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What Is Comic Relief?
Comic relief refers to a plot device used in film and TV shows where a humorous joke or action interrupts a dramatic moment to lighten the mood. The purpose of comic relief is to provide a moment of respite for the audience from the story’s tension—lightening the mood through comic elements to give the audience a quick break.
While filmmakers mostly use comic relief in serious films, even the funniest films have profound moments that benefit from comic relief.
What Is a Comic Relief Character?
While comic relief can take many forms—from a quick line of dialogue to an entire scene—it’s common for films to employ a comic relief character, who can consistently provide relief from the tension through funny dialogue, reactions, or backstory. Think Pippin in Lord of the Rings (2001), Darcy in Marvel’s Thor (2011), and Dina in Girls Trip (2017).
Comic relief characters often take the shape of a bumbling fool or a wisecracking companion, following around either the hero or the villain to relieve audiences from the film’s serious overarching plot.
7 Examples of Comic Relief Characters
The use of comic relief has been widespread since Shakespearean times. Here are some comic relief examples, either of scenes or characters:
- The gravedigger scene in Hamlet. William Shakespeare’s opus, Hamlet, is not a comedic play. In Act V, after Hamlet’s romantic interest, Ophelia, has just been discovered dead, it feels as if there’s no chance for the hero to recover and achieve his goals. Shakespeare employs an extended scene featuring two gravediggers, who joke and spar verbally while digging Ophelia’s grave during this sad moment. The scene is full of clever humor. Described in the stage notes as clowns or jesters, the gravediggers offer readers temporary comedic relief (however dark) near the end of a story filled with so many tragic elements.
- Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. Mathematician Ian Malcolm, played in Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) by Jeff Goldblum, is a perfect example of a comic relief character in a serious film. Even amidst dramatic action like frightening dinosaurs and character deaths, Ian is always there to crack witty one-liners and quips and make fun of the film’s plot.
- Kronk in Emperor’s New Groove. In Emperor’s New Groove (2000), the character Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton) is a comedic relief character that gives audiences a break from the tension of the villain, Yzma. Whenever Yzma threatens the main characters or unveils a new evil plot, Kronk is there as her loyal sidekick to lighten the mood and poke fun at her seriousness.
- Iago in Aladdin. Disney movies are famous for including comic relief characters in their stories to keep young viewers entertained or unafraid of the villain. Iago is a wisecracking sidekick parrot in Aladdin (1992) who sits on the shoulders of Jafar, the villain, making jokes about Jafar and the heroes of the film to keep serious scenes light and fun.
- Olaf in Frozen. In Frozen (2013), a snowman named Olaf is widely beloved for being the source of comedy, even in serious situations. Olaf plays a fool character, unaware of the seriousness of the action around him and reliable for bumbling comments and slapstick comedy.
- Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. The Lion King (1994) deals with serious real-life topics like death and political upheaval, despite being an animated movie for children. To combat the serious subject matter, the writers employed the characters Timon and Pumba to lighten the mood, providing silly humor and fun musical numbers.
- Dory in Finding Nemo. Marlin the clownfish from Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003), is anxiety-ridden and scared he’ll never see his son again. To mitigate that tension, the filmmakers included Dory, a sweet, funny character, as his sidekick.
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