The Eight Comic Plots

This has easily been the most popular post on this blog.  The eight comic plots are those Gerald Mast chose to include in his book.  I have a chapter in my book about story and, of course, I recommend that as further reading. Click the link to the right to see the book on Amazon.


Here is a little more from The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast. He describes 8 basic structures of comic stories for movies.  Here are brief quotes from the book with some animated examples I could think of.

1. New Comedy

” The first is the familiar plot of New Comedy – the young lovers finally wed despite the obstacles ( Either within themselves or external ) to their union”

In The Little Mermaid Ariel makes great sacrifices to be with Eric. Mavis and Johnny’s relationship results in a wedding in Hotel Transylvania 2.

2. Parody

Parody, “The film’s structure can be an intentional parody or burlesque of some other film or genre of film.”

Bruno Bozzetto made some animated parodies. Allegro Non Troppo is a parody of Fantasia, and West and Soda is a parody of American western films. I highly recommend West and Soda.

3. Reductio ad absurdum

3 “Reductio ad absurdum is a third kind of comic plot. A simple human mistake or social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos, and the social question to absurdity..

…The Laurel and Hardy two reelers are the perfect example of the reductio ad absurdum as pure fun – a single mistake in the opening minutes lead inexorably to the final chaos.”

Reductio ad absurdum is a great way to build a comedy. In cartoons it may not be so much a mistake or social question, but a rivalry or conflict between characters that grows to an absurd scale. Tex Avery’s The King Size Canary is one example. But we can also consider a film like The Mitchells vs. The Machines to match the description. The social question is about the ever-increasing use of AI in our lives, and how it could get out of hand.

4. Social investigation

“This structure might be described as an investigation of the workings of a particular society, comparing the responses of one social group to those of another. . . Such plots are usually multileveled, containing two, three, or even more parallel lines of action. The most obvious examples of such plots are Shakespeare’s comedies, in which love (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) deceptive appearences (Much Ado About Nothing), or the interrelation of human conduct and social environments ( As You Like It ) is examined from several social and human perspectives.”

“Robots” sort of fits the description.  Rich robots threaten the poor robots. Also, Wall-e

5. The Picaro

“The fifth comic-film structure is familiar in narrative fiction, but very uncommon on the stage. It is unified by the central figure of the film’s action. The film follows him around examining his responses and reactions to the various situations. . . The most outstanding film picaro is, of course, Chaplin. Significantly, he begins to use the picaresque structure as he begins to mature with the Essanay films of 1915. . . The other major film picaro is Jacques Tati.”

Another word for a picaro is a rogue, which seems like a good character for animation.  Pepe LePew is the first one who comes to mind.  With Pepe, it’s all about his responses to the female.  I can’t say I would call Jacques Tati a rogue, but his reactions to the world are critical.

6.  “The next comic plot is one that would seem to have no analogue in any other fictional form.  The structure might best be described with a musical term – “riffing”  But it could easily be called “goofing,” or “miscellaneous bits,” or “improvised and anomalous gaggery.”  This was the structure of most of Chaplin’s Keystones,  simply because it was one of the two major Sennett structures (parody was the other).

Some of Tex Avery’s later films were very much this way.  “TV of Tomorrow” and “Farm of Tomorrow” were sequences of gags based on a theme.

7. “The central character either chooses to perform or is forced to accept a difficult task. Comic versions of this plot include The General, The Navigator, (indeed most of Keaton),  The Kid Brother, The Mollycoddle, The Lavender Hill Mob.”

Many animated features could be described this way.  Kung Fu Panda, Flushed Away, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

8. Self Discovery

  “… the final plot form of comic films – the story of the central figure who eventually discovers an error he has been comitting in the course of his life… In films, the plot serves comically in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Freshman, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero.

In his examples characters are suddenly dropped into a different world, where they gain a new perspective on their own ideas and behavior. Cars is this kind of story.  Lightning McQueen gets stuck in Radiator Springs and discovers the error of his self-aggrandizement.

Buy the book to learn more!

1 thought on “The Eight Comic Plots”

  1. Avery’s blackout gag films aren’t the best example for riffing… The perfect example is Fleischer’s early Betty Boop cartoons, which follow a structure derived from jazz… Statement of theme, variations, restatement and hot finish. This musical structure is the purest form cartoons can take, and the form that is most uniquely suited to the medium. Most of the rest of the forms you list here involve specific types of plot. The musical form isn’t about plot at all- it’s about pacing and contrasts.


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