We’re living in a pretty good era for comedy, all things considered. Yesterday’s promising talents (Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, among others) have matured into reliable, long-term players who, all told, are in more good movies and TV shows than bad. The greatest benefit of living in an age so replete with strong comedic actors is the potential for great comedic ensembles. When it comes to comedy, more’s the merrier.
Sure, two great comics can do amazing things in pairs, but I’d like to argue that 3 or more is when comedy really opens up. To start off, let’s consider the same actor playing essentially the same character in two different movies; one has him in a two-person buddy situation, the other matches him with two other actors.
In Due Date, Zach Galifianakis plays the goofball to Robert Downey Jr.’s straightman, a setup as classic as comedy itself. Galifianakis’s purpose throughout the entire movie is to be the source of weirdness to which Downey Jr. must react with confusion, anger and, as is usually the case, eventual acceptance. The two actors can’t really break out of this dynamic without breaking the very reality around them. The adjustment time and energy it would take for the straightman to become the goofball or vice versa, even for a moment, would absolutely kill the pacing. So, it’s up to Galifianakis to bludgeon us viewers with funny foolishness, overpowering force of comedic nature his character is required to be.
A year before, Zach Galifianakis played more or less the same guy in The Hangover, but his purpose in the film is entirely different. This time around, he has no straightman to overpower. Instead, he has the comparatively normal Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper to serve as the avatars of normality. Rather than crash upon their characters’ lives like a tidal wave of wanton weirdness, Galifianakis’s Alan is pushed to the side as something between a bit and supporting player. His weirdness marginalizes him, if only because he doesn’t have to be at least half the focus of most scenes. Placing him in contrast to two or more characters is tantamount to placing him in contrast with all of society. After all, two people with opposing world views are in equal conflict, whereas one person against two is fighting a microcosm of social convention.
So, why is 3 funnier than 2? Precisely because of that play upon social mores. Comedy comes from the unexpected, from pulling the rug out from under reality. The two-character scenario slowly turns the goofball’s philosophy into the prevailing truth by sheer force of will, inverting reality so consistently and in an escalating pattern that the inversion becomes the new reality, the new normal. Put the goofball up against multiple, less goofy players and he remains on the fringes, injecting some weirdness into the story’s reality without ever having a chance to permanently alter it. The funny stays funny and the status quo stays eminently shake-up-able.
This holds true everywhere in comedy. Consider the way Pineapple Express starts as a slow, kinda funny vehicle for Seth Rogan, spends the entire second act as a meandering stoner buddy flick once James Franco becomes a central player, then blossoms into comedic transcendence only after Danny McBride joins the ensemble. In television, think about the glorious first three seasons of the original British version of Coupling. It demonstrates in a pair of threes how to keep the potential “normal person” stand-ins (Steve and Susan) from having to play straightman at all times simply by letting the others in the cast interact with one another without Steve or Susan’s input.
The two-player comedy dynamic is inherently inflexible. It’s simpler in its reliance on what is essentially many takes on the same, central joke. Three or more players in a story allows for more shifts in focus and adds a level of unpredictability to the jokes. It’s uncertain where the laugh is going to come from when nobody’s the straightman and nobody’s the lone goofball. Ensembles create society and spontaneity, both of which are, in the end, the very foundations of comedy.