When it comes to getting that punch line just right, you need four vital ingredients: the right music, the right timing, the right expression, and the right voice.
Live action sitcoms have an advantage over animated programs. They can be filmed in front of a live studio, so when the people in the audience laugh, then the people watching at home are alerted to when the punchline was delivered. Even shows that aren’t filmed live still have an edge over animated shows. When a punchline is delivered, the camera can do a dramatic zoom on the actor’s face, something that would look out of place in an anime or cartoon. So without a laugh track or free reign on camera zooms, how do animated shows deliver effectively funny lines?
As with most scenes in any form of media, the music score that plays in the background has a huge impact on the overall tone of the scene. So naturally, if it’s a funny scene, you’ll want funny sounding music to play in the background, right? You’re more likely to find a scene funny if the background music is bouncy and upbeat, as opposed to a sombre or chilling tune, after all.
But that doesn’t mean other types of music would be less effective in improving the mood. A song usually associated with action scenes being used for a mundane activity increases the ridiculousness of the moment. A scary song playing when a character tries (and ultimately fails) at scaring another character emphasizes just how badly (and subsequently, hilariously) they messed up. Even more subdued songs can act as a nice contrast to amplify the hilarity of a scene, as best exemplified by the video below:
It’s all about matching the right tracks to the right scenes and deciding which type of music best fits the scene’s overall tone.
While this could also apply to live action shows, animated shows rely more on background music to create ambience. So sometimes, when a joke is made, the music has to find the right timing to come in and make that joke seem even funnier. Live action shows don’t heavily rely on background music, so matching music to punchlines isn’t necessary. This particular scene during Spongebob Squarepants’ hay days nails that sort of timing perfectly:
Deciding on the characters’ expression is especially difficult for animated shows that don’t have any source material to use as reference. Whatever expression the character wears during a comedic scene is vital, be it exasperated, laughing maniacally, or confused. If a character wears an emotionless mask throughout the entire scene, then the viewer is less likely to find that scene amusing…Unless that’s how the character typically acts, and their lack of reaction is part of the punchline.
So while sillier faces are more likely to to get a good laugh from the audience, other expressions: anger, annoyance, or even stoic can have justas good an effect. Often times, such expressions will be exaggerated to emphasize a character’s discontent or frustration.
Much like how movements tend to be exaggerated in animation, voice acting tends to work the same way. In real life, we don’t suddenly increase the intensity of our voice whenever we make a joke or call someone out on doing something silly or dumb. But in animation, this exaggeration in the character’s voice is what increases the comedic value in the scene, especially if the script works in their favor and the characters utter phrases that are even more less likely to be heard in such situations in real life. It’s also a lot easier for the viewer to figure out that something funny’s going on when the characters’ tone of voice shifts to match the mood. From light-hearted and silly to…not so light-hearted and silly, but still managing to add to the comedic value of the scene.
Bringing it all together
Here’s a comic strip.
Pretty funny, right? Now here’s that same comic strip in animated format.
The silly music played at the beginning of the scene, Chiyo’s baffled expression contrasting against Nozaki deadpan one, the timing in which the music decides to cut off, and finally, Nozaki and Chiyo’s over the top screaming as they run through the rain, succeeds in making what was already a hilarious scene in its source material even funnier. And that, my friends, is how you nail comedic timing in animation.