How to make tragedy tragic: add comedy

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I recently re-watched Schindler’s List and was astonished at just how many funny bits were peppered amid the horrific events contained therein. Scenes such as Schindler’s secretary montage to his darkly comic asides with Nazi bureaucrats (“I think I can guarantee you’ll both be in Southern Russia before the end of the week”) got me thinking that humour makes tragedy all the more powerful. If Schindler’s List can have humour, anything can. Heck, even The Passion of the Christ has a funny bit near the start.

The reason is simple: humour is a part of life and should not be omitted even from the most serious drama. The most tragic situations often contain moments of dark comedy. For example, at my father’s funeral I experienced a farcical “shoe malfunction” that would have had Dad in stitches. Perhaps he was laughing up in heaven.

I can think of many other examples where humour has leavened tragedy/darkness and made it all the more powerful. There is a great deal of humour in Dead Poets Society, making the final tragedy all the more powerful. The Remains of the Day (both book and film) would be nigh-on unbearable were it not for the gentle humour dotted throughout. Romeo and Juliet contains some great humour, as does Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Thomas Hardy’s most famous novels (although perhaps not Jude the Obscure so much) and many others.

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One of the most effective examples I can think of is Blackadder Goes Forth – a hilarious and brilliant TV series that nevertheless ends in one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies I have ever seen. Seeing these characters we know and love meet their deaths in the big push of World War I is absolutely shattering. It is because we have laughed at them so much that we are heartbroken when they die.

Humour provides a crucial counterpoint to tragedy or darkness. Consider The Empire Strikes Back – widely regarded as the finest entry in the Star Wars series. The darkness of the narrative, especially the terrible secret of the Skywalker family line, is leavened by the hilarious, screwball comedy humour of the Han/Leia relationship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”). Compare that with the well-intended but overwrought tone of Revenge of the Sith, and it is clear which film has the more believable heart of darkness.

Deliberately omitting humour from tragedy makes for a one-note tale that is depressing for all the wrong reasons, especially if said tale consists of little more than the repetition of endless tragedy. Such stories actually end up becoming unintentionally comic because they are so absurd. A good example from the world of film is Legends of the Fall – an unrelentingly serious and utterly excruciating piece of work that squanders a good cast and big budget on tragedy after tragedy until eventually you laugh because it is all so preposterous.

Anyone who has ever chatted up a girl will know that if you make her laugh, you’re halfway there. I submit the same is true for writing tragedy. If you can make your reader/audience laugh at your characters, they will like them. Therefore they will really feel for them when you put them through tragic situations.

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