One of my favourite comedy words is “bathos”. Bathos is a technique which many experienced writers use instinctively, but most don’t know by name – which means you can throw the word around and sound cleverer than they are.
Bathos is humour that comes from an incongruous change of tone. In practice, this usually means a line or scene that starts out lofty but suddenly switches to lowbrow.
Bathos is not to be confused with pathos, which sounds similar, but isn’t funny at all. Pathos means playing on emotions. If your audience is laughing, it’s bathos. If they look sad, it’s pathos… or bathos that didn’t work.
There’s a film from 1985 called Morons from Outer Space about dimwitted aliens who visit Earth. The tag line is a classic piece of bathos:
They came… They saw… They did a bit of shopping.
You can see how the first two items on the list set up a Caesar-like tone – power, determination to succeed. Then the third one bursts the bubble, with a tone of dithery consumerism.
(Here’s an Interesting Fact: I have read that Caesar’s original quote, “veni, vidi, vici”, was meant to emphasize the ease and speed of his victory, rather than make it sound grand. So the lofty tone of “I came, I saw, I conquered” is all wrong. It was more like, “Came, saw, conquered.” He was a bit of a comedian, that Caesar.)
Here’s another bathetic example. This one is from a competition in New York Magazine, where readers were challenged to writing a Jeopardy-style answer-question.
The answer: Blood, Sweat and Tears
The question: What are the three least popular ice-cream flavours at Baskin Robbins?
The setup sets a tone of hard work, and noble struggle, and then the punchline turns “blood, sweat and tears” from high-minded abstractions into distasteful bodily fluids.
This next one is an example of bathos from the classic British radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. John Cleese and Jo Kendall play a couple whose relationship is on the rocks.
MARY: John – once we had something that was pure, and wonderful, and good. What’s happened to it?
JOHN: You spent it all.
Mary’s “something pure and wonderful” describes deep, spiritual, selfless love. But it’s described ambiguously enough that John can interpret it as hard cash.
Those are examples used in lines, but bathos can also work in a scene. There’s a famous episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Chuckles the clown has been tragically killed by a stampeding elephant. The rest of the people at the station can’t help making jokes about it, which Mary strongly disapproves of. Then she goes to the funeral, and while the minister delivers his speech, she suddenly starts laughing, while everyone else looks on in horror. This is a good example of how bathos can be used in a sitcom.
The same principle can be applied to more absurd styles of humour, too. The writers of Police Squad frequently use bathos. Look at this excerpt from The Naked Gun, where the writers repeatedly set up a serious tone with Ed and Wilma’s lines, only to knock it down again with Frank Drebin’s comments.
FRANK: A good cop – needlessly cut down by some cowardly hoodlums.
ED: That’s no way for a man to die.
FRANK: No… you’re right, Ed. A parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go!
WILMA NORDBERG: Oh… Frank. This is terrible!
ED: Don’t you worry, Wilma. Your husband is going to be alright. Don’t you worry about anything. Just think positive. Never let a doubt enter your mind.
FRANK: He’s right, Wilma. But I wouldn’t wait until the last minute to fill out those organ donor cards.
[Wilma cries again]
ED: What I’m trying to say is that, Wilma, as soon as Nordberg is better, he’s welcome back at Police Squad.
FRANK: …Unless he’s a drooling vegetable. But I think that’s only common sense.
[Wilma cries again]
So, how do you write bathos? The first rule is that, because the comedy comes from the contrast in tone, you must create a serious, powerful dramatic situation. This can be difficult for a comedy writer, and it’s tempting to sneak a few jokes into the sad speech – but if you do, the quick laugh will ruin the bathos, because you lose the contrast in tone.
It’s like playing with blocks – first you build a high tower, then you knock it down. When you’re writing bathos, you need to do the work of setting the tone and building something serious before you can change the tone and watch it all come crashing down.
Many dramatic situations lend themselves to bathos – funerals, heroic deaths, or scenes where one person is breaking bad news to another:
- a policeman telling a woman that her husband (or child) is dead
- a doctor with bad news for a patient
- one person breaking up with another
- a person giving a speech before they are executed.
A good way to approach the scene is to push the drama as far as you can, making it as sad, or noble, or inspirational, or spiritual as possible. You could even write a completely straight version.
If the setup is done properly, writing the funny part is easy. Just identify a tone that is opposite to the serious one you’ve set up, and substitute it. If the tone is spiritual, make it bawdy or materialistic – focus on the body, sex, appetites, or money. If the tone is reverent, switch to one that is insulting. If it’s caring and compassionate, make it crass and selfish.
So, a line like
Marie was a caring mother, a loving wife, and a true friend.
Marie was a caring mother, a loving wife, and a great lay.
One effective formula is to have a comic character who makes inappropriate comments, while others hold steadfastly to their serious roles (as in the Police Squad sample above).
Or you might keep the dialogue completely serious, but add some action which undermines it – for example, a doctor who has to tell a celebrity that he has a terminal disease, but keeps angling himself in front of a camera so he can get a thumbs-up photo of himself with the celebrity, or a minister who delivers a touching eulogy, but can’t stop farting.
That’s bathos – it’s erudite, it’s sophisticated, and it lets you write fart jokes.