Definition of Comedy
Comedy is generally defined as a literary work that is written to amuse or entertain a reader. In a comedy, characters can certainly suffer misfortune, but they are typically comedic situations with positive outcomes. Not all examples of comedy as a literary device are funny. However, its light-hearted treatment of plot and tone does allow a reader and/or audience to release emotion and tension as a satisfying escape from the mundanity of life or tragic circumstances, with the potential of gaining insight into humanity and the self.
The Ancient Greeks utilized drama as a means of investigating the world and the meaning of being human. Comedy is among the genres they developed, first as a means of satirizing and mocking men in power for vanity and being foolish. Aristotle defined comedy as an imitation of less than average men and in terms of portraying the “Ridiculous.” Unlike Greek tragedy, Greek comedy focused on human weaknesses and foibles and less “virtuous” people.
In a sense, much of modern comedy focuses on human frailties as well. For example, in his memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris provides witty observations about himself and others that showcase everything from hypocritical thinking to nonsensical behaviors:
Every day we’re told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it’s always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are ‘We’re number two!
In this passage, Sedaris uses comedy and humor to point out that Americans often believe things to be true that the rest of the world may not see quite the same way. His observations call attention to the frailty of blind patriotism that is often demonstrated and encouraged within America.
Examples of Comedy Types
Comedy appears in many art forms, including books, movies, plays, improvisation, and more. As a literary device, comedy features recurring formulas that appeal to readers. Some examples of these comedy types are:
- Romantic: story of love that generally results in a positive conclusion.
- Comedy of Manners: satire of societal expectations, particularly the upper class.
- Sentimental: features everyday or middle-class characters overcoming temptation to reach a happy ending.
- Tragicomedy: combines comedic and tragic elements, often beginning in tragedy and ending happily.
- Dark: addresses typically distressing or taboo topics as a means of relieving the tension of being uncomfortable with humor.
Examples of Shakespearean Comedies
During William Shakespeare’s time, the term comedy referred to a light-hearted dramatic work with a characteristically happy ending, often involving marriage. Though Shakespeare’s comedies do feature humorous language and comic devices, they differentiate themselves from his dramatic tragedies and history plays in their tone and plots. Some of these common plots include deception, character disputes, overcoming obstacles for reunion, mistaken identities or disguises, and even supernatural elements. Overall, the primary theme of most Shakespearean comedy is love with an underlying tension between reason and passion.
Here is a list of some well-known examples of Shakespearean comedies:
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- As You Like It
- The Comedy of Errors
- Love’s Labour’s Lost
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Much Ado About Nothing
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Tempest
- Twelfth Night
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- The Winter’s Tale
Famous Examples of Modern Comedies
Comedy is an effective literary device in its appeal to diverse groups of readers. Most people respond positively to comedic works due to their light-hearted tone and typically happy outcomes. In addition, comedic literature allows writers a sense of freedom in style and subject matter such as dark satire or sentimental melodrama.
Here are some famous literary examples that can be considered modern comedy:
- Slaughterhouse Five
- The House of Mirth
- The Odd Couple
- Pride and Prejudice
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- The Joy Luck Club
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- Fried Green Tomatoes
- A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings
- Everyday Use
Difference Between Comedy and Tragedy
As a literary device, it may seem that comedy is the opposite of tragedy. Though comedy and tragedy are different, they are not in opposition to each other in the way that some readers might assume. For example, most people associate humor with comedy and sadness with tragedy. However, most tragic literature features humor and comic literature often features elements of sadness. These incorporations bring balance to a literary work and the reader or audience’s expectations. In general, there is a shared experience that results from viewing or reading comedy and tragedy, though they evoke different reactions and emotions. Comedy tends to evoke laughter and a sense of likeness among humans, whereas tragedy often evokes suffering and isolation.
In terms of the protagonist of a literary work, most main characters in a tragedy are complex and flawed. This allows the reader/audience to feel compassion for the tragic hero’s downfall or defeat. Comic protagonists tend to be less complex and less realistic, which can create an emotional barrier between the character and reader/audience. Comedy and tragedy also differ in their plot elements. Tragic plots typically involve suffering, a sense of inevitability, and allow for dramatic reflections. Comic plots tend to have a happy resolution that often involves characters realizing their true connections to and/or love for each other.
Examples of Comedy in Literature
Comedy is important as a literary device in that it typically uplifts readers through overall positivity. Writers construct comedy to amuse and entertain, thereby creating an appeal to a broad readership and/or audience. Humorous situations, word play, and other comedic devices evoke laughter which often results in an effect of happiness. Of course, comedy is a means of addressing lighthearted topics as well as more impactful and serious subjects. Ultimately, comedy allows a reader/audience the opportunity to enjoy the meaning of a literary work as well as its entertainment value.
Here are some examples of comedy in literature:
Example 1: Lysistrata (Aristophanes)
What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?… Ah! don’t irritate me, you there, or I’ll lay my slipper across your jaws; and it’s pretty heavy.
“Lysistrata” is one of the best known ancient Greek comedies by Aristophanes, first performed in 411 BCE. This comedy is set during the Peloponnesian War and its title character decides she is tired of the men fighting. As a result, she convinces women from the Greek city-states to withhold sex from men until they end the war. In addition, as the above passage reflects, the women take over the Acropolis and the treasury so that the war cannot be funded. As the play progresses, the men become desperate for sex, begin peace talks, and agree to terms.
This plot is humorous on many levels and has resonated with readers/audiences across time. It’s a satirical piece about the foolishness of men and cost of war. Just as Lysistrata and the other Greek women are frustrated that their men make ridiculous decisions and “mistakes” during war, Aristophanes satirizes the war between the sexes as well and the way primal urges for sex, power, and battle affect everyone.
Example 2: Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?
In his satirical novel about war, Heller utilizes subversive and dark humor to explore the psychological horrors of war and absurdity of military life. As indicated by the passage above, Yossarian attempts to make sense out of what is fundamentally illogical and Catch-22: that only an insane person would agree to risk their life performing a mission in war, but through that recognition of the insanity of such an action, the person proves that he is sane and able to perform the mission. Heller uses comedy to demonstrate hypocrisy in the way countries and military leaders prioritize institutions over individuals. The dark humor within the novel functions to help the reader understand Heller’s satire while at the same time allowing the reader the relief through laughter at such absurdity.
Example 3: An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)
One of the hurdles of adulthood is when holidays become measuring sticks against which you always fall short. For children, Thanksgiving is about turkey and Christmas is about presents. Grown up, you learn that all holidays are about family and few can win there.
As a literary device, comedy is often an opportunity for writers to explore difficult subjects and present universal truths to readers. In her novel, Jones is able to communicate commonalities that readers can understand at a fundamental level but may not have considered in the way it is portrayed. In this passage, Jones describes the difference in a child’s typical approach to holidays compared to that of an adult. Readers can identify with the fact that holidays become more complex as people grow and families become more complicated. The humorous “delivery” of this fundamental truth, in a sense, allows the reader to understand its meaning and feel a sense of belonging with others who also understand.