The narrative form and the sitcom – Hayley Milne

In the chapter “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy”, Tom Gunning describes the relationship between the gag and narrative form.[1] He argues that the gag does not lend itself to longer, linear narrative film or television: “mischief stretched out into more extended narratives actually shows how recalcitrant the form is to [narrative] development.[2]”  He claims that the gag is self-contained, describing it in “two temporal moments, the preparation and the explosive payoff.”[3]. I would argue that the sitcom creates an opportunity for the gag to aid in the narrative form, at times doing what Gunning compares to later comedic “weaving” of gags into narrative aims[4].


To demonstrate this, I will use the example of the Halloween Heist from Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX and NBC, USA. 2013 – present). The heist is a series of gags, a sort of “chase” between the characters to be the last one in possession of an item come midnight. The gags themselves are all linked, for example – Detective Peralta (Andy Samberg) uses a button-controlled trap which sets a fire in a rubbish bin in the office, distracting Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) so that another member of the team can sneak into his office to steal his keys.


The sitcom form relies on the audience’s prior knowledge of characters, who’s overexaggerated tropes and characteristics make the “psychological characters”[5] Gunning argues are lacking in the gag film. These over-the-top characters make the gags funnier and aid how and why characters carry out gags the way they do. For example, Peralta’s messy and chaotic energy which can be seen in him stuffing live pigeons into a vent for a distractive prank.


Finally, I will argue that the example of the Heist refutes Gunning’s claim that the gag in the narrative film creates only a “momentary distraction”[6]. The final scene in any of the heist episodes is the final reveal or “catch” in which the victor explains how their gags and pranks linked together, allowing them to win the heist. Not only does this wrap up the narrative, providing a conclusion and a final end to the gags, but is also a very clear way of reading the gags as key plot points. Whilst providing a comedic moment, the gag ultimately is what shapes the narrative of the show.

[1] Gunning, Tom. “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.

[2] Gunning. “Crazy Machines” p.95

[3] Gunning. “Crazy Machines” p.96

[4] Gunning. “Crazy Machines” p.97

[5] Gunning. “Crazy Machines” p.95

[6] Gunning. “Crazy Machines” p.97


Leave a Reply