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  • Matthew Emerson

Why is Comedy tied to Tragedy?

Comedy and Tragedy. I'm sure many people are familiar with these two categories from a high school English class. I remember one of my teachers explaining that a Shakespearean comedy is one where people end in a marriage and a tragedy is where everyone died. I'll let Dan critique the accuracy of that definition, because I don't intend to use it in this discussion, but I do think it paints an accurate picture as to how some people first encountered these terms.


In modern media, the gulf that exists between comedy and tragedy is wide. Many think of Adam Sandler (not like modern Adam Sandler but you know) or Kevin Hart when it comes to comedy, and tragedy is...hm. What is a good example of tragedy in this modern context?


I've found that in our contemporary culture we're far quicker to laugh than we are to cry. The new, and slightly controversial move, The Joker represents for me a modern tragedy, which is ironic given that the main character is popularly depicted as a clown. This highlights the uncomfortable but necessary link between comedy and tragedy. As much as us post-moderns have tried to divorce the two from one another, they always find a way to link again.

Like two opposite ends of a magnet, comedy and tragedy find a way to come together.

We don't have to look far for an example of this. The tragic end to Robin Williams only highlights this link. Think of how many people on Facebook shared that one photo of how "the funniest people are often the ones who have been hurt the most." That might not always be true, but it is perhaps truer than we'd like to admit.


Before we continue this discussion, I think it's important to define what comedy and tragedy even are. Comedy can be hard to nail down. So much gets involved in the discussion. Is there a line? When do jokes become insensitive? Does that make them lose their comedic value or are they just insensitive? I've found two definitions of comedy that I think function well:


1. Something is funny because it highlights something that is that shouldn't be.

2. Something is funny because something happens that is contrary to what is anticipated.


When you think about it, most jokes boil down to these. Think of Whose Line is it Anyways? There's that popular scene of "ways to start a fight" to which the guy responds "wanna fight?" I always hate explaining jokes, but there can be a benefit to it. You think he's going to do something or say something that would indeed start a fight but instead he just simply asks if the person wants to fight. It's funny because it's unexpected.


Definition #1 is often exemplified in darker humor. You laugh at something sad because somewhere inside of you, you know it shouldn't be. It's funny because it's wrong. This is often where shock humor comes into play. A comedian says something horrific and shocking and the reaction is...laughter? You don't think about it. It's an automatic response at times. I think there is some subconscious mechanism at play, but it's like there is a part inside of you that knows the evil and sadness of the world isn't what it's supposed to be, and so you laugh. But why? That's a discussion for another time.


So, if that's a rough definition of comedy? What then, is a tragedy? Something is tragic when:


1. Something is tragic whenever something is that shouldn't be.

2. Something is tragic whenever something happened that was unexpected.


Wait a second, why does that sound so familiar?


Tragedy in some ways, in an inversion of comedy. Instead of a deeper part of you laughing at something, tragedy is the more surface reaction (don't take this in a surface=bad, deep=good way) to something. Take a child being diagnosed with cancer. That's tragic because children aren't supposed to be sick (and a whole host of other reasons for sure).


Yet, we do not regard an old person of venerable age passing away in the comfort of their own home surrounded by family as tragic. That's how it's supposed to happen. Of course, it's sad and we will grieve and mourn over the loss but it's not the same as someone taken from the prime of their life by an incurable illness. There is something wrong about that which unsettles us.


So what are we to do with comedy and tragedy? How are we to split them apart?


What does make them different from one another?


Perhaps that high school distinction does work, in some way. Perhaps a Comedy is really a tragedy with a happy ending. This is not an unheard-of claim. Dante's masterpiece is filled with horrid depictions of hell and suffering, and yet we do not assign to students the Divine Tragedy but the Divine Comedy.


Permit me to make a controversial statement. Maybe a tragedy is just an unredeemed comedy, or, a comedy waiting to be redeemed.


The reason I regard The Joker as a tragedy and not a comedy is that it is precisely that, unredeemed. There is a line, which has now been memed into oblivion, "I used to think of my life as a tragedy, now I realize that it's a comedy." From his perception, perhaps. Yet, his "redemption" for his terrible life, and trust me, it was terrible, produces even greater violence and chaos. That isn't a comedy.


In the story of the Gospel, Jesus Christ being tortured and dying on a cross and then getting raised from the dead and opening the gates of paradise, that is a tragedy turned into a comedy.


What are some things you regard as tragedies in your life? How can you make them into a comedy? How can your Good Friday become an Easter Sunday?