If you work in entertainment, you almost certainly have heard the word “farce.” I have noticed that it tends to be used to describe most any comedic situation or story. In some ways, that is accurate. The word Farce is derived from the Latin “farcire” which means to stuff or fill. In the middle ages, farces were short comedies used to fill in between the dreadfully serious morality plays that the church required. Their sole purpose was to make people laugh.
But as time goes on words develop, and farce can refer to specific kinds of comedy. Fortunately for us, the simplest explanation of what constitutes farce comes from legendary animation director Chuck Jones.
“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations.”
Chuck Jones directed some of the greatest cartoons in history, and one of them is a perfect example of farce. The protagonist of One Froggy Evening is a random man working on a building site. There is nothing unusual about him at all. But he finds himself in the unusual situation of possessing a frog who, sometimes, will sing and dance. Hilarity ensues.
Most definitions of farce will include the phrase “Highly improbable situations” and that is what makes the difference. Any story that includes mistaken identities is absolutely a farce. Some stories feature identical twins who are mistaken for one another. Tex Avery directed Double Trouble, starring Droopy Dog. He is in the role of a manservant at a wealthy man’s mansion. He invites his identical twin brother Drippy to help out with his work. The rascally dog Spike talks Droopy into letting him into the mansion. Through a highly improbable series of events, Droopy and Drippy are never in the same room with Spike. Droopy tries to make Spike comfortable, but when he leaves, the trained boxer Drippy comes in and beats the hell out of him. In farce, the audience can see what is going on, while characters in the story, like Spike, are understandably confused. How they react to the confusing events is where the humor comes from. Often their choices that make things worse.
Classical stage farces use physical comedy as well as verbal comedy. They are also known for moving at a rapid pace. Both of these characteristics make animation the perfect medium for farce.
Let’s contrast this with the other half of Chuck’s quote, comedy is unusual people in real situations. A sportsman hunting a rabbit, is essentially a realistic situation. But when the sportsman is Elmer Fudd, and the rabbit is Bugs Bunny, it becomes a comedy. A good example in live action is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean. His short films are about him going through normal activities, like taking an exam, going to the dentist, the beach, or to church. It’s his unusual behavior that generates the laughter. When Mr. Bean is in feature films, then the stories need to be developed more, and farcical elements get used to take him to places he might not normally go.
The bottom line is, farce comes more from the writer and the story, while comedy relies more on character and the actor.
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