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Tragedy: The Backbone of Comedy

In eighth grade English, we sampled Shakespeare by reading Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I remember exactly two lessons from the semester.

1. Teenage boys will take great delight in Shakespeare if they get to yell, "What, ho!"

2. Shakespeare, like the ancient Greeks, wrote two basic types of plays: tragedies and comedies. Tragedies end with everyone dying. Comedies end with everyone getting married.

These definitions of "comedy" and "tragedy" puzzled me. Most people would say that the definition of a comedy is that it's "funny," and tragedies are "sad." But I accepted the teacher's word as gospel and aced all of my quizzes.

Now that I'm writing a comedy of my own, I've been doing a lot of thinking about what makes a story "funny." I've watched a lot of sitcoms. I've dissected the comedic relief roles in books and movies. And I've come to the counter-intuitive conclusion that the essence of comedy is tragedy.

Those definitions of Shakespearean "comedy" and "tragedy" did not arise because English Lit scholars lack funny bones and tear ducts. Of course comedies are funny and tragedies are sad. But if you take a good, hard look at a comedy and a tragedy side-by-side, there is little to no structural difference between them. A simple switch in tone and mood can flip one to the other.

Take a look at this simplified summary of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

After Hermia's father commands her to marry Demetrius, she plans to elope with her boyfriend Lysander. Her best friend Helena, who has feelings for Demetrius, exposes the lovers' plot to make him give up on Hermia. Demetrius chases Hermia and Lysander into the woods, with Helena not far behind.

The king of the fairies asks his servant, Puck, to straighten out the messy love square by casting a spell on Demetrius. Puck accidentally makes Lysander fall for Helena instead. The four end up running around the dark forest, confused, the women shouting at each other in tears and the men trying to kill each other with swords.

Eventually Puck straightens out the mess and the two couples live happily ever after.

If you see the play acted out, it's clearly a comedy—the dialogue is bawdy, the pacing is manic, and the subplots are farcical. But based on the plot alone, is this a comedy or a tragedy? Until the resolution, it's impossible to tell.

The play has the elements of a classic (literally Classic) tragedy: flawed men making bad decisions; aloof god figures toying with mortal fates; people betraying each other left and right. All it would take to seal the deal is to end it with Hermia taking Demetrius' sword through the heart to save Lysander, so the enraged Lysander kills Demetrius and himself, and Helena drinks poison in her grief. And maybe the fairies drown off stage, just to tie up loose ends.

The play-within-a-play at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream illustrates how very easy it is to go the other way around. The Mechanicals, an amateur theatre troupe of Athenian laborers, manages to turn the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe into a ludicrous parody. The whole idea of star-crossed lovers talking through a chink in the wall, and the man falling on his sword because he believes his girlfriend was eaten by a lion, is so stupid when it's acted out in brief by earnest clowns in bad costumes.

Shakespeare's own tragedies have been turned into parodies countless times, either on purpose or by accident. If you've ever seen The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)—and if you haven't, you should watch it here—then you know that all it takes to make Hamlet funny is to do it...faster. (Skip to 1:24:26 for the whole play in about fifty seconds.)

In fact, almost every "serious" story turns comedic if you do it...faster. And almost any comedy will turn into a drama if you dampen the tone. This doesn't just apply to 400-year-old plays in Early Modern English. Take a look at the Wikipedia synopsis of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The series follows "The Gang," a group of five depraved underachievers....Each member of the gang shows varying degrees of dishonesty, egotism, selfishness, greed, pettiness, ignorance, laziness and unethical behavior, and they are often engaged in controversial activities. Episodes usually find them hatching elaborate schemes, conspiring against one another and others for personal gain, vengeance, or simply for the entertainment of watching one another's downfall....Much of the show's dialogue involves the characters arguing or yelling at one another.

Are we talking about a sitcom or a TV serialization of The Godfather? Summarizing will suck the "funny" out of anything. Even the frothiest comedies out there sound like dramas in their Netflix taglines.

  • Parks and Recreation: An employee with a rural Parks and Recreation department is full of energy and good ideas but bogged down by bureaucracy.
  • Arrested Development: The Emmy-winning story of a wealthy family that lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.
  • Scrubs: A young attending physician and his fellow doctors practice mischief and medicine while learning life lessons at the Sacred Heart teaching hospital.
  • Malcolm in the Middle: While navigating the perils of adolescence, wunderkind Malcolm also grapples with a suburban family that gives new meaning to the word dysfunctional.

Sound like a barrel o' laughs, don't they?

Comedy and tragedy, story-wise, are essentially the same. The only real differences between them are in intent and execution. How do you make a story more tragic? You make the characters more miserable. How do you make a story funnier? You make the characters more miserable. Trouble creates dramatic tension. Trouble creates laughs. It's the pacing, subtext, and mood tell an audience whether they're supposed to laugh or cry.

The pros can make you do both at once—the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the cemetery scene in Steel Magnolias, the first ten minutes of Up. Some of the most successful comedies have been about the most depressing material, like abject poverty (The Kid) and the Holocaust (The Great Dictator), the Korean War (M*A*S*H), and nuclear warfare (Dr. Strangelove).

But you don't have to end the human race to get a laugh. To the characters in any comedy—especially the light ones—their world is a tragedy. While the audience laughs at Adrian Monk's shenanigans, Monk is always on the verge of a psychological breakdown. Monty Python's King Arthur and his bumbling knights are dead set on obtaining that Holy Grail, and they respond to every ludicrous character and outrageous obstacle they encounter on their pilgrimage with perfect seriousness. Even Lucy Ricardo has her heart 100% set on entering show biz. She jumps into her zany schemes headfirst, convinced that they'll rocket her to stardom, and she's ashamed of herself when they don't—though not enough to dampen her enthusiasm when the next bad idea pops into her head.


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