A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece about watching comedy television (read here). It asked a simple question, why are we moved more easily when watching a comedy rather than a drama. The main argument in that piece was that our identification is stronger when we encounter people who are not particularly exceptional, and elevated as they remind us of ourselves. The vulnerability towards failure and the deflating tendency that breaks the fantasy makes the comedic characters endearing.
Let us look more closely at the experience of a tragic moment in a comedy and its effect on the audience. At the start of this discussion, it is very important to note that distinctions of comedy and tragedy are not strict divisions that remain separated. Sometimes comedy is used in tragedies to highlight the pathos and the bleakness of the circumstances. Even in the bleakest episode of The Wire is a joke with a black heart that makes you check yourself from laughing at it. That joke augments the ill-atmosphere that we encounter in such a show. Shakespeare recognized this potential of mixing comedy with his tragedies, and he often juxtaposed moments of horror against comedic beats to make the audience more uncomfortable. The dramatic moment that we just witnessed in King Duncan’s murder by Macbeth or Ophelia’s drowning, is frozen outside the stage-action. We want to return to the scene of crime and process our emotions or witness the aftermath, but that desire is denied by the craft of the playwright who makes us suffer in an unresolved anguish. In this regard, all theatre is the theatre of cruelty.
However, a tragic moment in a comedy show does not serve a similar corresponding function of augmenting the genre’s tendency. Instead, a tragic moment in a comedy is a sobering moment of genre-breaking that serves as a narrative interruption. In a recent episode of Veep, President Selina Meyer’s actions lead to a diplomatic stand-off with China. In response to her critical comments, China imposes several restrictions including freezing all American adoptions of Chinese babies. One of the supporting characters, Mike McClintock, who has been trying to adopt a child is devastated at that moment when he reads out loud the Chinese restrictions. Despite being a bumbling idiot who often behaves completely unaware of the context he is present in; Mike’s misery is a harsh punch line for the viewer to contend. Of course, we laugh at that moment’s reversal, but we also sympathize with him for his loss, regardless of our attitude towards him. This example is crucial because it shows that our degree of identification is not the only contributing factor regarding our affective response. When Mike stumbles with his words trying to compose himself in the face of tragedy, he opens a new dimension to his character.
While Mike’s case is pitiful, there are far more severe interruptions that viewers have endured over the course of comedy television. The oft cited series finale of M*A*S*H is a fine example of how devastating a comedy can be. Several episodes from shows of differing quality like How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, The Big Bang Theory and Friends have all used the trope of a life changing tragedy interrupting the comedic reception in a significant way. However, loss and death are not the only ways in which a comedic program can discuss a serious moment.
The episode titled ‘Hope’ (2.16) from Black-ish is a stunning example of the sway that a comedy tackling a serious socio-political problem. In this bottle episode, the Johnson family is in front of their Television set, witnessing the news of police officers standing trial for shooting an unarmed black man. As more and more information about the case unfolds, the characters have a very important and open discussion about the visible and invisible burdens of racial violence and oppression. This discussion does not offer any distractions with deflating jokes or juxtapositions, and yet the characters behave in a manner that is consistent with our memory. It presents important questions to the audience without changing the nature of the show. In this way, the show makes a subtle move of drawing on our memory of the show to present something that would seem to be beyond the scope of the show on the surface. You can read more about this episode in this article in the Vulture, which positions it in the context of other comedies that discuss serious themes.
Such a narrative interruption calls back to a feature of ancient Greek comedies, called the Parrhesia. The word means ‘to speak freely’, and this trope is used in a Greek comedy where an actor steps out of the character he is performing to address real social and political issues, as if he is speaking candidly. While such a moment cannot occur in modern television in the same way, the serious moment serves as a substitute for the direct address, as it evokes a similar sobering effect. Take a look at the video of Andre Johnson talking about President Obama and decide for yourself how much of the actor Anthony Anderson you can see in that moment.
What are your favorite serious moments in comedy TV? What is your response to them?
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.