A common element of anime – or any TV show or movie for that matter – is the mixing of comedy in an otherwise dramatic story. Usually the overall story and themes are serious, but the show also has its share of comic relief and slapsticks to break up the tension. For me, the mixing of drama and comedy can either greatly hinder my enjoyment of a show if done poorly, or can greatly raise my enjoyment if done well…
Some people like their shows and movies either all dramatic or all comedic, and they feel that mixing the two ruins the mood. Placing silliness and hyperbolic antics in a bleak or serious narrative feels interrupting. From my experience, people who prefer straight-up dramatic and “adult” entertainment often don’t like kids shows and movies such as Disney films since, while they’re dramatic stories overall, the dramatics are constantly interrupted by jokes and slapsticks to keep the kiddies entertained. Then again, some people don’t care either way. Less critical minded people who tend to watch anime and other things purely for casual entertainment and not because they’re serious, analyzing fans, often don’t even think about this and welcome laughs in their otherwise dark stories. I’m definitely not against mixing these two opposing elements of storytelling. In fact, my favorite anime tend to be series that can be serious but also funny. However, doing it well is a much more difficult task than people think. I’ve come up with two things that have to be present in order for comedy in a dramatic story to work well for me.
Firstly, it has to be, well, funny. To give examples, a lot of the humor in the otherwise tragic Key series like Clannad and Little Busters! just wasn’t funny to me. The slapsticks just didn’t blend well with the overall serious and realistic portrayal of the setting and characters. Shonen anime I’ve seen have this problem too. I think Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic series, but the humor never clicked with me. The series would be sad and horrifying, then suddenly Ed and Al would turn chibi and the animation would turn crude and silly to get a quick joke across before returning to seriousness…and it always felt jarring to me and not funny enough to be worth it. And the humor in Bleach was one of the issues I had with the series. All the humor mostly consists of is the characters either yelling and arguing with each other or being comically violent, which doesn’t blend well with a show that’s mostly seriously violent. I’m more or less okay with Bleach when it’s being serious, but as soon as it switches to the silly stuff, I find myself wanting to turn it off. Something that could decide whether a joke is funny or not is timing, which is a huge factor for good humor in general. I’m sure it’s the case in an anime we watched where it seems to be building up to something dramatic, like maybe the main couple is sharing an intimate moment, and then suddenly something perverted or hyperbolic happens to ruin the moment. It could possibly work well depending on the context and style of the story, but usually it doesn’t.
And the other, and probably most important, thing that makes humor in a dramatic anime work for me is that it has to stay consistent with the story, characters, and setting. The reason the humor in Haruhi works so well for me is because it’s part of the show – it flows with the story and doesn’t “jump out” at us like it does in Little Busters! and Fullmetal Alchemist. Other anime that, in my opinion, do the drama and humor blending well while sticking to the overall mood of the show are Cowboy Bebop, Spice and Wolf, Inuyasha, and Usagi Drop to name a few. The animation doesn’t have to change to chibi-style to get a joke across and that stark distinction between these shows’ “funny mode” and “serious mode” is either subtle or doesn’t even exist. The less obvious an anime tries to distinguish its comedy from its drama, the more I usually enjoy it. And I don’t see this too often in anime thankfully, but another thing that could happen is changing the characters for the sake of humor. This is an issue I had with one of the worst anime I’ve seen, the second season of Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu. The characters’ personalities were degraded just to get more perverted fan-service across. Another example can be found in the currently airing Kotoura-san. While the show has a lot of this Mood Whiplash I’m talking about, it blends the comedy and humor somewhat well…except for randomly making Kotoura’s grandpa such a pervert. He didn’t seem that way initially and I really can’t see how it enhances anything (Manabe is a much more believable pervert. Isn’t one enough?)
Of course, humor is a very relative thing, especially in fiction. I’m sure some people find Kotoura’s perverted grandpa funny or get laughs at all the times Ed and Al turn chibi in Fullmetal Alchemist. Like I said at the beginning of the post, I welcome anime that blend humor and drama well. Doing so adds depth and likability to the characters if we can see them being serious when the story is serious, but also joking around and being funny when it’s appropriate too. It shows us the bright side as well as the dark side of a show’s world, which makes the setting, characters, and everything else all the more believable, since life isn’t just all funny or all dramatic. If the comedy and drama flow seamlessly into one another, like I feel is the case for the anime I previously mentioned like Haruhi and Cowboy Bebop, I really find myself engrossed in the series’ world and find everything about it more believable. But if the show has to make stark contrasts between its funny moments and serious moments, like having to greatly change the animation to emphasize a joke or have the characters cartoonishly punch and throw each other around in a setting that’s otherwise realistic, it tends to alienate me more than make me laugh. All of my favorite anime either blend comedy and drama well, or focus on one or the other. My two favorite dramatic anime, Noir and Wolf’s Rain, are pretty much devoid of humor in any form…and that’s perfectly fine because they’re anything but funny stories. If the wolves turned chibi and cracked jokes at random intervals in Wolf’s Rain, that would certainly be a downgrade for the show.