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


Burlesque: A type of comedy in which distortion and exaggeration are employed to ridicule and deflate, either through the trivialization of a lofty subject or through the glorification of a lowly or commonplace one. Humor results from the disparity between subject and style. Some critics distinguish between high and low burlesque, the former referring to works with an inappropriately heightened style for an inconsequential subject and the latter to works in which a lofty subject is degraded by an inappropriately base style.

Burlesque works may be written purely to entertain, but writers more commonly employ burlesque as an instrument of satire. Since burlesque frequently imitates another work or an aspect of that work in a mocking way, it is often used to deride specific (and often identifiable) works or their authors, certain subject matters, or even entire genres.

Burlesque is sometimes conflated with parody and travesty. Although critical usage of these terms varies, burlesque may be said to encompass both parody and travesty; in this view, parody is a type of high burlesque (as are the mock epic and mock heroic) and travesty a type of low burlesque.

The term burlesque may also be used to refer to a saucy, satirical form of variety theater that includes acts ranging from mime, novelty performances, and striptease to chorus numbers, bawdy songs, and slapstick comedy. The genre flourished in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before becoming the target of various censorship efforts and has undergone a revival since the 1990s.

EXAMPLES: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which parodies chivalric romances, is an example of high burlesque; Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which makes a travesty of the New Testament story of Jesus, is an example of low burlesque.