It’s peculiar sometimes to think about how narrow and tenuous the line which divides horror from humor can be. Both genres have deep roots in the unexpected, both make liberal use of the grotesque – the main difference between them is, seemingly, that horror implies some kind of threat. Whether the audience feels threatened or not, though, depends very much on the audience: So often the clown that was meant to be funny leaves children sobbing, whereas the monster, possibly also a clown, causes fits of laughter rather than terror. Admittedly, it’s basically impossible to produce a film that won’t give at least one child nightmares – children being, on average, a bunch of tiny little wusses – but that just demonstrates the power that the audience has in interpreting your work.
We can laugh at clowns as adults because we know they’re (probably) harmless and friendly entertainers, but is it strange that children are scared? Pale white faces, bloated blood-red lips – they look like they’re suffering from some terrible, possibly communicable, disease. I’d say the instinctive reaction of crying and running away is pretty spot-on. Natural selection at work.
Comedy is horror that has had its fangs pulled. Comedy is people laughing at their own fear. Humor seems a way to take something which could otherwise be frightening and demonstrate, to ourselves and to others, that it isn’t. Laughter is a social response, telling each other not to be afraid of this weird unexpected thing.
Embarrassment comedy shows us that even the worst social blunders will eventually, sooner or later, be forgotten: Absurd humor shows us that sometimes strange things just happen, and they don’t necessarily imply fevered delusions or nefarious plots: Offensive, edgy humor shows us that our taboos ultimately are only as untouchable as we believe them to be…
However, it would be so easy to, at a moment’s notice, flip things around: The embarrassment isn’t forgotten, but forces someone to look for a new home, a new job – or the absurd occurrences are the result of subtle self-sabotage – or the offensive proclamations cost friends and enrage neighbors. Though sometimes comedies will mention these consequences, they will never dwell upon them. If it becomes about the consequences, it ceases to be humorous.
“Someday we will look back on this and laugh” is a revealing phrase: We can laugh at those things which were uncomfortable for us in the past only if they turn out to ultimately be harmless. It is a phrase seldom used in reference to a severed limb, to brain damage, or to an exploded nephew.
Whatever the subject of the comedy, it will be shown to be ultimately harmless. Thus, if the comedy is targeting social or legal or ethical transgressions, it is premised as a comedy on the idea that these acts are ultimately without repercussions. This can be, as one might surmise, extremely irresponsible.
We begin to get into another tenuous division: Is the comedy poking at the idea of us transgressing these bounds, or of others transgressing them? That is to say, are we supposed to be empathizing with the characters transgressing, or the characters being transgressed against? This is the difference between a character like Peter Gibbons in Office Space, who acts out against his soul-crushing job, and a character like South Park’s Eric Cartman, who regularly torments his peers with aggressive white supremacist and homophobic rhetoric. One transgresses against social norms as a protagonist, and gets away unscathed and happy at the end of the film, demonstrating to the audience that the economic sharks won’t immediately drag them under if they stop being a model employee, whereas the other transgresses against social norms as antagonist, and is usually seen to suffer for his actions, thus humorously demonstrating to the audience that they are protected from dickbags by society’s safeguards.
This is why jokes poking at race, sexual orientation, or other social divides can be tricky: the same joke can be about laughing away the horrors of discrimination for some audiences, and about laughing away the fears of cultural invasion and social upheaval for others – with socially disadvantaged people as the butt of the joke. The comedian can find himself all too easily telling much of his audience a very different joke than he had intended – all because of that final interpretation which is left to them.
Isn’t lots of entertainment about experiencing situations which would otherwise be dangerous or uncomfortable, though? Not just horror and comedy, but all forms of action and suspense and adventure offer the opportunity to experience something exciting and exotic while still allowing the audience to feel safe. Well, yes, but that’s safety for the audience, as distinct from safety for the characters. In games, with their dissolution of the boundary between player and protagonist, there is by necessity some degree of safety implied by the mechanics of the game, that humor may occur within them, whether it be the no-deaths contract of the LucasArts adventures or the fast and easy reload/retry of Gunpoint or Super Meat Boy. In any case, within the context of the story the characters may be threatened by things which, in real life or in other genres – are genuinely dangerous – but in comedy they will be proven to ultimately be harmless.
It starts to feed on itself. You know that the character will survive the perilous situation because it’s a comedy. The genre itself begins to constrain the possibility space of the story: Of course, you could always have the supposedly comedic accident turn out to be fatal, but it would be pulling the rug out from under your audience, it would be suddenly changing the genre of story you are creating. This could be one reason why comedy games are made infrequently, because the tension implied by the gameplay premise and the tension-release implied by the comedy genre work at direct odds with each other.
And yet, isn’t that all too often where the humor in games comes from? Seeing ‘yourself’, your avatar, killed, mangled by outlandish circumstances that only robust interactive systems can provide, is basically always funny. Because in the end, these relentless demises reinforce the point: It’s all just a game. Just a joke. Just make-believe.