If an instructor is teaching a self-defence class, then there is nothing in the situation which is inherently funny. However, if the class revolves around the defending oneself against the threat posed by soft fruit, the juxtaposition of the nature of the class and the harmlessness of the fruit creates comic possibilities, enhanced by the instructor’s total commitment to the fatality of mangoes in syrup, correctly wielded. (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, season 1, episode 4).

Mangoes-In-Syrup can represent total surrealism at one extreme. In the “Across the Andes by Frog” episode of Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns, the substitution of frogs for more common beasts of burden is the principal comic idea. Because this seems an arbitrary choice, and it is never questioned or justified within the context of the story, it stands out as surreal. This kind of choice can mark a programme out as being very original and different, but may isolate those who feel they “don’t get it”. The Goon Show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Bo’ Selecta all provide numerous examples of this, what we might call “zero tolerance” Mangoes-In-Syrup – creating odd juxtapositions simply for the sake of it. It is far more common, however, to see juxtapositions with some kind of non-arbitrary choice (which can develop very satisfying satire) or where an apparently arbitrary juxtaposition is questioned by a “straight man”.

So, what governs choices of juxtapositions? Even when the choice is arbitrary, it is clear to see that the more different from the expected item, the better (up to a point). Self defence against mangoes is more satisfying than against paper-knives, since while a paper-knife is not much of a threat, it is closer to the anticipated flick knife (or pointed stick!). Similarly, a frog is about as a different an animal from a horse or camel as it is possible to get, and so “Across the Andes by Frog” is an amusing prospect. A frog is still an animal, however, so the nature of the substitution is clear. “Across the Andes by Biscuit” is more obscure, and may be more confusing than funny. There is also the risk that this will be a funnier prospect than it will be when played out. Only if the idea can be continually developed in new ways will it sustain a long sketch, let alone a sit-com episode or comedy film. For this reason, “pure” Mangoes-In-Syrup humour may not travel well.

Very visual surreal humour can be the exception, as Mr Bean proved. The juxtaposition here lies in the extraordinary lengths that Mr Bean goes to to achieve perfectly ordinary ends. Faced with his train reading disturbed by a noisy fellow passenger, he doesn’t simply leave the carriage, he hunches over, sticks his fingers in his ears, and then has to turn the pages of his book with his elbows or his tongue.

Bean carries on the tradition, not I think of Charlie Chaplin, but of Harpo Marx. So, when Chico whispers “Hide!” to Harpo who quickly scampers to the middle of the room and stands on his head (Animal Crackers) we laugh out of sheer confusion. Less arbitrarily, when a hobo asks Harpo for a cup of coffee and Harpo produces a steaming hot cup full of coffee from his trouser pocket (Horse Feathers), we laugh at the juxtaposition of the physical reality we know and the event just depicted. (Also at work here are Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See.) Surrealism is threatening, however, and it is interesting to note that when the Marxes moved to MGM, who were after bigger audiences and more accessible comedy, Harpo’s “magic powers” were scaled back. So while in Horse Feathers (Paramount, 1932), he accedes to the request to “cut the cards” by producing an axe from a hidden pocket and severing the pack in two, by the time of A Night At The Opera (MGM, 1935), although he still uses an axe to slice a salami, now it is lying handily on a barrel instead of being secreted mysteriously about his person.

Most juxtaposition is not arbitrary, however. The sight of King Arthur’s knights “galloping” about the place while making “clip-clop” noises with two halves of coconut (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is undeniably surreal, but the reason is clear. The On The Hour headline “Headmaster uses big-faced child as satellite dish” is a wonderfully surreal image but rather more accessible than the sheer madness of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts:

SEAGOON: He was a tall, vile man, dressed in the naval uniform of a sea-going sailor. Under his left arm he held a neatly rolled anchor, while with his right he scanned the horizon with a pair of powerful kippers.

Making purposeful juxtapositions can open the door to some brilliant satire. When South Park depicts a lone head-louse desperately warning his arrogant fellows that the end of the world is coming, they brilliantly juxtapose the themes of disaster movies, the environmental movement and the mundane treatment of head-lice as a medical condition (see also Just-A-Flesh-Wound). When That Was The Week That Was presents a buyers guide to religions, they juxtapose the triviality of consumer magazines with the reverence in which belief is generally held, and satirise both brilliantly (“The best aspect of the Church of England is that it doesn’t interfere with the essentials. All in all, we think you get a jolly good little faith for a very modest outlay, and we have no hesitation in claiming it the Best Buy.”)

Another way to make surrealism more palatable is to provide a non-surreal point-of-view within the story. The difference between these two approaches can be seen by studying the difference between Father Ted and The League of Gentlemen. Father Ted creates a self-contained surreal world, in which – generally speaking – the characters accept that certain things which we, the audience, know to be abnormal or impossible are normal and everyday. This extends to characterisation as well as to plotting. Father Jack is not a pitiable alcoholic, he is a man pickled in drink, reduced to a few repetitive guttural utterances (in fact, better than that – he’s a priest pickled in drink, adding a further layer of Mangoes-In-Syrup plus a level of Sounds-A-Bit-Rude). Father Dougal is not a bit slow, he is monumentally stupid, unable to work out the difference between small, toy cows near to him and full size cows far away from him. The surreal world allows the writers to use Just-A-Flesh-Wound to include potentially serious elements like alcoholism and mental illness without falling into the trap of bathos. However, it is rare for any of the surreal elements to be seriously questioned by the characters. They are the “norm” and so the “out of the ordinary” has to be built on top.

The League of Gentlemen is far more likely to present bizarre characters whose behaviour is juxtaposed again with the reaction of a straight person. Tubbs and Edward, whose insistence on “a local shop for local people” is a juxtaposition in itself become far more effective when their lunatic behaviour is questioned by someone the audience can identify with. Note too, that further layers of weirdness are revealed in Tubbs and Edward over the course of a number of episodes, again dealing with the “Across the Andes by Frog” problem.

The Why of Funny #1: King-Fall-Over
The Why of Funny #3: Just-A-Flesh-Wound