The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Comedy: Broadly defined, any amusing and entertaining work; more narrowly defined, an amusing and entertaining drama. Comedy is often contrasted with tragedy, not only because it ends happily and presents the “lighter side” of life but also because it generally represents the experiences of ordinary people in common or vernacular language, whereas tragedy has traditionally depicted noble characters in a loftier literary style. Humor (or wit) is the essential element of any comedy. Comic effect may be subtle or coarse; it is typically achieved through some incongruity, whether physical, verbal, or conceptual (such as when a character is exaggerating what he has done or would be able to do if a given situation arose). Although comedies aim to evoke laughter, they may also have a serious purpose.

Ancient Greek comedy is typically subdivided into three categories. Old Comedy, represented by the works of Aristophanes, was characterized by a combination of political satire and fantastic elements. Middle Comedy, which focused on social concerns, has largely been lost. New Comedy, epitomized by the works of Menander, typically depicted two lovers who had to overcome obstacles to live happily ever after.

During the Middle Ages, the term comedy was applied to any literary work that had a happy ending and a style less exalted than that ascribed to tragedy. Hence Dante Alighieri’s great work was named Divina commedia (The Divine Comedy) (1321) even though it does not make particular use of humor.

Many types of comedy (and ways of classifying comedy) have emerged since the Renaissance. Some critics subdivide comedies into three categories: romantic, satiric, and rogue. Romantic comedies have a pair (or pairs) of lovers as their center of interest. William Shakespeare, who wrote during the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages and who based his comedies on the prose romances of his time, is credited with the development of this form. Satiric comedies typically have a critical purpose, attacking philosophical or political notions through ridicule. They may also direct ridicule at those who depart from societal rules and norms, or at meddlesome characters who somehow interfere with a pair of lovers. In rogue comedies, the audience is entertained by the antics of clever but congenial miscreants. Other critics classify comedies as realistic (including satiric forms such as the comedy of manners and the comedy of humors), romantic, or sentimental. Still other critics classify the comedy of manners separately rather than subsuming it under the heading of realistic comedy.

Comedies may also be categorized as low or high. Low comedies typically rely on the crude or the obvious to evoke laughter; they include situation comedies, farces, and slapstick works. Situation comedies (including television “sitcoms”) contain characters whose absurdities are revealed through some entertaining machinations of the plot. Farces are based on ludicrous situations, such as those that develop in cases of mistaken identity. Slapstick comedies are perhaps the least subtle of all types of comedy, relying on physical action (brawls, spectacular but harmless falls, two-fingered pokes in the eyes) to provoke loud guffaws from the audience. High comedies rely heavily on intellectual issues, viewpoints, and the incongruities between them to produce their comic effect. Often satiric in nature and serious in purpose, they tend to emphasize humanity’s foibles and seldom appeal to the audience’s emotions. Witty repartee is common and is perhaps epitomized in the Restoration-era comedy of manners. High comedy of more recent vintage is sometimes referred to as intellectual comedy or comedy of ideas.

EXAMPLES: Aristophanes’ The Frogs (c. 405 B.C.) is an example of ancient Greek Old Comedy, whereas Menander’s Dyskolos (317 B.C.) is an example of New Comedy. Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1553) is generally credited with being the first dramatic comedy in English, and the seventeenth-century French playwright Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) is considered by many to be the greatest of all comic dramatists. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1599) is a romantic comedy, as are movies such as Annie Hall (1977), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Groundhog Day (1993), About a Boy (2002), and Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Twentieth-century playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote intellectual comedies such as Major Barbara (1905). The twentieth-century comedy act The Three Stooges and the television sitcom Three’s Company (1977—84) both relied heavily on slapstick humor. Other popular sitcoms since the advent of television include I Love Lucy (1951—57), The Andy Griffith Show (1960—68), All in the Family (1971—79), Cheers (1982—93), Seinfeld (1990—98), The Office (2005—13), Silicon Valley (2014— ), and Black-ish (2014— ); notable animated sitcoms include The Simpsons (1989— ), South Park (1997— ), and Family Guy (1999— ).