnarok, Thor boldly summons Mjölnir to vanquish Surtur. But the hammer takes much longer to arrive than he expects, so Thor has to kill time at what should be the most exciting moment.  

In another superhero movie,  The Incredibles, Frozone is at home and must respond to the giant robot attacking the city. He frantically has to ask his wife “Where’s my supersuit!” and he gets into an argument with her over it. Its action movie meets the simple realities of life. Much of The Incredibles comedy comes from the common family relationships interjected into otherwise thrilling moments.

Parodies are almost always made to poke fun at serious genres. Bathos is a useful tool for doing that. In the Mel Brooks western parody Blazing Saddles, the bad guys hire up a huge gang of villains who ride out to attack the town. The good guy slows them down by putting a fake toll booth in their path. Just when the gang is all fired up to invade, they have to send someone back to “get a shitload of dimes” to get everyone through a random toll booth in the middle of the desert.

If you are a student animator looking for an idea, maybe create an obviously dramatic situation, and then have the character get interrupted by a mundane matter. Consider how the character reacts to the drastically changing events. Does he or she get flustered? Do they get angry? To they immediately switch from their old direction and get involved in the new business? Do they create an unpredictable solution? Basically, what is the funniest response that includes them playing along with the interruption.

Here’s an example. A boxer in the corner of a ring ready to fight. A lawyer suddenly arrives with the liability form he forgot to sign before the fight. That’s using bathos to create a funny situation. Now the challenge is him signing with a pen while wearing boxing gloves. How does he do it?  Animate it!

Comedy for Animators on Amazon

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