We laugh when comic characters are knocked off their high horse, i.e., when their high status bubble of self-importance and entitlement is suddenly burst. Your comic character’s high status is based on an inflated sense of how they would like to be seen by their society; their low status is how they’re trying to avoid being seen.
Consider Colin Firth’s Lord Wessux in “Shakespeare in Love.” Every time he’s reduced from his high horse position of having a title to a lowly buffoon, we laugh. At the audience with the Queen for his wife-to-be Viola, Wessux affirms that a play cannot capture the true nature of love, and confidently tells the Queen:
“I’ll wager my fortune on it.”
The Queen replies: “I thought you were here because you had none.”
He’s reduced: we laugh.
Not all of your characters are reduced in comedy stories; just the ones that are self-inflated. Sydney Pollack’s agent in Tootsie is reduced by the oppressive Dorothy Michaels in the Russian Tea Room.
“Michael, I begged you to get therapy!”
And Otto, a self-proclaimed philosopher, super spy and womanizer in “A Fish…” is reduced whenever someone calls him stupid.
Define the high status and low status of some of your favorite comedy characters, and think about times that they’re reduced to their low status.
Can you recall a time that you or someone close to you was knocked off their high horse? Have you ever pretended to be an “important person” at a party, and suffered dire consequences?
Key: Clarity your comedy characters high status by asking: how would they ideally like to be seen in public; and clarify their low status by asking, how would they not like to seen in public?
Note: to read more about this, read Keith Johnstone’s Impro, and listen to John Truby’s comedy tapes.