Surreal humor is a form of comedy that uses absurd, inexplicable and ridiculous situations to make the audience laugh. So… what does anime have to do with it?
Both anime and cartoons tend to use this genre very often, mostly because the medium allows the creators to bend or break the rules of physics and put their characters in crazy locations. Basically, they can do everything live action can’t.
An anime that caught my eye recently is the f**king hilarious Asobi Asobase. This series has the 3 elements that make a great example of surreal humor in anime:
- Simple Characters
- Realistic starting point
- No logical explanation
Let’s say that you’re a writer and your script requires a scene where one of the characters gets run over by an ice cream truck, what happens after that?
- His brother cries his eyes out on the side of the street but immediately forgets about it when he sees that the ice cream truck comes back
- His chatty girlfriend keeps walking down the street holding his severed arm and doesn’t realize that the rest of her boyfriend’s body has landed on a tree
- His mother goes through a long and painful mourning process that lasts years and we witness her pain
When it comes to surreal humor, there is no time for complex characters with layers and layers to their personality or existential dilemmas
The protagonists of a show based on crazy stunts and nonsense cannot stop to ask themselves “What is going on?” or “How do I feel about it?”. These characters have to go with the flow or else it wouldn’t be funny.
In Asobi Asobase we have 3 main characters:
Hanako Honda, energetic and bright, she wants to be one of the popular girls at her school and would do ANYTHING to achieve her goal. Her family is so wealthy that she has her own personal butler to follow her around.
Olivia, because of her exotic features (unlike her classmates she’s blonde and has blue eyes) she decided to prank the entire school by pretending to be American despite not being able to speak a word of English.
Kasumi Nomura, quiet most of the time but savage when she gets competitive. She loves to write BL fanfiction but she’s so terrified of the opposite sex that she can’t even stand being in the same room with a man.
What do those 3 characters have in common? They are not complicated.
Each girl has a set of quirks that separate her from the other 2 and make her distinguishable, but none of them has a long backstory or a complex personality because they don’t need to.
In a story based on surreal humor, the characters are not supposed to be someone the audience can empathize with or see themselves reflected into. They are there simply to be a source of comedy or commentary.
Hanako, Olivia, and Kasumi do exactly that and they do it perfectly. The writers either base a storyline on one of their quirks or leave to the animators the job to give them exaggerated reactions using different styles of animation.
Realistic starting point
There is a trick to use to get a laugh out of the audience: start from a realistic scenario and turn it into something absurd.
A great example of this in Asobi Asobase is episode 9. Olivia, who everyone believes to be American, is selected to represent her class in the “English speech contest”. Problem is: she can’t speak a word of English and doesn’t want to study.
A scenario like this one is a pretty classic set up for a series about high-schoolers. A student has to study/finish a project before a certain deadline but the chances that he will actually make it in time are slim.
Now we have our “normal” situation, time to turn it into something mind-blowingly absurd.
The problem is that Olivia doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want the whole school to realize that she is a fraud. What solution could the girls come up with?
- Tell everyone that Olivia is sick the day of the competition so that she doesn’t have to show up
- Help her study so that she can keep pretending to be foreign
- Get Honda’s grandfather to build an android that looks like Olivia and speaks perfect english
Obviously, the answer is C.
And as if this idea wasn’t already surreal enough, the robot (out of nowhere) becomes self-aware and tries to choke a teacher in front of the girls.
No logical explanation
“No explanation” is an integral part of the gag. Surreal humor only works if (as the name suggests) the story is separated from reality, this means that showing “crazy stuff” is not enough if everything can be explained logically.
So either the joke is not explained or the explanation is as absurd as the joke itself.
For example, Maeda (the Honda family’s butler) is able to shoot laser beams from his butt. The first time we learn about this we don’t get an explanation for why and how he is able to do that, because obviously, this would cheapen the joke.
But a few episodes later he tells us (in a very serious tone) his backstory: aliens kidnapped him and put a device that can shoot laser beams in his butt. That’s it, just your ordinary alien abduction story.
Asobi Asobase is one of those series that demonstrate that surreal humor is not just a string of mindless physical comedy mixed with nonsense, it takes skill to craft a joke even in this genre.