KonoSuba and Comedy Through Theory

by BanjoTheBear

Konosuba / Episode 3 / Kazuma, Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness sitting down for dinner following the mass-cabbage attack

What makes something comedic?

What do you call a Japanese upperclassman who is good at math?


That’s a variation of a joke I found on a discussion thread where people provided anime-related funnies. I like the joke. It’s short, contains wordplay, and uses a vital mathematical concept. But for others, the joke falls as flat as a circle.

Why is that? What makes one person grin at a joke or a pie to the face while the next person barely reacts at all?

Take another example: KonoSuba. Hilarious characters and silly situations turn it into a really funny anime. At least, to many of those that have watched the show, including myself.

The question still lingers: why? What makes KonoSuba so gosh darn funny? And for others, what makes KonoSuba not so funny?

The following essay will, with KonoSuba‘s help, investigate comedy — where it came from, why it works, and how it gets applied. Hopefully, by the end of this piece, you will not only have a better appreciation of comedy but also a better appreciation of KonoSuba overall.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Comedy: A Discussion

A definition almost always makes for a nice starting point. Comedy’s is given below.

“Things that are done or said to make an audience laugh.” [1]

Comedy is a difficult topic. For many, breaking down a joke seems as though it were an absurd idea. After all, comedy is not meant to be “serious” like drama or science. Smiles are made, laughs are had, and everybody continues on merrily ever after. Even so, it’s worth knowing more about the subject since it’s usually one people do not think about.

Konosuba / Episode 4 / Megumin starting to rub her staff in a lewd manner

According to Aristotle, comedy’s earliest beginnings derive from a sexual nature. So-called “phallic processions” were held by the people of Greece. [2]  They paraded around town, spouting obscenities and vulgar phrases of or relating to penises. Historians often denote this phase in Greek comedy as Old Comedy (crude humor), followed by Middle Comedy (stereotype-centered humor), and ending with New Comedy (everyday humor). [3]

Meaning, from as early as could be recorded, people knew how to create comedy. They relied on sex. They took inspiration from stock characters. They appealed to the people’s own troubles. All of which can still be seen in today’s comedy.

Although, back then, “comedy” was not necessarily the same. In (that time’s) modern theater, it was one of two types of plays. The other was tragedy. Basically, tragedy was the fall of someone in a favorable position while comedy, in contrast, was the rise of someone in an unfavorable position. In even simpler terms, tragedy was happiness to sadness, and comedy was sadness to happiness. [4]

(The previous paragraph is partially true. Satyr plays, a mixture of comedy and drama involving mischievous and mystical satyrs, are some of the earliest known performances. But they eventually lost their luster since their ability to be “a vehicle for original creative expression” could not hold. [5])

Konosuba / Episode 3 / Darkness insanely impressed by Kazuma's savagery

Over time, comedy began to evolve as more people were exposed to the genre. Plautus of Rome [6], Dante Alighieri from Medieval times, and Shakespeare in the Renaissance Era are each important historical figures who took comedy to grander, newer heights.

The history of comedy doesn’t stop with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however. In the eighteenth century, so-called Restoration Comedy brought to the stage (pun intended) not only immoral conduct but also women for the first time ever. [7] Minstrel shows of the 1800’s, while extremely racist, broke away from the common theater approach. [8] And the recent advent of radio and television and film has allowed comedy to flourish in ways never thought imaginable.

This precursory glance barely scratches the surface of comedy’s evolution. And, to be honest, defining comedy and investigating its history is (ironically) not exactly comical. Interesting, yes. Funny, not really.

Indeed, it may be fair to say that everybody understands both the word and the concept without needing a history lesson. After all, comedy is a pervasive idea. One that has deep roots in evolution and psychology and society. Especially in regards to laughter.

Konosuba / Episode 5 / Aqua crying about her alligator predicament

On an evolutionary level, laughter was used for communication purposes. To interact with large groups in a timely manner. [9] It also has ties to mating selection. Intelligence is a trait sought after by most people with one’s sense of humor (or comedy) acting as an indicator. [10]

On a psychological level, laughter helps to keep people calm. It signals to you, me, and everyone else that the current situation is safe. Even more simply, laughter makes people happy — a state that nearly everybody wants to be in. Comedy helps to make this happen.

On a societal level, laughter is ubiquitous. People understand what laughing means. So movies, books, and of course anime appeal to their audiences by introducing comedic elements in order to further entice.

Beyond the history and the prevalence, people have developed numerous types of comedy, too. Slapstick involves bodily harm. Satire riffs on a work through mock imitation. Puns are clever wordplay. Knock-knock jokes are quick, simple one-liners that most people can appreciate. Black comedy targets darker subject material.

Konosuba / Episode 1 / Kazuma loving the fact that Aqua is forced to go with him to the parallel world

In other words, comedy takes on many forms. It has for years, centuries. And it’s for this reason that the topic is one of the most subjective among people. Where one person may like seeing their favorite character bop his best friend on the head, the next person may find the purpose of that chicken crossing the road more enjoyable.

Recently, scientists and researchers have started to look further into the differentiation. Into what makes us laugh, makes us smile, and makes us deem something comedic.

KonoSuba happens to be masterful at comedy. It has its satire and its jokes and even its black comedy. But why do some people find it funny? More importantly, why do some people find it unfunny?

As it turns out, comedy has three common theories to answer at least one of these questions: superiority, relief, and incongruity.

Theories of Humor: Superiority, Relief, and Incongruity

KonoSuba contains extremely strong comedic elements because, whether intentional or not, it understands how to present its material. More specifically, it takes advantage of three specific theories of humor: Superiority Theory, Relief Theory, and Incongruity Theory.

Superiority Theory, as its moniker suggests, makes its audience feel mightier, higher, or superior to elicit a comedic reaction. That is, a difference in status gives rise to humor.

Konosuba / Episode 2 / Aqua about to be eaten by a giant frog

KonoSuba has a lot of wonderful examples that are based on superiority. When Aqua tries to defeat a giant frog only to get swallowed up, the audience laughs because her position is not an enviable one. Megumin being called a “little girl” is something not desirable by most people. Darkness’s actual name — Lalatina Dustiness Ford — is silly, unwanted, and thus quite funny.

But Superiority Theory has a problem: It is not a necessary condition for comedy. Most people do not laugh at beggars on the street, and misplacing one’s glasses on his or her head can bring about a chuckle. Both instances where superiority’s role is either not creating comedy or not even present. [11]

Relief Theory takes a different approach. Think of it as an expenditure of energy. As people experience more emotion and stimuli, they will, at some point, release their built-up emotions. In comedy’s case, this release takes the form of laughter.

Konosuba / Episode 4 / Megumin giving a thumbs up after her "Explosion!" training

KonoSuba has multiple, magnificent examples based on relief. Aqua getting chased by summoned undead can be seen as a build up and release of emotion. Megumin’s “Explosion!” repetition on the faraway castle builds up energy as her signature phrase continually shortens. Darkness’s entire introduction, from her heavy breathing to her uncontrollable stammering, is designed with relief in mind.

But Relief Theory also has a problem; it does not explain well immediate responses. “Many instances of jokes, witticisms, and cartoons do not seem to involve a build up of energy that is then released.” [12] In other words, no relief can be had since there was nothing to be relieved from.

Incongruity Theory goes down a completely new route. In short, it argues that something is funny when it’s a “surprise.” Expectation gives way to the unexpected and, hence, comedy is born.

Konosuba / Episode 3 / Darkness blocking cabbages with her body

KonoSuba loves its incongruity. Nowhere is that notion more apparent than in the characters themselves. Aqua is a literal goddess, but she is useless, mooching off of Kazuma and spending her precious power-ups on party tricks. Megumin has the strongest destructive magic in the world, but she can only use it once a day because the exhaustion renders her incapable of moving. Darkness vows to act as a shield for the people, but she revels in the masochism such painful protection brings.

But Incongruity Theory, like its brethren, has a problem: It does not account for tickling. [13] That statement seems strange, but it makes sense. Tickling is one of the most basic ways to make someone, especially children, laugh. But the action itself does not involve surprise or expectation — let alone incongruous aspects.

It should be noted that these three theories do not claim to encapsulate all brands of comedy. In fact, it is generally accepted that a combination of the three be used to explain the genre. And indeed, similarities between them can be noticed when the previous examples can more or less fit into one of the other theories altogether.

Konosuba / Episode 5 / Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness reacting to Kazuma's lewd and threatening hand gestures

Yet that feels like a failing on their part — claiming to be a theory then falling short of accurately describing the topic seems (relevantly) silly. In fact, all three theories cannot explain that other, arguably more important, question: Why is something unfunny?

For these reasons, a newer, more robust theory has been formulated. One that not only captures a wide range of comedy but also, and more importantly, answers why people find something unfunny. It’s called the Benign-Violation Theory.

A Better Theory: Benign-Violation

Just as it were with the previous theories, Benign-Violation Theory can be understood through its name alone. In simplest terms, the theory posits that comedy “occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.” [14]

One of the best examples to help understand the concept is the one that Incongruity Theory cannot tackle: tickling. A mother tickling her child satisfies each of the conditions. A violation happens — the mother invades her child’s personal space. The action is benign — her personal connection does not induce a sense of danger. And they both occur at the same time. Thus, tickling is comedic.

Konosuba / Episode 9 / Kazuma defending a succubus and his pride

Impressively, Benign-Violation Theory also explains why tickling can sometimes be unfunny. One cannot tickle himself or herself because one cannot violate his or her own person. And if a random, unknown stranger rather than a close relative were to commit the act, it would be less benign and more fearful.

To clarify, a violation does not have to be strictly physical. Puns are technically violations of linguistic rules, and immoral jokes play on societal values. To put it differently,  “a violation occurs when a situation threatens the way that you believe the world ‘ought’ to be.” [15]

Benign-Violation Theory: Ten Quick Examples

As a means to better see this theory in action, ten small examples from KonoSuba (one per episode) have been chosen. They each follow the same format: a small description of the scene, the violation that happens, and the benign presentation that keeps the violation in check.

In the first episode, Aqua parties her nights away rather regularly. But she has a difficult time keeping her liquor down, so she can often be found vomiting outside. Her getting sick is comedic because it is gross (a violation of cleanliness) and colorful (a benign visualization).

Konosuba / Episode 1 / Aqua vomiting after a fun-filled party

In the second episode, Megumin enters the fray. Besides her explosive magic, she brings her chuunibyou antics, speaking with flair and zeal. Her goofy behavior is comedic since it is all a lie (violation) that realistically does next to no harm (benign).

In the third episode, Kazuma manages to learn a new ability: Steal. But what he quickly discovers is that his newfound power is a bit perverted. His ability is comedic because he steals a very personal item from the girls (violation) without physically assaulting them (benign).

Konosuba / Episode 3 / Kazuma stealing Chris's panties

In the fourth episode, Darkness sacrifices herself for Megumin, taking the death curse in her stead. When she is not allowed to be taken by the dullahan, however, she becomes visibly depressed. Her sadness is comedic because of her atypical response to not being abducted (violation) and because she is still safe and sound (benign).

In the fifth episode, Aqua gets ferried around town in a battered cage. The townspeople look on as they hear her lament. Her situation is comedic because she appears to be a slave (violation) of her own volition (benign).

In the sixth episode, Verdia, the dullahan general from a couple of episodes prior, returns. Before his defeat, Darkness attempts to fight him solo. Only she fails in embarrassing fashion. The scene is comedic due to the reversal of outcome (violation) and her cute response afterwards (benign).

Konosuba / Episode 6 / Darkness embarrassed beyond belief at missing her attacks

In the seventh episode, after Kazuma is brought back from the dead (now for the second time), Aqua reveals that she hid away a snow sprite for later usage. Kazuma, upon learning this information, threatens to kill the sprite. To which Aqua wails and flails. Her reaction is comedic because of the threat against her friend (violation) and because of her overzealous attachment to it (benign).

In the eighth episode, the gang takes up the task of exorcising a mansion of its ghosts. During the night, Kazuma and Megumin find themselves together — and both needing a bathroom break. The interaction that ensues between them is comedic because of the public talk of peeing (violation) and the friendship they share (benign).

Konosuba / Episode 8 / Megumin screaming on the toilet after Kazuma opens the door while she is in the middle of her business

In the ninth episode, Kazuma visits a succubi brothel that literally makes a person’s wildest sexual dreams come true. That night, Darkness unknowingly joins Kazuma in the bath hall, creating a rather risqué scenario. Their private aside is comedic because of the blatant sexual advances (violation) coupled with the audience-known confusion (benign).

In the tenth episode, the giant mechanical spider Destroyer has come to, well, destroy the city. Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness go about stopping the beast in their own way. As for Kazuma, Wiz asks him to help her out by letting her “suck” him. To which he responds, “With pleasure.” His response is comedic due to breaking anime-medium norms (violation) while both parties agree to the act (benign).

Many more examples exist. Aqua being ignored by the rest of the group as she tells the tale of the mansion violates common courtesy yet is benign since they check up on her later. Or Megumin faking death face-first in the snow violates camaraderie yet is benign since she is in the same shogun-boat as everybody else. Hence, both of these examples are comedic, too.

And with every example, one should also be able to understand why he or she found it not funny (if that was the case upon a first viewing). Maybe someone has a phobia of vomit, so he or she would never find rainbow puke hilarious. Maybe literal toilet humor is too childish. Or maybe someone views blatant sexual conduct as unsightly.

Konosuba / Episode 2 / Ladies overhearing Megumin talking about Kazuma's "erotic" treatment of her

That is, if either the violation or the benign presentation are too strong or not strong enough to counteract the other side, balance between the benign and the violation is not held. As such, humor fails to exist, laughter is lost, and, hence, that person does not find the event comedic.

Unfortunately, the theory is not perfect. Its biggest flaw comes from adding yet another layer of subjectivity. What is benign or a violation for someone may not be the same for another. In a way, it almost makes comedy even more difficult to pinpoint if not more scientific.

Plus, proponents of the other three theories often argue that this attempt at creating a blanket theory is counterproductive. One all-encompassing idea may be forcing the issue under certain comedic circumstances.

And many other factors contribute to comedy, too. Timing, delivery, and uniqueness are some of the cornerstones of comedic genius, cornerstones that this theory (and the others) do not directly address. If the theories are shoes, then these (and other similar) traits are the polish, giving those shoes their shine. Without the polish, the shoes fail to impress.

A Comedic Conclusion

What have we learned?

One, comedy is universal. From the Greeks of old to a newborn baby, people inherently know what makes something funny.

Two, comedy is theoretical. While it is somewhat easy to write off every joke as little more than a small gaff, each laugh derives from certain ideas: superiority, relief, incongruity, and benign-violation chief among them.

Konosuba / Episode 10 / Kazuma learning that he is a criminal

Three, comedy is personal. Humor for one does not directly translate as humor for another. A sentiment evidenced by the wildly different ways in which people respond to comedic experiences like KonoSuba.

So the next time you are watching your favorite comedy anime, take note of the approach and keep in mind your own connection to the joke. For you may just find that a sen-pie beats a sen-pi in a cooking contest any day of the week!

(I think I’ll just stick to writing.)

List of References