Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar characters (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.
I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”
Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.
So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.
Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.
In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).
But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.
You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).
Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).
In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.
A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.
Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.
Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.
So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.