Types of Comedy in Literature, Theater, and Film

There are several types of comedy in books, plays, and films, and understanding them can help you become a better writer and reader. In all types, the main purpose of comedy remains the same: amusing the reader or audience. These are a few of the main types of comedy.

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Black Comedy or Dark Comedy

Black or dark comedies are about topics that are distressing to people, such as death, illness, and other taboo topics. When people feel uncomfortable, laughing can relieve the tension, and this type of comedy centers around this idea. You’ll find examples of dark comedy in movies like Death Becomes Her, Burn After Reading, and The Death of Stalin. You’ll also see it in plays and literature.

This example of dark comedy is from Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut:

“How’s the patient?” asked Derby.

“Dead to the world.”

“But not actually dead.”

“No.”

“How nice - to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.” 

Comedy of Humors

Based on the Medieval era belief that people are ruled by various humors that control their personalities and interactions, a comedy of humors is a character-based story. In this type of comedy, the characters have one or two dominant traits, such as jealousy, greed, or vanity, that rule their interactions with each other. This is not a type of comedy you see often in modern literature and films, but its influence is part of why there are so many great comedic characters.

One of the first to write this type of comedy was Ben Jonson, as you can see in this scene exploring greed in The Alchemist:

FACE: Come,

You know it well enough, though you dissemble it.

DAP. I'fac, I do not; you are mistaken.

FACE. How!

Swear by your face, and in a thing so known

Unto the doctor? How shall we, sir, trust you

In the other matter? can we ever think,

When you have won five or six thousand pound,

You'll send us shares in't, by this rate?

DAP. By Jove, sir,

I'll win ten thousand pound, and send you half.

I'fac's no oath.

SUB. No, no, he did but jest.

Comedy of Manners

A comedy of manners pokes fun at the behaviors and lives of certain classes of people, especially upper class. You see many satires that are comedies of manners. This type of comedy has been popular for centuries, sparking such hilarious examples as the television show Frasier, many of Oscar Wilde’s plays, the plays of Noel Coward, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

A famous modern example of a comedy of manners is the movie Clueless. You can see this type of comedy in the following scene:

JOSH: I'm amazed.

CHER: That I'm devoting myself so generously to someone else?

JOSH: No, that you've found someone even more clueless than you are to worship you.

CHER: I am rescuing her from teenage hell. Do you know the wounds from adolescence can take years to heal?

JOSH: Yeah, and you've never had a mother so you're acting out on that poor girl as if she was your Barbie doll.

CHER: Freshman psych rears its ugly head

JOSH: Hey, I am not taking psych.

CHER: Whatever. I am going to take that lost soul in there and make her well-dressed and popular. Her life will be better because of me. How many girls can say that about you?

Romantic Comedy

Romantic comedy centers around the theme of love, and it usually has a happy ending. Two characters meet and begin a love affair, but misunderstandings and other impediments get in the way. You’ll see this type of comedy in the work of Shakespeare, as well as in books and many movies like When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, You’ve Got Mail, and others.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that’s considered a romantic comedy, as you can see in this scene:

Jack: Charming day it has been, Miss Fairfax.

Gwendolen: Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.

Jack: I do mean something else.

Gwendolen: I thought so. In fact, I am never wrong.

Jack: And I would like to be allowed to take advantage of Lady Bracknell’s temporary absence . . .

Gwendolen: I would certainly advise you to do so. Mamma has a way of coming back suddenly into a room that I have often had to speak to her about.

Jack: [Nervously.] Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you.

Sentimental Comedy

Sentimental comedy was a popular genre in the 17th and 18th centuries that explored the trials of middle class characters and their methods of overcoming those challenges. Instead of making readers and viewers laugh, this type of comedy was designed to make them cry. However, the story was a happy one. Some of the dramedies of today may fit loosely in this category, but it is much more common in literature from the 1600s and 1700s.

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is an example of this type of comedy:

To come to my house, to call for what he likes, to turn me out of my own chair, to insult the family, to order his servants to get drunk, and then to tell me, "This house is mine, sir." By all that's impudent, it makes me laugh. Ha! ha! ha! Pray, sir (bantering), as you take the house, what think you of taking the rest of the furniture? There's a pair of silver candlesticks, and there's a fire-screen, and here's a pair of brazen-nosed bellows; perhaps you may take a fancy to them?

Tragicomedy

Actually a form of drama, tragicomedy mixes humor and tragedy together in surprising ways. Most tragicomedies feature surprise endings, and almost all endings are happy. Tragic events weave their way through these stories, just as they do in real life. Some classic examples include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forrest Gump, and American Beauty.

One classic example of tragicomedy is William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

SALARINO: Why, yet it lives there uncheck'd that Antonio hath

a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas;

the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very

dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many

a tall ship lie buried, as they say, if my gossip

Report be an honest woman of her word.

SALANIO: I would she were as lying a gossip in that as ever

knapped ginger or made her neighbours believe she

wept for the death of a third husband. But it is

true, without any slips of prolixity or crossing the

plain highway of talk, that the good Antonio, the

honest Antonio,--O that I had a title good enough

to keep his name company!--

Comedy Serves an Important Purpose

Although not all comedy is truly funny, it serves an important purpose in literature, film, and theater. Comedy lightens the mood and allows the audience to release some of the emotional tension that comes from the serious aspects of life and tragic situations. Whether you’re laughing out loud at examples of humor or simply smiling because a story has a happy ending, you’ll find that comedy is everywhere in the stories you read and watch.

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