Like many others, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters this past weekend. Now, I’m not going to spoil any plot points, but one spoiler-free element of the film surprised me: it had a sense of humor. That isn’t to say that Star Wars is a series without humor, but instead of dry humor and droid jokes, there are conversations that were genuinely funny, and a few moments where a combination of timing and unexpected reactions caused the whole theater to erupt in astonished laughter.
Thanks to Star Wars and other pieces of media I’ve seen recently (such as Thor: Ragnarok, finally playing through last year’s Ratchet and Clank game, and so on), I’ve been thinking about the use of humor in stories and genres that aren’t necessarily comedies. When you’re fighting bad guys in space in order to save your home from destruction (which actually describes all three examples above, coincidentally), why should humor be included amidst the action and drama? Actually, when used correctly, humor can actually be used to enhance the mood and tension of the narrative!
Humor can help strengthen the narrative in a number of ways. It can be used to highlight what your universe defines as normal; if your character can crack jokes about killer robots that look like crabs, the audience learns that either crab-bots are normal in this universe, or at least fitting in with the rules this universe has set up. Funny moments can help give characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe and collect their thoughts between action beats. It can also be used to betray expectations, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi mentioned above, or in reverse where something seems to be funny but turns out to have a shocking consequence.
For an example on how this can work, I’m going to discuss an eccentric video game, Disgaea 4. It’s a comedic tactics game where a fallen-from-power vampire decides to overthrow a corrupt regime in order to fulfill the promises of fair treatment he made to his disenfranchised employees. Such a premise could make for a gritty, supernatural political thriller, but the humor is what makes the story—such as the vampire getting upset at a newspaper, not for running a smear campaign against him, but because of its atrocious spelling mistakes. Or the fact that he thinks sardines are a proper source of food for himself and payment for the series’ trademark exploding penguins.
Part of this humor comes from the reactions of other characters, such as the vampire’s resigned werewolf butler, which helps explain which aspects are normal (the exploding penguins) and which are uniquely the vampire’s eccentricities (his commitment to eating sardines instead of drinking blood). Tough attacks on a demonic overlord’s regime gets broken up by a teenage girl teaching her adopted younger sister/world-destroying weapon in-training, a breather moment that also serves as a subplot about humanity and sisterhood. And when the humor takes a backseat to penguin-exploding vampire revenge schemes, the risk of that being lost to our protagonist forever helps us realize the stakes in place.
My stories tend to face dark concepts, such as a demon collecting her first soul or a paranormal mercenary trying to save his brother from 20+ years of possession. Dark can be fun, but if a story stays dark for too long, it can become an emotional drag for readers. The demon child may be all-powerful, but she can still be confused why Earth canines are so much smaller than her hellhound Huckleberry. The possessed brother may occasionally try to take over the world, but sometimes the spirit possessing him just really wants dibs on his favorite breakfast pastries.
In the end, humor works much like a good story, wherein the punchline is the plot twist. The unexpected answer to the audience’s question catches them off-guard, be it revealing the identity of the protagonist’s lost parents or why the chicken crossed the road. Laughter and joy can be as memorable as any other emotional reaction to a plot twist—and in today’s world, couldn’t we use just a little bit more laughter?