Carnival Phantasm and the Rules of Comedy

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Recently, the lovely Irina wrote a post on her blog called The Lighter Side of Deconstructions, where she analyzed Comedy anime, and several forms of ‘deconstruction’ that can occur in that genre. I left a comment on that article, as it reminded me of an assignment I once had to do in my Advanced Theater class in school, which was called The Rules of Comedy. Shortly after that post released, I decided to mark a show off my plan-to-watch list. That show was Carnival Phantasm.

Let’s go back to that school assignment for a moment, first. Our goal was pretty simple, actually. Identify some of the common rules of what, exactly, makes something “funny”, explain them and why they work, and then apply them in a circumstance where something that normally is not funny would become funny due to the application of these rules. As we set about putting together these rules, our instructor gave us our opponent. How on earth, with the rules we were trying to think up, could we possibly take one of the greatest written tragedies in history and make it funny? Because the piece we were given was none other than Willam Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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As someone who loves theater, I adore Hamlet. It’s one of the greatest plays ever written, with interesting characters and some beautiful wordplay. But how could we make it funny? Well… here’s some of the ideas we came up with:

  • Exaggeration: If a character has a certain character trait that defines them, take that trait and exaggerate it to an immense degree. Doesn’t work with all character traits, but by being selective and clever, you can make just about anything work.
  • Repetition: A running gag can be very funny… if done correctly. So often, running gags tend to run dry because they are overdone, always in the same way… this sort of repetition makes a joke go stale with immense haste.
  • Cruelty: Cruelty can be extremely funny, when used correctly. There’s a reason we laugh at Youtube videos of people getting nailed in the balls, falling off roofs, and being pinched by crabs. By playing off this element, you can generate some amazingly funny content.
  • Defying expectations: Almost nothing is funnier than seeing something, having a preconceived notion in your head about it, and then having that preconception shattered. A muscle man having a high-pitched voice, for example, or the nerdy kid in glasses actually being really stupid.
  • Commitment: No matter what happens, no matter how much zany stuff can occur, the characters in the story must remain committed. When characters can remain serious even when hilarious chaos is occurring all around them, it can massively enhance the comedic value of the scene.

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There were quite a few more, but I think these are the most mentionable of the bunch. I don’t think i’d consider myself an expert on comedy, but I certainly know more than the average person, and i’m pretty picky when it comes to separating the good from the bad.

Type-Moon is a great franchise, one that i’m a huge fan of. I love the Fate anime series, I play Fate/Grand Order on a daily basis, so it’s no surprise that I found an interest in watching the comedic spin-off series, Carnival Phantasm. Drawing in characters and events from various shows throughout the Nasuverse, Carnival Phantasm is spectacularly hilarious.

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However, thinking about these Rules of Comedy, Carnival Phantasm took on a much deeper meaning for me. Titles from the Type-Moon franchise tend to be rather dark, whether it be the solemn, gritty world of Kara no Kyoukai, the heartbreaking world of Tsukihime, or the bloody and violent world of Fate, it’s a very dark world that we’re dealing with. Yet, just like I did with Hamlet, Carnival Phantasm retains the general structure and integrity of the Type-Moon universe, while delivering a truly hilarious show.

So, let’s take a look at some of the ways that Carnival Phantasm applies the aforementioned Rules of Comedy to create a staggeringly funny parody of the Type-Moon franchise.

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Exaggeration:

This is a big one. Carnival Phantasm does an incredible job at finding the perfect trait from each of their characters and dialing it right up to 11, just the right amount to make it funny without being too over-the-top. There are plenty of good examples we could look at, but i’m only going to mention a few, as case studies.

Sakura:

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Everyone’s favorite tragic heroine, Sakura Matou is first on the chopping block. What’s funny about her is that, in Carnival, she takes the ‘tragic heroine’ role as a challenge. Constantly doing things to egg Shinji into mistreating her, she gets angry at Rider when she tries to help, and constantly remarks about how it’s because “she’s just too beautiful”, as a reason why she is mistreated. Though showing that she can easily take care of herself if she wanted to, she puts herself into situations knowingly, all for the sake of her role.

Her acting only intensifies when she’s around Shirou, too, as she tries to appeal to his affection. Purposely tripping or getting hurt, finding herself in awkward scenarios, and when he spends time with other girls, she generally does whatever she can to make his life miserable, all with an adorable smile on her face. Her personality is so exaggerated, in fact, she’s basically a yandere at this point.

Saber:

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Everyone who is familiar with the Fate franchise knows Saber. The lovable blond King of Knights is a mainstay of the Fate series, and everyone knows her forthright, somewhat awkward, do-good personality. In Carnival, however, they take just one of those aspects and play it up. Care to guess which one?

It’s her awkwardness, of course. Not only is she quite obtuse about modern society, she is constantly eating, always blushing when she’s around Shirou, and when she pulls off her ahoge, transforms into the formidable Saber Alter, whose penchant for utter domination soon whips those around her into shape.

Illyasviel:

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Our final exhibit is Illyasviel von Einzbern. An adorable yet somewhat sinister little girl in the anime, Illya takes on a much different role here in Carnival, as her childish tendencies are played up tenfold. She’s less of a threat and more of a bratty little sister, always making noise and coming up with childish schemes and pranks. And when she doesn’t get her way… forget about her having even a modicum of good behavior.

Carnival does an amazing job at selecting the most interesting and hilarious aspects of a characters personality and making them funny without losing the inherent aspects of what makes the characters themselves. Even through the awkwardness, Saber is still very much saber. Illya is still Illya, Rin is still Rin, Sakura is still Sakura, etc. It’s this aspect of good writing that makes good comedy.

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Back when we were rewriting Hamlet, one of the things we did was play around with Hamlet’s tendency to monologue. He’d go off into his own world, ignore the people around him, and deliver his lines in an excessively dramatized way. It worked to hilarious effect. We enhanced some other personalities as well, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kind of being the imbeciles of the story, and so forth. By selectively choosing the aspects of a personality, we were able to pretty easily inject comedy into Hamlet.

Repetition:

Carnival Phantasm has several running gags throughout the show, such as Saber’s voracious appetite, or Berserker’s undying loyalty to Illya. However, probably the greatest of these running gags is Lancer.

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Anyone who’s a fan of Fate knows that Lancer always dies. Carnival, however, takes this to a whole new level, as Lance dies literally every episode. What makes this funny, however, is that, though you know it’s coming, you never anticipate how it happens. Usually it happens without much flair, and the most comment you’ll get on it is “oh, Lancer died.” From being skewered to being hit by a car to being used as a human frisbee, this running gag is always hilarious, and never loses its humor.

So often I see shows that attempt to have a running gag like this, but it’s always the same thing, never changing, and it makes the gag run dry really, really fast. It’s unfortunate, but a running gag, while a very useful piece of comedy, can be reduced to boring, repetitive, unimaginative filler content.

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One running gag that we had throughout Hamlet was that Horatio’s pants were always a size too big. During dramatic moments, or swordfights, Horatio’s pants would just… fall down. By limiting the number of times we used the gag, using it mainly in the more focused, dramatic moments, it not only created a comedic moment on its own, exposing pink, flowery boxers, but would usually interrupt some serious, brooding monologue, or even a combat scene. It had great effect, and was one of our most successful gags.

Cruelty:

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As mentioned before, Cruelty can be one of the most effective tools to use in great comedy. It’s sad, but people find other people getting hurt very, very funny. In Anime, then, they can use this to even greater effect, as hits can be more dramatic without causing serious damage.

Lancer’s tendency to die a lot is one way the show uses Cruelty to effect. Another is the way that Shiki’s (the main character of Tsukihime) harem tends to abuse him in order to get closer to him. While not technically cruelty, I think that Berserker’s tendency for wanton destruction of everything around him also fits into this category.

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For our Hamlet revamp, we looked at things the other way. Hamlet is already plenty cruel enough, but by changing the way that cruelty occurs, we create comedy. Replace swords with rubber chickens and cream pies, sure, why not. Have someone vomit up a copious amount of blood for no particular reason? Yeah, that works. Utilizing and playing with cruelty is a great way to make clever comedy.

Defying Expectations:

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Where to even start on this one? Carnival Phantasm works wonders with this concept in a number of different ways. Berserker’s childish and naive nature, for one, willing to accept anything Illya says as gospel, and truly trying his best to please her every whim. Archer, the typically stoic hero, is sarcastic and cocky to an insane degree. Kotomine Kirei, the scheming, rule breaking, deep-voiced villain that he is, is a nice guy, a stickler for the rules, and generally the voice of reason within all the chaos of the Carnival.

Seeing Lancer in a hawaiian shirt out fishing by himself is funny. Seeing Berserker marching down the street with a purse is funny. Gil being delicate and fawning over Saber Alter is funny. A magical transformation scene, beautifully animated, into a derpy cat creature… is funny.

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One of the greatest ways we defied expectations during Hamlet was during the scene were Hamlet’s dead father comes to him as a ghost. We could have done stage makeup and costuming to make him look all creepy, but instead, we dressed him up in a bedsheet with some holes for eyes. It was funny because it was unexpected, especially since it was one of the firs diversions from the typical portrayal of Hamlet that we chose to include.

Commitment:

This, in my opinion, is probably the biggest factor that separates good comedy from great comedy. Commitment can come in a number of different forms, but i’ll only mention a couple. The first, and most obvious example, is that the characters must stay in character, no matter what kind of wacky stuff is going on. If an alien descends from the sky, if a Berserker is running rampant through the city, the characters need to be able to take it all in stride.

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The other example I want to mention is one that is less well known… and extraordinarily underused. One of the problems that I see so often with ‘comedy’ is that they don’t understand when to stop. There are times when the raucous, boisterous fun and games need to end, giving the audience time to breathe, relax, and recover for a moment. Knowing how to use these pauses is essential for creating good comedy. I place this in the Commitment category because I feel like it takes a lot of commitment to creating something great (or when adapting, commitment to the original source material) in order to make great comedy happen.

Even within all the chaos, the flashy scenes, action, comedy, and more that Carnival Phantasm provides, there are still moments that are touching and heartfelt, moments that let us know that yes, our beloved characters are still here. When these moments come about, they give us time to breathe, to refocus, and to feel another emotion, just for a bit.

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This is one of the things i’m most proud of about our rendition of Hamlet. Through all the  nonsense, cream pies, rubber chickens, falling pants, and bedsheet ghosts, we left the story unchanged. While we tossed in some comedic moments to break up some of the more serious scenes, and removed some of the more dull, monotonous moments altogether, we left quite a few portions of Hamlet untouched, especially around the ending. Learning how to move around these serious moments is essential for good comedic timing, and is something that I feel a great portion of makers simply don’t understand.


Whew, that was a lot of ground to cover… and honestly, i’ve barely even scratched the surface, at this point. Comedy is an incredible genre, and can take some real work and talent to write correctly. Unfortunately, with so many people trying to create comedy, nowadays I feel like the worth of good comedy is being cheapened, eroded. Inundated with so many amateur, inferior attempts at making a funny piece of media, people are turned away by the idea of Comedy altogether.

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That’s not to say there’s no good Comedy out there, because there definitely is. it’s just becoming harder to find, and people are giving up on the genre in general. However, when that one diamond in the rough does emerge, people begin to have hope in the genre once again.

Like I said before, i’m certainly not an expert on the subject. I’m sure that many others could explain things better and more fluently than I could. This post was mostly a result of finding a show that did comedy so spectacularly well, combined with remembering my personal journey through the world of comedy.

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I hope you guys enjoyed this little rant of mine, and I hope you were able to gain a bit of insight into what goes into making good Comedy happen. Make sure you go read Irina’s post (linked at the top) that sorta inspired me to write this in the first place, and I highly recommend you go watch Carnival Phantasm (probably watch Fate first, though). Thanks for reading, and please let me know your thoughts down in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Carnival Phantasm and the Rules of Comedy

  1. Wow that was an epic read and I’m still way jealous of your classes. I’ve never seen Carnival Phantasm but it certainly sounds hilarious and i kinda wish i had seen it before reading this post. Oh well, guess I’ll just have to reread this later

    Liked by 1 person

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