Is there a difference between tragedy and comedy?


A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO, I wrote that, perhaps, readers had grown tired of all of the killing and the dying in novels.

Stories were dark.

They were becoming darker.

Some novelists, friends of mine, admitted they were being forced to write even darker stories in order to still find shock value in a world that had grown accustomed to being shocked.

I wondered if readers would rather laugh.

Sure, romance is about love.

Mystery solves crimes.

Thrillers can keep you spellbound.

Science fiction explores worlds that don’t exist.

So does fantasy.

But maybe those genres need some comedic relief.

Give readers a breather.

Give them a reason to chuckle from time to time.

That’s what I decided I wanted to do.

But could I really write funny?

Could I really spread a little laughter on pages that used to be so dark?

I don’t know.

So I decided to find out what a few celebrities had to say about the art of writing and performing comedy.

It’s not easy.

As my good friend and humorist Don Newbury reminded me, while quoting Woody Allen, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Here are what the funny people have to say:

Gilbert Gottfried: I have always felt comedy and tragedy are roommates. If you look up comedy and tragedy, you will find a very old picture of two masks. One mask is tragedy. It looks like it’s crying. The other mask is comedy. It looks like it’s laughing. Nowadays, we would say, “How tasteless and insensitive. A comedy mask is laughing at a tragedy mask.”

Robin Williams: For me, comedy starts as a spew, a kind of explosion, and then you sculpt it from there, if at all. It comes out of a deeper, darker side. Maybe it comes from anger, because I’m outraged by cruel absurdities, the hypocrisy that exists everywhere, even within yourself, where it’s hardest to see.

Charlie Chaplin: Life is tragedy when seen close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.

Erma Bombeck: There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.
Peter Ustinov: Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.

Bryant H. McGill: Why do we laugh at such terrible things? Because comedy is often the sarcastic realization of inescapable tragedy.

Ernest Hemingway: A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.

Christopher Fry: Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.

Angela Carter: Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.

So there it is.

Maybe I don’t have to change much after all.

I can write my mysteries.

I can write my thrillers.

I can make them light.

Or dark.

It doesn’t matter.

I can fill them with conflict.

And tragedy.

They can be disturbing.

Or sprinkled with suspense.

To turn them into comedies, all I have to do is set up the kind of scene I’ve always written and simply change the punch line.

We’ll see if anybody is laughing when I write the last chapter.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Secrets of the Dead. It’s a thriller during the dark days of Nazi Germany, and nobody laughs.


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