Craig Thornton – If You Are Going To Tie Me Up At Least Use A Mischief Gag

Monday 25 January 2021

Fleabag Season 1, Episode 2 – Ninja Surprise 



The structure of the mischief gag proposed by Tom Gunning commencing with the preparatory action of the rascal; (Fleabags garb of the knife-wielding ninja surprise) resulting in the comedic effect (the naked and terrified Harry), is enacted in this scene. The structural level of breaking the fourth wall is a present bridge between Fleabag and the audience, which addresses the audience and inducts them into the gag. The mischief gag being a device of dual function through a process of embedding its structure within a narrative structure. Gunning states:

“in the later period of film comedy, when comedians were saddled with plots and characterization, gags appear in their films as attractions, momentary and hilarious distractions from the narrative aims of the plot.”

The gag acts as a hilarious attraction, in this seldom scene but it is embedded betwixt narrative which then blurs this scene as a moment of comedic relief from the narrative plot but it also functions as an insight into the character development (or regression) in Fleabags navigation of intimate relationships. Gunning states further:

“The rascal and victim are entirely defined by the actions they perform; we know little about what they think or feel, and care less.”

As a device of interruption, the mischief gag is an embedded structure within the larger narrative structure, the rascal and victim are known characters with a relationship dynamic which constitutes more laughter with knowledge of their relationship flaws, as well as the relationship between spectator and Fleabag in the structural level of breaking the fourth wall. Which redefines the rascal and victim relationship, in this context, not by a seldom display of performed action but a series of motivated actions based on, a moment of comedic reprieve encapsulated within a dysfunctional relationship, the mischief gag being the staple of dysfunction within a dysfunctional relationship.



Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and The Origins of American Film Comedy” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, edited by Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, 87-105, New York: Routledge, 2013, 97.

Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines”. 95.


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4 thoughts on "Craig Thornton – If You Are Going To Tie Me Up At Least Use A Mischief Gag"

  • Cameron Mumford
    Tuesday 26 January 2021, 11.17am

    I really like your point on how the mischief gag is enhanced through an understanding of who these characters are outside of the gag. I think it shows how this old comedic structure, that has such a focus on physical comedy, has evolved over time and has been incorporated into works that are so character-centric.

  • Alexis Wilkins
    Tuesday 26 January 2021, 1.33pm

    I have not seen the entire work, but I absolutely loved this scene in relation to the Gunning quotes used. It’s a brilliant comparison because we are given a completely unexpected reaction to the gag which is somewhat of a gag in itself, and as you said the scene also plays largely into character development which goes against Gunning because we are given a quite intense insight into the victim’s feelings in just this one scene.

  • Danaja Kurnik
    Tuesday 26 January 2021, 2.22pm

    I love this as an example of a gag in which we see that character motivation goes beyond the immediate moment of the gag. The perceived psychological complexity of characters makes me feel more interested in the gag itself. I am also thinking that the difference in the characters' responses to the prank parallels the general response to such pranks: like Harry, some people just don't find them funny. Harry says that it was a good joke while he is evidently unamused, which implies he recognises how strongly pranks have been cemented as a form of easily accessible humour.

  • Elizabeth Bowie
    Wednesday 27 January 2021, 12.54pm

    This is so interesting, and I am very intrigued by the concept of mischief gags-- which have predominantly, as Gunning says, employed 'anonymous' characters-- becoming a mechanism by which character can be developed. It stands to reason insofar as a great deal of human interaction involves humour, and an individuals sense of humour reveals a great deal about them: as Danaja says above, the responses to the prank (Fleabag: laughter; Harry: fear) reveal both deeper facets of their own characters, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the Waller-Bridge's writing, as well as the characters' relationship to each other.

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