I. What is Comedy?
Comedy is a broad genre of film, television, and literature in which the goal is to make an audience laugh. It exists in every culture on earth (though the specifics of comedy can be very different from one culture to another), and has always been an extremely popular genre of storytelling.
II. Examples of Comedy
Over the course of its 26-year run, The Simpsons has proved to be one of the most successful comedy shows of all time. The show is particularly remarkable for the wide range of comedic types that it uses:
- Homer’s behavior typically falls into the slapstick category
- Meanwhile his politically-informed daughter Lisa is a constant source of topical humor
- Certain episodes edge into very silly territory and start to look like farces
- Others deal with grim topics and use a gentle version of dark comedy
- Meanwhile, the show constantly parodies pop culture and uses subtle situational jokes
America’s Funniest Home Videos used to be the go-to source for slapstick comedy on TV. The show gathered videos of people falling down, bumping their heads, accidentally breaking things – and, occasionally, silly animal behavior. These days, YouTube and social media have replaced AFHV, as funny videos can easily be shared individually or in compilations. But the appeal is exactly the same – for whatever reason, we laugh when others fall (as long as they’re not really hurt).
III. Types of Comedy
The types of comedy are truly infinite, but Hollywood has given us a few broad categories that cover some of the most common types:
a. Situational Comedy
Situational comedy gets its humor from awkward, amusing situations. Called “sitcoms” for short, situational comedies are usually TV shows in which a small set of characters gets into a different situation in each episode.
b. Romantic Comedy
Romantic comedies deal with a romantic relationship, almost always between a young woman and a young man. The comedy derives from their clumsy efforts to get together – usually they like each other, but each is unsure that the other likes them back, and their behavior is nervous and awkward, resulting in situational comedy. Romantic comedies are often considered dramedies (see section 7).
c. Physical Comedy (Slapstick)
Physical comedy or slapstick might be the oldest type of comedy around – it’s pies in the face, banana peels, farts, and other physical gags. Though this is sometimes considered less sophisticated than other forms of comedy, it’s very effective.
d. Dark Comedy (Gallows humor)
Dark comedy or gallows humor is when you make light of something very serious: death, disease, war, slavery, addiction, terrorism, etc. Dark comedy is a way of processing the sadness and despair that may occur in the face of these things.
A farce is a comedy so silly and over-the-top that it just doesn’t make any sense and you have to laugh. Farces usually use an extremely exaggerated combination of physical comedy and situational comedy, and are usually thick with plot twists, hidden identities, and confusing surprises.
f. Topical humor
Topical humor deals with current events, especially politics.
g. Spoof or Parody
IV. The Importance of Comedy
Everyone understands the value of comedy – we all enjoy a good laugh from time to time. But comedy isn’t just about entertainment value. When you laugh at a joke, you’re admitting that there’s truth in it, and comedies are often used to express important ideas. This often takes the form of satire, in which the writer uses humor and exaggeration to expose the foolishness of individuals, institutions, political parties, etc. A satire can be a pretty biting critique, but it uses humor rather than dry arguments or negative emotion.
V. Examples of Comedy in Literature
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most successful plays ever written in the English language. The reason for its popularity is that it combines several different forms of comedy, and was highly influential in the rise of early film. The Importance of Being Earnest is kind of a “romantic sitcom farce,” combining aspects of all three genres into one.
- It’s romantic because it deals with two growing relationship
- It’s a sitcom because nearly every scene contains an awkward situation between these characters and
- It’s a farce because the main characters are using elaborate deceptions on each other, which results in massive confusion throughout the play.
Though his humor is often lost on modern readers, Shakespeare was a master comedian in his time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, is a classic Shakespearean comedy, and a good example of farce as well. The play is driven by the pranks of Puck, a mischievous jokester who uses magic to make characters fall in love with each other for comic effect. The play, like nearly all Shakespearean comedies, ends with a big wedding.
VI. Examples of Comedy in Popular Culture
On their show Key & Peele, the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele use a combination of topical humor, physical humor, and farce, with occasional satirical elements. For example, one of their most popular routines is “Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator.” These sketches deal with current events in politics, and Luther’s exaggerated behavior (throwing himself around the room and screaming) adds physical comedy.
Love Actually is a clever take on the typical romantic comedy formula. Instead of focusing on a single love story, it focuses on several different couples, each facing its own challenges. In the end, most of the couples end up together – but not all, which makes the movie very different from the typical “romcom.”
VII. Related Terms
In the ancient Greek world, comedy was considered the opposite of tragedy, and these were the two main genres in Greek literature. Tragedies were stories of human failure – the hero was always killed or destroyed in the end, usually through his own human flaws and psychological weaknesses. These emotionally intense stories are rarely told anymore, and modern audiences have come to expect a much more hopeful kind of story.
In the modern world, the two main genres are comedy and drama. Like tragedy, drama is supposed to be emotionally intense, and it draws on feelings of pity and sadness. However, even in a drama there is a certain amount of humor (called comic relief), which was not true in classical tragedies. In addition, modern dramas usually have happy endings! The Christopher Nolan Batman movies are a great example of modern drama. They have their funny moments, but they mostly deal with more gritty, intense emotions.
In order to keep viewers’ interest, lots of TV shows combine drama with comedy. Friends is a great example – early on, it was a simple sitcom about six friends. But as the show went on, it became increasingly dramatic, focusing more and more on the serious side of the characters’ relationships. It continued to be a comedy in many ways, and was full of jokes right to the end, but the focus decidedly shifted from comedy into dramedy.