This post originally went up on January 15th, 2018.
What exactly is banter these days? I know the official definition is a ‘playful or friendly exchange of teasing remarks’. Not exactly like what you see in one of the above examples, but I keep seeing examples of banter that ignores the playful or friendly part. Since comedy/humor is subjective, this is going to be a tough topic to write about. I know what I believe might not be shared by others, so I’m going to try my best to keep it within the mechanic of banter and what I always thought it was.
Keep in mind that I grew up with The Marx Brothers, who excelled at cutting remarks and comedic banter. That tends to be my baseline, which was expanded by me reading older Spider-Man comics where he flung insults. Now, the superhero stuff tends to be labeled as banter even if there’s no back and forth. I keep running into people saying that they love Deadpool’s banter . . . He’s usually just cracking jokes and insulting enemies. It’s more antagonizing a foe in a similar vein to Spider-Man, but that doesn’t always fall into the banter category. So, what do I think you need for banter?
As stated in the definition, there’s supposed to be a friendly and playful aspect to banter. You don’t typically get this between enemies. Savage insults getting hurled faster than bullets isn’t really banter due to the emotions. The audience might be having fun, but it’s the participants that denote banter. They have to be the playful and friendly ones. For example, Fritz Warrenberg and Nimby would get into back-and-forth insults at times and that would be banter because they were being playful. Luke Callindor and the Lich doing the same isn’t the same because they’re trying to hurt each other. Banter is supposed to be something that friends do and is easily shrugged off because it was ‘done in good fun’.
I’ve seen a lot of people mistake puns for banter as well. That can be part of it, but a character spitting out jokes isn’t bantering. Not really sure of the term, but it’s missing an important aspect to be banter. That would be somebody replying. This is a two or more person comedy because you need responses to keep the whole thing going. If a person is flinging insults and jokes without anything going back to them then they’re probably the comic relief. Hey, I think I remember the term I was thinking of. Anyway, you can have back-and-forth puns, but it’s that first part that’s necessary for true banter.
This is why I mentioned in the title that banter is harder than people think. Not everything funny falls into this category, especially when you consider that comedy is as varied as music and movies. There are genres of comedy just like every other type of entertainment. Banter is a style and technique that can be used in any of them, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the answer. In fact, it shouldn’t be the only one used or it loses it’s appeal. Kind of like how horror movies and video games overdid jump scares a while back, you can eliminate the appeal of banter by overusing it or extending the definition to ridiculous lengths. This is the challenge: You need to know what a technique really is before you try to use it or say you’re using it.
If I had to give a tip to how to use or learn about banter, I would suggest looking at older comedies. Not as far back as the Marx Brothers, but I remember a lot of good banter from Eddie Murphy, Gene Wilder, and Robin Williams movies. Many times, a sharp and quick wit leads to banter because you need to be fast with the responses. There’s that comfort level between participants that allows banter to move at a fast pace to give it a the natural playfulness. This also requires that you have a deep understanding of the characters and their relationship when you do it in your own works. Are they close friends that can get away with such comments? Do they have enough knowledge of each other to bounce off each other? Are they really friends or merely coworkers/partners with nothing more than a working relationship? Weird question at the end, but I’ve seen plenty of ‘banter’ that comes from two characters that show no sign of friendship and the exchange ends up being out of place. Comedy can’t be forced.
What do you think of banter? Do you think it’s being either overused or simply being used to define witty comedy in general? Do you have a favorite banter example?