» The Pinkie Pie Principle: Humor From Characterization

Today’s featured content is from first time guest author, Metaright!

Works of fiction can find an audience in surprising places when the creators are determined to produce a quality product. This has led to the runaway popularity of Friendship is Magic, which owes the existence of its unexpected demographic of adults to its intelligent writing. Normally, two aspects of the writing that Friendship is Magic does particularly well—characterization and humor—go hand-in-hand, playing off each other as the humor is first produced from strong characterization, which in turn allows the characterization to grow.

However, the show is not foolproof in this regard. To demonstrate, I will be examining the hyperactive party pony herself, Pinkie Pie. Perhaps no other character is as divisive as Pinkie from a humor standpoint, and even the most loyal pony fans can have wildly different viewpoints about her. Why is Pinkie so special in this regard? Find out after the break.

The Ideal

Characterization and humor are often linked, and it is not difficult to understand why. Humor in television is derived, more often than not, from interactions between characters that are developed throughout the course of a show. As the characters grow, we begin to expect them to act in very specific ways.

For example, picture Rarity wrestling in a puddle of mud. This would come as a complete surprise to the viewer, who has been shown consistently that such an action is contrary to Rarity’s character. The fashionista is orderly and clean, perhaps excessively so. The viewer would immediately pick up on the dissonance, and, unless offered an explanation for why the character has defied expectation, will feel put-off by the scene

Thankfully, viewers will accept no small number of explanations, which gives the writers ample opportunity to explain away an uncharacteristic moment. Maybe Rarity is creating an excuse to stay home. Maybe Sweetie Belle has guilt-tripped her sister once again. Maybe she dropped a priceless gem and is desperate to retrieve it. Even though Rarity wrestling in the mud is clearly uncharacteristic, these explanations would make her action perfectly reasonable given the viewer’s expectations. But if the viewers were offered an explanation that still appears at odds with their expectations- say, that Rarity was tired of being cooped up inside and wanted a bit of exercise- the subversion of what we expect from her character is not resolved. By our expectations, this explanation isn’t something that would motivate Rarity to wrestle in the mud. The explanation we’re offered must make sense for Rarity, or the action remains uncharacteristic.

The basis for humor is created by subversions of expectations followed by reasonable explanations. Think of Rarity in “Party of One,” for example. In order to avoid Pinkie Pie, Rarity claims she needs to wash her hair. When Pinkie calls her out, noticing her hair is immaculate as ever, Rarity thrusts her head into a garbage can in order to dirty her mane. The humor of this scene comes from the shock of seeing Rarity do such a thing, and knowing that Rarity isn’t doing so for no reason—something is motivating Rarity to act extremely uncharacteristically. Even if we don’t exactly know why she wants to avoid Pinkie, we know Rarity’s action is explained. Not only does this explanation clarify her uncharacteristic action; it also strengthens the audience’s expectation of her obsessive cleanliness. Only something big, we expect, could motivate Rarity to cover herself in garbage. When the show treats the action with enough gravity, the viewer is reassured, his or her expectations reinforced. “Yes,” the writers appear to be saying. “Something big is going down, and you can see the effects already.”

Rarity and Trash When done well, uncharacteristic moments can reinforce a character.

But if the mud wrestling of my previous example was written off as a regular occurrence with no significance, there would be no humor. The mud wrestling would just be something Rarity does, like making dresses or putting on her eyeglasses. The humor comes from seeing Rarity put in a situation that makes her experience discomfort, which the viewer would expect her to feel, and knowing that she is doing so for a good reason.

When we see a pony act against expectations for no good reason, though, the entire ordeal is disconcerting and significantly less entertaining. This can easily give the impression that the character is not defying expectations by the design of the episode’s writers, but rather because the writers are not able to maintain the character in the first place. Thus, writers run the risk of accidentally forcing the characters to defy expectations in a way the viewer can’t quite see as just a minor slip-up. When this happens, a pony is acting not only uncharacteristically, but out of character; the pony is acting in a way incredibly contrary to what the viewer expects without a justification that makes sense. This causes the viewer’s expectations of the character to be called into question, and the very basis for humor is not applicable. The risk of writing stellar characters is that if characterizations are not maintained, the quality of humor suffers.

If a pony makes a joke while acting out of character, the humor of the situation fails as well. This is not to suggest that the joke would utterly fail to incite even a meager chuckle, but rather that we tend to appreciate humor when it is delivered through the characters we are familiar with, and in ways that we expect them to act. Characterization is maintained when a pony acts in a way that makes sense. If, though, Rarity were to say that mud wrestling is like a mudbath for free, she wouldn’t be acting entirely like herself, and the humor has no foundation. The joke might as well come from a background pony. Even if the joke is funny in itself, it just feels wrong for Rarity to deliver it.

Pinkie Pie’s Unique Dichotomy

In certain, uncommon, scenarios, sticking to characterization becomes a Herculean task, which occurs very clearly in the case of Pinkie Pie. Within the show, Pinkie seems to fill two distinct roles.

Her most important role is that of the pony that accompanies the Mane Six. This is the Pinkie that grew up on a rock farm, is a friend to everypony in town, and has a penchant for baking sweets. This is the role of Pinkie that utilizes the aspects of her characterization- her desires, her fears, her history, her emotions- and uses them to guide her actions, causing Pinkie to be complex and deep. Think of Pinkie in “Party of One.” She is motivated by the fear, anger, and sadness of losing her friends to investigate their strange behavior. Her actions in this episode are driven by her weaknesses, shedding more light on an otherwise cheery pony.

But Pinkie also plays the role of the comic relief. This is the Pinkie that cracks jokes at the most inopportune times, says things that don’t seem to have anything to do with the situation at hand, and whose only purpose is to make the audience laugh. Think of Pinkie in “Fall Weather Friends.” After Applejack pulls ahead in her race with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie compares her to the “pick of the litter; the cat’s pajamas!” before pausing and commenting on how unsportsmanlike it is for Applejack to take a kitten’s PJ’s. As humorous as this line was intended to be, it is a thinly disguised excuse to force Pinkie to say something silly for no actual reason.

The difference between Pinkie’s roles, then, lies within the origin of her humor. Whereas Deep Pinkie draws her humor from her characterization, Comic Relief Pinkie draws it from the situation she is placed in. These two roles often clash with each other, and as a result, writing for her effectively is incredibly difficult to do.

For example, think back to “The Return of Harmony,” when the threat of Discord thrusting Equestria into chaos had just been revealed to the ponies. After hearing about the certain destruction that would occur should Discord defeat the Elements of Harmony, all of the ponies display very clear signs of concern. All of them, that is, except for Pinkie Pie. Throughout the season two opener, Pinkie Pie is hardly shown to be concerned at all. She spends the adventure bouncing up and down in jolliness, as if her world being thrown into the cusp of ruin is no more stressful than a trip to the market.

Pinkie Pie’s flippant disregard for her surroundings can be chalked up to her joyful disposition, but then we find a contradiction. Pinkie Pie has shown concern, fear, and sadness in the past: When an odd, striped visitor appears in town, when a swarm of parasprites threaten to ravage Ponyville, and when the inspector for the Equestria Games comes just a bit too early, to name a few instances. And yet the arrival of Discord does not appear to be intimidating enough to concern her.

Why does this happen? At times, when writing for her, the writers seem to ask themselves not what Pinkie would say in a situation, but what would be funny for Pinkie to say. Pinkie is just the catalyst for these jokes because they don’t take her complexity into account. In a way, this makes sense; in addition to being a well-rounded, complex character, as in Pinkie’s first role, she is also perhaps intended as a net for the younger viewers to fall into when long moments are spent without outright humor. But this comic relief role comes at the direct expense of her deep characterization; the two are, by necessity, mutually exclusive.

To see why, think of where the humor from one of Pinkie’s jokes comes from. Comic Relief Pinkie says the things that she says in order to create humor. That is, the nature of her jokes comes not from within herself, but from the situation she is placed in. Regardless of whether or not Deep Pinkie would feel intense fear at a threat such as Discord, Comic Relief Pinkie is only there to deliver a line about squiggle straws or to make a visual gag of lying in a chocolate rainstorm.

Pinkie and the Gang You’d think Pinkie would understand the gravity of certain situations, but occasionally all she’s written for are gags.

Some fans of the show may be tempted to go the opposite direction and cite the moments Pinkie’s genuine fear and concern as bad characterization. If she is so determined to “giggle at the ghostly,” or stand up to her fears, why should she be afraid of such insignificant things? Discord is the kind of monster that Pinkie should find more amusing than terrifying, right?

But to take this attitude is to refuse to give Pinkie any weaknesses at all. If the spirit of chaos incarnate isn’t enough to at least give her pause, then certainly none of the concerns listed above, such as the appearance of Zecora or the Games inspector arriving early, would be even capable of holding her attention. Pinkie would be an impossibly bright beacon of fortitude, feeling only joy, 100% of the time.

If Pinkie exists without feeling fear or sadness, she is left as a flat, shallow pony of unceasing happiness and delight. Think of Pinkie’s clones in “Too Many Pinkie Pies.” The clones demonstrated how Pinkie would act should she abandon her characterization completely. And as the writers intended, the viewers looked at the clones not as characters with no fear, but as empty, shallow shells that were impossible to empathize with. Viewers cannot easily empathize with a character that has no weaknesses, as every real person has them; a lack of weakness is patently inhuman. It is silly to write off Pinkie’s fear as bad characterization if the alternative is to make her entirely one-dimensional, like her clones. A complex character requires weakness, which is not taken into account when writing for Pinkie’s comic relief role. A few examples of the kind of humor Pinkie brings to the table can make this distinction clearer.

Humor from Characterization vs. Humor as Characterization

As demonstrated with Rarity and the puddle of mud above, consider that humor tends to be at its finest when it is supported by characterization. A character’s jokes tend to succeed more when a character acts how we expect. When Pinkie makes a joke that supports her complexity and makes sense given the context, it is more likely to find a laugh from the viewer. But it has the added bonus of directly strengthening her characterization. In “Wonderbolt Academy,” Pinkie eagerly waits by her mailbox, opening it every few seconds to see if a letter from Rainbow Dash has appeared. Each time a letter fails to materialize, her smile fades and she lowers her head sadly. Finally, she begins to grow frantically concerned that Rainbow will forget about her while inside the academy, and becomes determined to pay her a visit.

This kind of joke works wonderfully. It’s silly, because we know full well that Pinkie won’t be receiving a letter when no letter has been delivered. But more crucially, it is driven by her characterization and personality. As we’ve seen in “Party of One,” Pinkie Pie grows miserable and afraid when she feels unloved by the Mane Six. The letter gag in “Wonderbolt Academy” serves to reinforce this fear; it originates from Pinkie’s insecurities and further demonstrates them. In the end, the joke succeeds both in terms of humor and characterization; we get a laugh, but we also get to see Pinkie Pie in a dramatic, relatable light. The joke stems from her character, and her character grows as a result of the joke.

Now contrast that kind of humor to one rather out-of-place gag that occurs a season earlier. In “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well,” after hearing Rainbow Dash refer to Spike as her “ghost writer,” Pinkie flees the scene with a cry of “Augh! Spike’s a ghost!”

This line is, frankly, a spectacular failure. The humor is without basis: Pinkie has no reason to interpret Rainbow’s phrasing in such a literal way, and she knows that Spike is not a ghost anyway. Furthermore, Spike was in the room during the whole scene, removing the possibility of his demeanor setting Pinkie off. The line doesn’t come from any part of Pinkie’s complexity, and this all combines to make Pinkie seem downright stupid and, by extension, shallow. The line is meant for a quick laugh no matter how unintelligent it makes the character appear. It is a completely unworthy sacrifice, foregoing the portrayal of Pinkie in any meaningful way in favor of churning out a cheap joke in a scene where humor was not really necessary in the first place.

Many fans are quick to endow this shallow Pinkie with what amounts to a faux-personality; Pinkie Pie is “random,” they say. Her out-of-place jokes, which stem from humor the situation requires as opposed to Pinkie Pie herself, work to reinforce an alternate characterization of Pinkie, namely that of a random joker.

What this viewpoint fails to recognize is that randomness in itself is not a facet of characterization that can actually be reinforced. Randomness is an anti-characterization of sorts that cannot be developed without subtracting from other aspects of a pony’s character. When Pinkie Pie makes a comment that seems to appear from thin air, she is not actively developing her randomness; rather, she is simply passively subtracting from each trait that allows her to remain focused. In many cases, this is a subtraction of empathy—Pinkie Pie, failing to perceive that a certain comment is inappropriate given the circumstances, makes the comment anyway, often drawing annoyed looks from those around her. The net result of the alleged development of her randomness is that Pinkie Pie becomes more insipid and less complex. This give-and-take relationship inherent to randomness would be even more detrimental to Pinkie’s character if it were an aspect the writers actively endorsed in the first place.

In fact, the writers rarely put up a front of Pinkie being characteristically random. After all, her few moments of in-character randomness within the show work, invariably, to some goal or end result as opposed to existing purely for a laugh. In “Griffon the Brush-Off,” for example, Pinkie constructs a bicycle flying device in order to secure Rainbow’s attention. While this action may appear random at first, it actually reinforces important aspects of Pinkie’s deep characterization; namely, her insecurity of losing a friend and her love of Rainbow Dash.

Pinkie Pie's Flying Contraption Randomness doesn’t have to be a trait in itself. It can reinforce other traits, like desires and emotions.

Contrast this moment of character growth to the kind of randomness we see with the “Spike’s a ghost” line. It is a prime demonstration of how Pinkie’s randomness subtracts from her complexity; we know that Pinkie is familiar with Spike and knows full well that he is not a ghost. The line deteriorates Pinkie’s complexity not at the expense of empathy, but intelligence. We as viewers do not wish to see any character act scatterbrained and unintelligent. But when Pinkie flees in fear of ghost-Spike, this is exactly the end of the spectrum she is sliding toward. Attributing the line to Pinkie’s randomness is not a valid refutation unless one is willing to equate randomness with stupidity.

What this means is that for Pinkie Pie especially, an appropriate balance is key. Pinkie can be random and still stay comfortably within the viewer’s expectations, and even an occasional instance of defiance toward these expectations can grant her a humorous air of unpredictability. But when this unpredictability overtakes her characterization instead of remaining in harmony with her other traits, she slips into her shallow comic relief role. The key thing to understand about this balance is that Pinkie doesn’t become shallow when she cracks a random joke. Rather, the origin of the joke is what’s important: Does it come from Pinkie’s unpredictability, or is she simply a medium through which to deliver a joke that comes from nowhere?

The balance between unpredictability and rotten characterization is kept wonderfully (and hilariously) by another famous cartoon character, the eponymous hare from the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Because Roger, a cartoon rabbit that exists in the real world, displays a realistic range of emotions, he is a character that is very easy to empathize with. He is never static and tips into joy and sadness about as easily (if not slightly more flamboyantly) as a real person. Thanks to the presence of these emotions, Roger’s spontaneity is not only forgivable, but conducive to a complex character. The jokes that Roger makes that don’t quite fit into our expectations are happily written off by the viewer as stemming from the spontaneous part of Roger’s nature. The key is that these spontaneous jokes always fit right into Roger’s desires, habits, and other traits; Roger never tips too far into his spontaneity to call the rest of his character into question. Pinkie Pie does not always accomplish this.

The “Spike’s a ghost” line does not maintain Pinkie’s characterization in this way, nor do the writers even pretend that the joke is supposed to. The humor is intended to stem from the fact that the line comes out of nowhere. The question of whether or not Pinkie would have a realistic reason to deliver the line is not taken into account.

The balance that Pinkie Pie often has trouble with is also seen in every other character in the  show, most notably the Mane Six. Rarity often takes time for a new viewer to grow to love as a character because she fits the archetype of the fashion-obsessed diva. Or at least to a point; as the viewer becomes more familiar with Rarity and her generousness is given ample opportunity to shine through, her character is seen as the complex balance it is meant to be. The balance,  then, is between her diva-nature and her selflessness and generosity; two seemingly contradictory natures that are beautifully balanced as to be characteristic of one single pony. Part of the reason Rarity is so strong a character is because a newcomer would fully expect her to be devoid of generousness in the first place.

(If I may offer up a solution to our problem with the “Spike’s a ghost” line, would it not have worked so much more effectively had it been delivered by, say, a pony in the background? A random pony we’ve never really seen before is just that- completely and utterly random, with no prior expectations to keep or characterizations to maintain. The line would not have seemed out of place coming from a background pony because that pony’s “place” doesn’t even exist.)

Clearly, it is not enough to have characters be the deliverers of humor. It is advantageous both to character development and to the jokes themselves if humor is derived from depth. Humor reinforces this depth when delivered in-character, and the complexity of the character develops as a result. When characterization stems from the humor as opposed to the other way around, the characterization loses complexity and becomes shallow. At all times, a character is tipping the balance of complexity and shallowness. The key to strong characterization is maintaining this balance.

The Pinkie Pie Principle

In general, humor that is derived from characterization will strengthen a character. Characterization that is derived from humor will make a character shallow. 

Share your thoughts

  1. Not sure how much I agree with the Fall Weather Friends being an illustration of her being silly running against the character definition.

    One of the very first things we learn about Pinkie when she finally gets to talk is that her line of thought tends to run fast and wild. (Her ramble to a Twilight who is mostly ignoring her.) The bulk of Season 1 has her intelligent and focused, but her logic tends to follow within itself and not taking in much new input from the outside world, or being expressed to the world very well (pretty much the entirety of Swarm of the Century, arguably the cause of her massive disconnect with Gilda before she watches her at the market, the reason for her run-on in Fall Weather Friends, the reason she steps Applejack through baking without ever checking what was going in them in Applebuck Season, the reason she hangs onto the ‘Fluttershy isn’t a tree, silly’ in Over a Barrel). Then as the show goes on, she becomes less and less lost in her own line of thought and more tossing out lines that exist to allow for more visual gags or character confusion.

  2. This essay is essentially the reason why Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Twilight are all funny to me, whereas Pinkie Pie is not. For example, I find “Apple Family Reunion” to be a very funny episode because it takes Applejack’s personality traits and puts them in a situation where they are absolutely ridiculous.

  3. “Eternal chaos come with chocolate rain you guys.

    Chocolate rain!”

    There’s your reason for why Pinkie wasn’t concerned about Discord. And to be honest I don’t see Discord as particularly evil. Just a bit of a jerk who plays god from time to time.

    “But to take this attitude is to refuse to give Pinkie any weaknesses at all. If the spirit of chaos incarnate isn’t enough to at least give her pause, then certainly none of the concerns listed above, such as the appearance of Zecora or the Games inspector arriving early, would be even capable of holding her attention. Pinkie would be an impossibly bright beacon of fortitude, feeling only joy, 100% of the time.”

    I wasn’t a fan of the games inspector episode either. Regarding Zecora i take this as a precedent of Pinkie being quite superstitious and perfectly in character at the time. And she had a song and everything. :D

    No one will argue with the “spike is a ghost” point because i think most folks who have seen Pinkie Pies “giggle at the ghosty” song from the premiere will see that joke for the contradiction it is. (I don’t think anyone has to nail home the point that “Mysterious Mare do well” was a failure as an episode so there’s no point in beating a dead horse)

    Pinkie is a very tricky character to get a hold of. Looking for any kind of constant with her is going to be problematic.

    • “No one will argue with the ‘spike is a ghost’ point”
      I would like to say that that is a horrible assumption to make because it is the part of this editorial that I disagreed with the most. When I think of this line, I don’t think of it as the writers’ joke, but rather as pinkie’s joke. It is not out of character for Pinke Pie to try and crack a joke. If she was legitimately afraid of spike, it would be dumb, but Pinkie took an idiom (“ghost writer”) and made fun of it in an attempt to make her friends laugh. I’d also like to point out that Pinkie is not random, Pinkie acts random. In the episode “cutie mark chronicles”, pinkie ends her rock farming story with “and that’s how Equestria was made, maybe later I’ll tell you the story of how I got my cutie mark” or something to that effect. Again, in this situation Pinkie is acting weird to elicit a smile.
      One last thing I’d like to say, I liked “Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” as an episode.

    • Remember Nightmare Night? Pinkie likes being scared of stuff that she doesn’t need to be scared of.

  4. I think it’s important, as you discuss in the article, for the writers to ask “what would pinkie pie say?” instead of “what would be funny for pinkie pie to say?”. This is actually a good point to keep in mind for all characters when writing!

  5. There’s one major flaw I see with this essay, and that is that it doesn’t take into consideration that there’s an archetype for Pinkie Pie, too: the Jester. Her true self and her role in the universe of Equestria, as seen best in Magical Mystery Cure, is to spread laughter and levity, and her acting the fool in dire situations is every bit a part of her characterization as her secret fears that she’s boring. Because that’s just it: she’s acting the fool, not necessarily being the fool.

    • I really like this article, because it puts into words exactly why I dislike Pinkie as much as I do. I dislike that there is that dichotomy between what the author calls “deep pinkie” and “comic relief pinkie”. However, I also agree with you completely that pinkie as a jester is an important archetype to consider before just chalking it up to bad writing.

  6. You have marvelously summarized why I love Pinkie when she is at her best, and why I am so irritated when the writers don’t quite nail it. I personally think the writers dropped the ball far too much for all the characters throughout Season 3, but I understand these matters quickly become subjective.

    Thank you for writing this, it’s truly refreshing to know that there are people out there who actually think about this stuff and critically analyze what precisely makes the good parts of this show good.

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  8. Pinkie wasn’t concerned about Discord ’cause she was confident they would manage to fix things in the end. Hell, Discord even failed to really discord Pinkie (her hair never left party mode, “this looks like it is fun, but it isn’t” etc; she was just playing along to have fun).

    The way i see it, her random jokes aren’t empty, it is actually her trying to hide/push away her own depression, or lighten up the mood on others. All that partying, making friends, freaking out about loosing friends etc fit quite well with this theory she is terrified of being left alone with her depression.

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