views updated May 21 2018



In a valuable insight on the nature of comedy as a genre, Jim Leach suggests that any genre that included the comic visions of both Jerry Lewis (b. 1926) and Ernest Lubitsch (1892–1947) was already headed for trouble (Leach, 1977). Leach was encouraging a more ambitious look at multiple comedy genres, noting what most disciples of laughter have long believed—that if a genre such as comedy is classified too loosely, it loses any critical value. In the years since Leach's prophetic observations, the study of comedy has broken away from this tendency to jam everything into one generic category. Indeed, movie comedy can best be examined as six distinct genres: personality or clown comedy, populism, dark comedy, parody, romantic comedy, and screwball comedy. Additionally, individual film comedies occasionally embrace more than one type of humor, further complicating their generic categorization.


Having changed the least since the beginning of cinema, the clown genre is both the most basic and the most obvious of comedy types. Unlike other, more thematic-oriented comedy approaches, the clown model is dependent upon a central comic figure or figures, such as Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) or the Marx Brothers (Chico [1887–1961], Harpo [1888–1964], Groucho [1890–1977], and Zeppo [1901–1979]). Around them is fashioned the loosest of storylines, for clown comedy is character-driven. The story line merely provides the pretext upon which the comedian can hang his comic "shtick"—specific routines and/or variations of them, which lend themselves to the establishing of the all-important screen comedy persona. This has been so since the pioneering days of Max Linder (1883–1925) in France and John Bunny (1863–1915) in the United States. For example, Chaplin invariably showcased his underdog Tramp's ability to work a comic metamorphosis on inanimate objects. In The Pawnshop (1916) an alarm clock in his examination becomes everything from a medical patient to a can of beans. Chaplin himself becomes a lamp in The Adventurer (1917), a tree in Shoulder Arms (1918), and a laughing mechanical figure in The Circus (1928). In discussing Chaplin's use of pathos, Gerald Mast points out Chaplin's poignant use of flowers as metaphors—surrogates for beautiful heroines Charlie cannot possess, and as fragile and transitory as love. While these memorable sequences may serve a metaphoric or thematic function, they do little to advance the plot.

Other classic shtick associated with a specific comic persona includes the surrealist sight gags of Harpo Marx, such as when he pulls a blowtorch from a magic coat in Duck Soup (1933); Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and Oliver Hardy's (1892–1957) tit-for-tat exchanges of comic violence with any number of antagonists, as when they destroy the house of frequent nemesis James Finlayson in Big Business (1929); and Bob Hope's (1903–2003) spoofing romantic banter with Dorothy Lamour (1914–1996) in the Road pictures: "Do you want me to kiss you now, or should I tease you for a while?" (Road to Rio,1947). The comic word games of Danny Kaye (1913–1987) are a key to his comedy shtick, especially in the delightful The Court Jester (1956), one of the best comic films ever made, in which he must remember, "the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle." In contrast, essential to Harold Lloyd's (1893–1971) persona is visual "thrill comedy," exemplified by his hanging from the clock in Safety Last (1923) and the skyscraper ledge scenes in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), neither of which involved trick photography. Of central importance to more modern comedy is Bob Hope's groundbreaking ability to move between the most incompetent of comic antiheroes and the cool, egotistical wise guy who purrs with satisfaction upon seeing himself in a mirror. Hope's comic duality complements modern humor's frequent fascination with the schizophrenic, especially for Hope's disciple Woody Allen (b. 1935). In contrast, Robin Williams's (b. 1951) shtick is dependent upon "saturation comedy," with seemingly improvisational-like stand-up material crammed with cultural references used to render his screen character, such as his comically crazed disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), where his manic radio monologues are both funny and somehow pertinent to the insanity that was the Vietnam War.

Besides the clown's specific shtick, there are three basic components to the personality-comedian approach. First, there is a penchant for physical comedy, which Walter Kerr (1967) succinctly defines as being a prisoner of one's body. Thus, besides the obvious pratfalls or sight gags one associates with Chaplin's Tramp or Jacques Tati's (1909–1982) Monsieur Hulot, personality comedians often simply look funny. Through costume, makeup, shape, or fluid contortions of face and body (best showcased today by Jerry Lewis's successor, Jim Carrey [b. 1962]), clowns telegraph their comedy. Their funny appearances are a key in the clown genre, even when the comic personality might be linked more closely to verbal humor as opposed to physical comedy. For instance, while the rapid-fire delivery of Groucho Marx is famous, it is more than a little dependent upon that mustache, hydraulic eyebrows, and distinctive stoop. Second, cinema clowns generally are underdogs who frequently exhibit comically incompetent behavior, such as when Laurel and Hardy try to put a radio on a less than user-friendly roof in Hog Wild (1930), or when Will Ferrell (b. 1967) fails as a toymaker in the title role of Elf (2003). Even the normally dominating Groucho becomes an underdog when dealing with Harpo and Chico, as in their tour-de-force silly phone-answering sequence in Duck Soup. And third, outsider clowns frequently are nomadic. Fittingly, cinema's greatest clown, Chaplin, is linked closely to the picaresque through his alter ego, the wandering Tramp shuffling down life's highways. Not coincidentally, the inspired teaming of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (1903–1977) reached its zenith in a series of Road pictures in which the duo comically roam the globe. The clown finds humor in new places and people through travel situations, from Harry Langdon's (1884–1944) cross-country walkathon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) to Pee-Wee Herman's (Paul Reubens [b. 1952]) trip to the Alamo in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Steve Martin (b. 1945) and John Candy's (1950–1994) quest to get home in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). As the last title suggests, the mode of transportation itself sometimes can become joke: the machine-oriented Buster Keaton (1895–1966) led the way in this regard with his own ocean liner in The Navigator (1924) and in the ultimate nonstop train picture, The General (1927).

Most studios at some time have featured a prominent personality comedian. During the pioneering days of silent comedy, the pivotal fun factories were those of Mack Sennett (1880–1960) and Hal Roach (1892–1992), both of which released their films through Pathé, which was also the distributor for Max Linder's neglected early shorts. During the studio era, Paramount allowed its comedians more artistic freedom than other studios did, and because of this the Marx Brothers, Mae West (1893–1980), Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis all did their best work there. While women have tended to be "straight" for male comics (Margaret Dumont [1882–1965] for the Marx Brothers, Paulette Goddard [1910–1990] for Charlie Chaplin), some female comics in addition to Mae West have had movie careers, including Martha Raye (1916–1994) and Lucille Ball (1911–1989), both of whom successfully carried their comedy over to television. In recent years there has been more opportunity for black comedians like Eddie Murphy (b. 1961), Cedrick the Entertainer (b. 1964), Queen Latifah (b. 1970), and Bernie Mac (b. 1958) to develop their comic persona in film.


While clown comedy is the most traditional of the comic genres, dating from the beginning of cinema, populism came to the forefront during the Depression in the 1930s. The exemplar of populism is director Frank Capra (1897–1991), especially in his pivotal pictures Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). This underdog genre embraces the belief that the superior and majority will of the common man is forever threatened by the usurping sophisticated evil few. Consequently, populist films frequently feature politician characters, including James Stewart's title character, a senator, in Mr. Smith, Loretta Young's congressional candidate in The Farmer's Daughter (1947), Kevin Kline as the president (and the president's double) in Dave (1993), and Chris Rock's presidential candidate in Head of State (2003).

Politics notwithstanding, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life represents the broadest microcosm of populist basics, from its celebration of family and traditional values to its embrace of personal sacrifice for the common good. Capra added a fantasy wrinkle by giving George Bailey (James Stewart) a guardian angel when he turns suicidal. The fantasy element is important because it makes the film's populist ideology more palatable to the viewers who otherwise might find the films too sentimental. Indeed, even when fantastic events do not take place, most populist interactions are so positive that the genre has been described as a fantasy of goodwill. Many classic sports comedies are populist in nature, including The Natural (1984), Major League (1989), and The Rookie (2001). Central to these and all populist underdog victories is the notion of a second chance, whether it is George Bailey getting his life back (and knowing its worth) in It's a Wonderful Life, or a man reconnecting with his lost father in Field of Dreams (1989)—a movie conceived as a baseball version of the Bailey story. Baseball also allows the modern populist film to keep alive the genre's celebration of America's pastoral roots.

Though Capra and populism owe a great deal to an American cracker-barrel humor that stretches from Ben Franklin (1706–1790) to Will Rogers (1879–1935), there is much about the genre that is international in nature. At its most fundamental, populism embraces unlikely victories and revitalized families, and especially the ties between fathers and children. Also, populists ultimately do the right thing. Therefore, such recent British comedies as Billy Elliot (2000) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) may be considered as populist comedies, and even the offbeat French film Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, 2001), in which the title character (Audrey Tautou) so inventively assists others that her efforts ultimately lead to her own special rewards, is populist in spirit.


It might be said that populism's mirror opposite is dark or black humor. This always provocative form of comedy emphasizes three interrelated themes: man as beast, the absurdity of the world, and the omnipresence of death. While populism views human nature as inherently good and the world as rational, with life after death, the blackly comic worlds of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Catch-22 (1970) typically make life out to be a cosmic joke. At its essence, dark humor skewers society's most sacred serious subjects—especially death. For instance, what could be more seemingly tasteless than comedy based on teen suicide, as in Harold and Maude (1971) and Heathers (1989)? Both

b. Charles Spencer Chaplin, London, England, 16 April 1889, d. 25 December 1977

Coming from roots in the music hall tradition, Charlie Chaplin is easily the most significant of all screen comedians. Indeed, he is often called cinema's greatest figure, comic or otherwise, by film scholars and the general public alike. Because of both the everyman universality of his Tramp character and the range of Chaplin's pantomime, he remains the standard against which all cinema clowns are measured. His ability to balance comedy and pathos, as at the close of City Lights (1931) when the blind girl finally sees but finds the benefactor Tramp wanting, is unparalleled. This blend has become an elusive goal for other comedians from Harry Langdon to Jerry Lewis. Chaplin wrote, directed, scored, starred in, and produced his own films. Many film comedians have since failed in their attempts to equal this accomplishment, from Langdon in the silent era to Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (1989).

Chaplin's art is clearest when contrasted with his contemporary comic rival, Buster Keaton. While Keaton's world often involves doing battle with machines and/or nature, Chaplin's comic wars are with other men and society. For instance, in The Pilgrim (1923) Chaplin pantomimes the story of David and Goliath—a situation that informs all of Charlie's stories. Also, the epic quality of Keaton's comedy contrasts sharply with the intimacy of Chaplin's metamorphosis of small, inanimate objects, the most brilliant example of this being the fanciful forked dinner rolls that suddenly become dancing feet in The Gold Rush (1925). While Keaton's world is often about a cerebral take on twentieth-century absurdity, Chaplin's oeuvre is all about heartfelt nineteenth-century romanticism, from the films with perennial short-subject actress Edna Purviance such as The Immigrant (1917) to the plucky gamin played by Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936) to Claire Bloom in Limelight (1952).

Chaplin's legacy keys upon the genre of personality comedy, but he was also a pivotal architect of dark comedy. There was always an undercurrent of black humor in Charlie's pictures, as in his thoughts of pitching the baby down the sewer in The Kid (1921). But with The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin produced two pioneering classics of dark comedy. In Verdoux, his first complete break with the Charlie-the-Tramp persona, Chaplin plays a character who makes a business of marrying and then murdering little old ladies.

Chaplin also cofounded United Artists, a distribution company for independent productions, with film pioneers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. But, his shocking persona in Monsieur Verdoux alienated many fans, and in the midst of Cold War hysteria Chaplin, who had never become a US citizen, was barred in 1952 from re-entering the country. Of his last few films, Limelight is noteworthy as his summary statement on the power of comedy.


The Immigrant (1917), Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952)


Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.

Chaplin, Charles, Jr., with N. Rau and M. Rau. My Father, Charlie Chaplin. New York: Random House, 1960.

Gehring, Wes D. Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Maland, Charles. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Wes D. Gehring

films depict a dysfunctional family, which is typical of the genre; Igby Goes Down (2002) features teenage brothers assisting in the suicide of their mother, in a more recent variation on this theme.

In black comedies randomness is as prevalent in suicides as in the frustrating lives that drive characters to desperation. Reuben, Reuben (1983) documents an accidental suicide (an overwhelmed writer dies by accidental hanging after he decides to abort the suicide attempt), and in Crimes of the Heart (1986) Sissy Spacek's off-center child of the South fails at many attempts at suicide, then decides against it, only to accidentally knock herself out trying to remove her head from the oven. Unlike populism, which preaches hope even in death, the message of dark comedy is that there is no message. The genre has been described as "beyond a joke" or "anticomedy" because it fights the new beginnings associated with most types of laughter. Black humor further keeps its audience on edge ("Am I supposed to be laughing here?") by often fragmenting its narrative, as in Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

Dark humor was fueled by the writings of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose works helped accelerate the decentralization of the individual in the grand scheme of things. Darwin's then-revolutionary claims about evolution and Freud's emphasis on the once-taboo subject of sexuality and the unconscious provide a solid foundation for black comedy. Freud was fascinated by this genre, as in the tale of the fellow heading for the gallows who asked for a neckerchief to guard against catching a cold. For Freud, dark comedy was a defense mechanism against the inevitability of death.

Like life, dark comedy is disjointed. It keeps the viewer off balance with shock effects that are visual, such as the leg protruding from the wood shredder in Fargo (1996) by Joel (b. 1954) and Ethan Coen (b. 1957), and/or auditory, as in Malcolm McDowell's warbling of Gene Kelly's beloved standard "Singin' in the Rain" as he stomps people to death in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Indeed, black humor is the only film genre (comic or otherwise) that uses a musical score at cross purposes to the visual, as in the Harold and Maude funeral scene where the removal of a coffin runs into a John Philip Sousa–playing marching band that just happens to be passing the church. This edgy genre offers conflicting cues to the viewer instead of simply reinforcing the status quo (as for example, violin music would in a romantic comedy).

More controversial is how black humor treats institutions of the establishment such as psychiatry, religion, and the military, which routinely insist that this is a rational world. Harold and Maude effectively skewers each one when the troubled teen Harold (Bud Cort) repeatedly says that a counseling trio (a priest, a psychiatrist, and an uncle in the army) do not have a clue about life. The damaging "guidance" they offer recalls Raymond Durgnat's suggestion that whenever sanctimonious society suggests how sacred life is to us, we are drawn to dark comedies that showcase death and destruction (The Crazy Mirror).

While there have always been cinematic dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove brought the genre to center stage. Throughout the 1960s, America's interest in black humor was further fueled by growing social disillusionment, and there were dark-humor movements in both 1960s stand-up comedy (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin) and literature (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut). But there was a long tradition to draw upon, given the horrors of World War II. Chaplin produced two watershed dark comedies at this time—The Great Dictator (1940), his take on Hitler, followed by the urbane Bluebeard tale Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The latter picture was the catalyst for a series of black-comedy gems from the genre's most honored studio—England's Ealing. From Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to The Ladykillers (1955), Ealing specialized in amiable dark humor. England has long had a proclivity for this genre, from the casual killing of royal wives in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) to the inspired mayhem of the Monty Python movies—especially Life of Brian (1979), the irreverent religious parable that parallels the story of Christ. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), the Coen brothers (Fargo), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, 1997, and Magnolia, 1999) are the new American auteurs of dark comedy, and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, 1998, and Snatch, 2000) has continued the tradition in England.


Parodies replicate the familiar elements of a given genre, auteur, or specific work, and at the same time subject it to a fresh comic twist. These spoofing variations are demonstrated best by Mel Brooks (b. 1926): his Blazing Saddles (1974) is a takeoff on westerns; High Anxiety (1977) tweaks the mystery-thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980); and Young Frankenstein (1974) warmly kids Universal's horror films of the 1930s. Parody is often confused with satire, which aggressively attacks the flaws and follies of society, as in Wag the Dog (1997), a biting examination of a Clintonesque president using a nonexistent (staged) war to distract the public from a sex scandal. Parody is essentially affectionate in nature, without satire's goal of offering a corrective to behavior.

Parody has been around since cinema's beginning. The comic pioneer Mack Sennett was at his best when spoofing the melodramatic adventure pictures of his mentor, D. W. Griffith (1875–1948). Sennett's Teddy at the Throttle (1916) poked fun at Griffith's penchant for the last-minute rescue, as in the close of the controversial classic The Birth of a Nation (1915). While it usually has a specific target, the spoof film is peppered with eclectic references to other "texts." Although Airplane! (1980) makes parodic mincemeat of the Airport movies of the 1970s, it also pricks films from other genres, as in the opening credit, which deflates Jaws (1977), and the lovers' beach scene, which skewers From Here to Eternity (1953).

Parody is often enhanced by various direct links to earlier films. For example, Brooks was able to locate and use the original laboratory sets from the 1931 Frankenstein in his Young Frankenstein. Moreover, he further replicated the look of the period by shooting his spoof in black and white and using 1930s techniques such as the iris-out and the wipe. Sometimes casting also adds to the parody interest. The Bob Hope spoof of what would become known as film noir, My Favorite Brunette (1947) casts celebrated noir performer Alan Ladd in a key scene. Similarly, Hope's western spoof Alias Jesse James (1959) closes with a corral full of sagebrush cameos ranging from Jay Silverheels (Tonto of Lone Ranger fame) to Gary Cooper, an actor often associated with the genre. Spoofing artists also recycle old film footage, as in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982), which inserts extensive footage from numerous 1940s noir masterworks so that Steve Martin seems to interact with a who's who of the genre, including Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd. Similarly, Marty Feldman's The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) had the comedian interacting, via old footage from Beau Geste (1939), with Gary Cooper.

Beyond mainstream parody is an edgier type that fluctuates between spoofing deflation and reaffirmation of the genre under attack; ironically, these parodies are often grouped into the genres they target. A perfect example is An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981), in which broad parody (such as the use of the songs "Bad Moon Rising" and several versions of "Blue Moon") alternates with shocking horror (graphic violence and painfully realistic werewolf transformations). This produces a fascinating tension between genre expectations (in this case, horror genre expectations) and parody that is comic without generic deflation. The Scream trilogy (Wes Craven, 1996, 1997, 2000) works in a similar way but adds an increasingly popular parodic component, referential self-consciousness, with its characters talking about horror film characters.


Whereas romantic and screwball comedy both have fun with the courtship process, romantic comedy is serious about love itself, and screwball comedy treats it as a joke. Consequently, at the heart of many romantic comedies are the painful realities that come from opening one's self to love. The men (Tom Hanks and David Duchovny) are devastated by the deaths of their beloved wives at the beginnings of Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Return to Me (2000), respectively. In Love Affair (1939) and its two remakes, An Affair to Remember (1957) and Love Affair (1994), a nearly fatal automobile accident causes a misunderstanding that almost sabotages a fragile chance for love.

Although romantic comedy is usually traditional in its take on courtship, both romantic partners tend to be hesitant in their maneuvering toward couplehood. Although the man typically plays the catalyst, he often simply has to grow up. This is the scenario in such staples of the genre as 10 (1979), The Sure Thing (1985), When Henry Met Sally … (1989), and High Fidelity (2000). In some stories the man has to work through other issues, such as mental illness in As Good as It Gets (1997), and the discovery that one's lover received a heart transplant from his late wife in Return to Me.

Romantic comedy's predisposition for serious or melodramatic overtones need not go beyond the pain associated with the search for love. The title character of Sabrina (1954) attempts suicide when the hurt over romance becomes more than she can stand. Sometimes the genre's quiet desperation has overtones of Cyrano de Bergerac, where concerns about appearance derail romance, as with the low self-esteem of Abby in The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), or in the modern Cyrano story, Roxanne (1987), in which Steve Martin sports a beak that would have impressed Jimmy Durante (1893–1980). Never Been Kissed (2000) provides a quick-witted crash course in romantic pain as the heroine revisits an assortment of failed relationships.

A pivotal component of romantic comedy is the affectionate celebration of love by older couples; an example is the romantic testimonials that pepper When Harry Met Sally…. Not surprisingly, these older players sometimes double as matchmakers, as in I.Q. (1994) and Return to Me. Sometimes these figures become poignant agents in unexpected ways. For instance, in Love Affair and its two remakes, the close relationship between the male lead and his grandmother is central to the love story. In each film the heroine falls for a playboy, but it is not until she sees him through the eyes of this adoring grandmother that he becomes relationship material.

Ultimately, Jack Nicholson's line from As Good as It Gets, "You make me want to be a better person," could be a mantra for the genre. Unlike screwball comedy, which puts up a funny be yourself fight to and avoids comic rigidity, romantic comedy is about changing and embracing a broader humanity. In Woman of the Year (1942) and Adam's Rib (1949), the best of the Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003) Spencer Tracy (1900–1967) classic teamings in the genre, the heroine has to rectify behavior that threatens her marriage. In both stories her career drive and her patently regal manner have gotten in the way of being a good spouse. This defrosting of the ice-goddess persona, which became a Tracy-Hepburn theme, had its start in the memorable romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940).

b. Allen Stewart Konigsberg, Brooklyn, New York, 1 December 1935

After Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen is the most significant comedy auteur in American film history. For more than thirty years Allen, like Chaplin, has written, directed, and starred in groundbreaking comedies at the rate of nearly a film a year since his first movie, What's New, Pussycat? (1965). Allen also has demonstrated a gift for literary humor, and his writing for The New Yorker magazine resulted in three well-received books: Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980). He started his career as a gag writer for Sid Caesar and in 1961 began to perform his own material as a stand-up comic in clubs, on records, and on college campuses.

After having been disappointed at the treatment of his script for Pussycat, Allen assumed the role of director for the first time with Take the Money and Run (1969). Similar to Chaplin's tramp in Modern Times (1936), Allen's screen persona is the urban antihero derailed by modern life. But for all his admiration of Chaplin, Allen's screen character borrows more from Bob Hope, who in the 1940s helped to usher in a new breed of personality comedian, one who fluctuated between the most incompetent of comic antiheroes and the cool, egotistical wise guy. In Sleeper (1973) Allen even sounds like Hope, with comic lines such as "We're here to see the nose. We hear it's running."

While Allen's greatest legacy is as a personality comedian who flirts with art-house issues, especially the topics showcased in Love and Death, Allen is also a pivotal auteur of modern romantic comedy. His multiple-Oscar®-winning film Annie Hall (which won awards for Best Picture, Direction, and Writing) is perhaps the most influential romantic comedy in the second half of the twentieth century. The increasingly intellectual angst of Allen's urban misfit initially showcased a great deal of visual comedy, whether trying to play a cello in a marching band (Take the Money and Run, 1969); weathering the delightfully nervous meeting of a blind date (Play It Again, Sam, 1972); or trying to catch runaway lobsters and kill spiders (Annie Hall, 1977).

Although clowning and romantic comedy are his greatest strengths, he is equally capable of such diverse pictures as Interiors (1978), a Bergmaneque chamber drama, the Buster Keaton–like fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), a darkly comic work on the nature of morality and conscience reminiscent of Chaplin's pioneering black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Still, Allen's importance to American comedy cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Like another of Allen's heroes, Robert Benchley, Allen could juggle writing for The New Yorker and create inspired film comedy; but not even Benchley wrote and directed his own features. Unfortunately, again like Chaplin, scandals in Allen's personal life have distracted audiences from his art and diminished his fan base.


Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again, Sam (1972), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005)


Allen, Woody. The Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Aveval, NJ: Wings Books, 1994.

Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

Lax, Eric. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Schickel, Richard. Woody Allen: A Life in Film. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.

Yacowar, Maurice. Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.

Wes D. Gehring


Screwball comedy is perhaps the most misunderstood of the comic genres. More than merely outrageous comedy, screwball comedy is essentially a spoof of romantic comedy. A second cousin to farce, screwball comedy flowered during the Great Depression, when the new censorship code (1934) necessitated sex comedies without sex. In the topsy-turvy Depression era the old

"boy-meets-girl" formula was turned on its ear, with screwball comedy presenting a zany, woman-dominated courtship of a male who often is unaware that open season has arrived.

A popular screwball formula has an antiheroic male who is under the thumb of a dominating fiancée, only to be liberated by a free-spirited female. A signature example of this is Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which a paleontologist played by Cary Grant is henpecked by the fittingly named fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker), then romantically rescued from deadly rigidity by the livewire, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). That film was inventively remade by director Peter Bogdanovich as What's Up, Doc? (1972), and there have been countless variations on the story—the most brilliant being Arthur (1981) by writer-director Steve Gordon, with Dudley Moore as a lovable lush.

The genre's free-spirited heroine exercises her own control over the screwball male. Stanley Cavell (1981) likens her power position to that of a director within the picture. An example is Jean Harrington's (Barbara Stanwyck) running commentary on the progress of the handsome but awkward and naïve Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), reflected in her makeup mirror, as he enters the ship's dining room in The Lady Eve (1941). She ultimately asserts control by tripping her prey and dazzling him with sex appeal. The year before, in My Favorite Wife (1940), Ellen Wagstaff Arden (Irene Dunne) directs her husband (Grant) on what to say and do when telling his second wife that spouse number one (Dunne) has returned from the grave.

Laughter (1900), the landmark theory of comic superiority by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), anticipates screwball comedy in typing comic character development as "absentmindedness," "inversion," and role-switching (pp. 68, 174–175). Bergson all but describes the absent-minded professor, a central male figure in screwball comedy from Grant's roles in Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business (1952) to similar characters played by James Stewart in Vivacious Lady (1938), Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, Gary Cooper in Ball on Fire (1941), and Ryan O'Neal in What's Up, Doc?But even without a sheepskin, screwball males tend to be absent-minded antiheroes who add to their own (comic) frustration by trying to be rational in an irrational world. Bergson's "inversion" is apparent in the screwball formula's dominant woman, instead of the demure heroine normally associated with romance. The male is first victimized and then rescued by this strong, free-spirited woman. Appropriately, the birth and initial success of screwball comedy was tied to a period of transition in American humor when the antihero was in ascendancy over the capable cracker-barrel figure. Coincidentally, early literary proponents of the antihero, such as James Thurber (1894–1961), also showcased this phenomenon in the "battle of sexes," which provided more fodder for screwball comedy.

Other themes that carried over from the Depression era include screwball comedy's fascination with the idle rich, and with the eccentric romantic couplings of members of different social classes, as with the characters played by Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934) and Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli in Arthur. As the title of Nothing Sacred (1937) suggests, while these films love to spoof romance, they do often end happily, ultimately endorsing love. Cavell refers to a number of these films as "comedies of remarriage," a genre in which the woman is married and the thrust of the plot is not to bring the central pair together but reunite them after separation and divorce (Cavell, 1981). Other subjects satirized by screwball comedy range from the aforementioned academics to professions such as journalism (His Girl Friday, 1940, and Runaway Bride, 1999), the law (The Awful Truth, 1937, All of Me, 1984), and even cinema itself (The Princess Comes Across, 1936, and America's Sweethearts, 2001).

For many the comedy genres are not as impressive as the self-conscious angst of serious drama. But in the final analysis, comic art seems so much more honest and universally pertinent to the various hurts we all quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) suffer. And by topping it off with a comedy-produced smile of recognition, these various formulas for funny gift us with a minor victory we might not otherwise have known.

SEE ALSO Genre;Parody;Populism;Romantic Comedy;Screwball Comedy;Slapstick Comedy


Bergson, Henri. Laughter [1900]. In Comedy, by George Meredith. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, Anchor, 1956.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Durgnat, Raymond. The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image. New York: Horizon Press, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Norton, 1963. [1905].

Gehring, Wes D. Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

——. Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

——. The World of Comedy: Five Takes on Funny. Davenport, IA: Robin Vincent, 2001.

Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Karnick, Kristine Brunovska, and Henry Jenkins, eds. Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York and London: Routledge and American Film Institute, 1994.

Kerr, Walter. Tragedy and Comedy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.

King, Geoff. Film Comedy. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Leach, Jim. "The Screwball Comedy." In Film Genre: Theory and Criticism, edited by Barry K. Grant, 75–89. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnick. Popular Film and Television Comedy. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

Weales, Gerald. Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedy of the 1930s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Wes D. Gehring


views updated May 29 2018



The social sciences have led the way in the scholarship on humor, looking to social dynamics to explain what people find funny, and why they find it funny. This enquiry began with Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1899), in which the French philosopher Henri Bergson, thinking as a social scientist might, explored how comedy depends upon the rupture of socialized standards of group behavior. A few years later, Sigmund Freud, in Der Witz und sein Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905), posited that it was the violation of social constructs (functions of the ego and superego) that makes people laugh.

Bergson would go on to cite the worthless act as a central component to laughter in the modern and mechanized world, explaining in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1911) that humor allows one to distance oneself from the dehumanizing effects of modern, civilized life. Modern scholarship might be said to begin an extension of this logic, looking not only to the essence of humor but also to its social functions. The Czech sociologist Antonin Obrdliks Gallows Humor, a Sociological Phenomenon, which first appeared in the March 1942 edition of the American Journal of Sociology, argued that gallows humor served as relief from the devaluation of human life at the hands of the Nazis.

Since World War II, the social sciences have continued to explore the social functions of humor, often contextualizing these functions by way of well-established theoretical models. In his introductory textbook Humor and Society (1988), Marvin R. Koller addresses the work of Obrdlik directly, examining gallows humor as an example of relief theory. Koller then contextualizes relief theory as one of four macrotheories of humor, the others being ambivalence theory (an embracing of a social construct while simultaneously holding it at arms length), superiority theory (excluding other social groups from human commerce by way of pronouncing ones own their betters), and incongruity theory (reminding us of the perils in thinking we have codified our world more definitively than we have). As any seasoned sociologist will recognize, these theories are familiar approaches drawn from elsewhere in the discipline. Nonetheless, they are profitable means of categorizing and appreciating how humor is more than simply funny.

A second contribution to humor scholarship has come from the willingness of the social sciences to look at how what people find funny can be determined by the groups of which they are a part. The social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, have explored the nature of humor by gender, by medium (e.g., print, television, motion pictures), by region, by professional group, and by race. Surely the most impressive scholarship in this regard has explored the relationship between humor and ethnicity. The early work in this area often employed conflict-aggression interpretations of ethnic humor, depicting ethnic humor as a means of ranking ethnic groups in a social hierarchy. More recent work though has found the phenomena to be flexible, even fluid. Christopher Davies, in The Mirth of Nations (2002), suggests that Polish jokes, for instance, ebb when definable tensions between Poles and other groups are most pronounced. Conversely, Polish jokes flourish when tensions are lowest.

The reach of scholarship in the social sciences is at once broad and deep. The work is yet to be fully synthesized however. Initially spread across psychology, sociology, and anthropology, it is now also found in related fields such as philosophy, communications, folklore, and media studies. Hence, the most exciting scholarship is more often discovered in articles in interdisciplinary journals than in full-length books devoted to a particular social-science discipline.


Bechtold, Robert Heilman. 1978. The Ways of the World: Comedy and Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Davies, Christie. 1998. Jokes and Their Relation to Society. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Davies, Christie. 2002. Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Koller, Marvin R. 1988. Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor. Houston, TX: Cap and Gown Press.

Jay Boyer


views updated May 11 2018




Limitations. The origins of comedy as a formal genre of drama are even more obscure than those of tragedy. Aristotle’s Poetics (after 335 b.c.e.) is vague enough about the origins of the latter but explicitly says that much less is known about how comedy developed because in its early stages it was not taken seriously enough to warrant proper records being kept. Originally the performers in comedies were volunteers, and only at a comparatively late date did the medium win state support comparable to that of tragedy. Another source dates the earliest comic victory to one Chionides in 486 b.c.e. (thus, well after the traditional date of Thespis’s first victory in tragedy) and regular competitions in comedy are certainly established by 472 b.c.e., when an incomplete inscription recording dramatic victors in Athens begins. However, even this date is nearly fifty years before the first surviving comedy, so there is little information about what comedy was like when records began; a passing remark by Aristotle suggests that it may have been even more personally directed than the later, surviving comedy. All surviving comedies from Classical Greece were written by one man, Aristophanes, although there exist the names and fragments of more than fifty of his contemporary rivals, and thus any description of this comedy must be essentially based on his work.

Divisions. Ancient scholars had a tripartite division of comedy, dividing it into Old, Middle, and New. New Comedy, essentially domestic in focus, had enormous influence on Roman and thence later European comedy, but only one fairly complete play from it survives. Middle Comedy too has survived only tenuously, with the exception of the two final plays of Aristophanes. Only with Old Comedy is there a significant body of work on which to base generalizations; and it is best defined by its relationship to tragedy.

Qualities. By definition, tragedy is serious and comedy is funny. In the Greek context, the seriousness of tragedy is unrelieved by any of the sort of scenes which lighten even William Shakespeare’s darkest plays: perhaps there is only one real joke in all surviving Greek tragedy. Whether or not there is a corresponding complete lack of seriousness in Old Comedy allows of no certain answer, but its overwhelming preference for humor marks its most obvious difference from tragedy. The humor expressed itself often in ways that further distinguish this form of drama from its more respectable relation. Often Aristophanes refers in a highly explicit and self-conscious way to drama, both comic and tragic, and even to the play being performed: nothing nearly as explicit is ever found in tragedy, which keeps the dramatic illusion always intact if occasionally strained. This fact seems related to tragedy’s desire to be believed at some level, as if it can only achieve its goal if it somehow engages the sympathy of the audience, for which some kind of plausibility seems a prerequisite. Comedy, however, is manifestly not interested in being believed—as witnessed by its surreal plotlines.

Political Commentary. Much of the humor of Old Comedy is at the expense of political figures of the day, again marking a clear difference from tragedy. Tragedies are set in the distant past, or (exceptionally) in a faraway place; Old Comedy is set in the present and is peopled by the playwrights’ contemporaries. Not only political figures, like Pericles and Cleon, felt the sting of abuse: philosophers such as Socrates and tragedians such as Euripides are also held up to ridicule. So too are dozens of other Athenians who today are only names to us; democratic Old Comedy did not restrict its attacks to the rich and famous. Although ancient politics tended to be based more on personalities than on abstract policy issues, Aristophanes’ treatment of public figures does not concentrate solely on these personal elements. Whether attacking a politician or a poet, he takes account of ideological issues as well. However, the extent to which Aristophanes has anything really serious to say about political issues is a hotly debated subject. No doubt his chief concern was invariably to raise laughs, but there are certainly passages where he explicitly claims to be offering, and to have offered elsewhere, sound political advice. One school of thought would maintain that this claim to offer serious advice is itself humorous—and indeed it is sometimes presented in that light, such as when he claims that even the king of Persia was aware of the sensible advice he had been offering the Athenians! The trump card usually played by this school is the fact that Aristophanes’ Knights (424 b.c.e.), a vitriolic attack on the contemporary politician Cleon, was successful in dramatic competition shortly before the Athenian democratic assembly elected him to high office; the conclusion drawn is that the political elements were not meant seriously by the poet or taken as such by the audience. However, that conclusion is obviously only one of several possible ones. As the old saying goes, a week is a long time in politics; Cleon’s status may well have changed quickly. Again, it is quite possible that the judges of the festival did not accurately reflect the opinions of most of the audience—there is a similar discrepancy occurring with Aristophanes’ Clouds (423 b.c.e.) when the judges went against the audience’s vote. The apparent contradiction between the success of Knights and Cleon’s subsequent election to office means nothing definite as regards the political purpose or impact of Old Comedy.

Obscenity. The plethora of contemporary references in Old Comedy certainly distinguish the genre from Tragedy. Another striking difference is the role of obscenity, which is ubiquitous in Old Comedy but completely absent from the more respectable medium. Not only did the standard male costume include a visible phallos, or artificial penis, but the texts are richly embellished with references to bodily functions in a way that those of Tragedy are not, and these functions are described in language that is clearly vulgar slang. When philosophers and serious poets need to mention sex, for instance, they do so in language that is euphemistic and vague, and when contemporary medical writers need to be more explicit they use a different vocabulary from that found in Old Comedy. Some of the latter’s language is precisely the equivalent of modern “four letter words” and is used in similar contexts of aggression and transgression. This indulgence—indeed celebration—of transgression has been seen by some as an essential feature of Old Comedy, and parallels have been drawn with “carnival” practices in other cultures.

Fantasy. Old Comedy not only transgresses the boundaries of normal social restraint, but of common sense and rationality as well. Compelled to make up their own plots rather than rely on traditional myth, comic playwrights developed a rich and surreal fantasy element. In Wasps (422b.c.e.), where the chorus themselves are half-men and half-wasps, dogs put each other on trial, and even a cheese grater can be called to give evidence. Other plays show similar exuberance of imagination: a chorus of frogs sing of the joys of marsh life, the birds wage war against the gods by besieging the heavens and preventing sacrificial smoke from reaching them, and an ordinary citizen acquires a giant dung beetle on which he flies to Olympus to get Zeus to put an end to the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.). The Ekkleziazousai is along these lines too—women actually exercise political power, which was for contemporary Athenian citizens nothing short of a ludicrous fantasy.


Hecuba, the queen of the defeated Trojans, has been trying to convince Menelaus to kill his unfaithful wife Helen, the cause of so much misery to them both:

Menelaus: Attendants! Bring Helen to the ships to sail home.

Hecuba: Don’t let her sail in the same ship as you.

Menelaus: Why not? Has she put on so much weight?

Source: Euripides, Trojan Women, pp. 1047-1050

Stepping Forward. Structurally, the most important difference between Old Comedy and Tragedy lies in the presence of the parabasis (literally “stepping forward”), when the chorus addresses the audience directly, sometimes

in the persona of their own character (as wasps or birds), other times speaking directly for the poet in the first person. Frequently political and literary references occur in this context, both of which also distinguish the two genres. However differences also existed in production: a comic chorus had twenty-four members (versus twelve then later fifteen for tragedy), and comedy was also able to make use of four speaking actors at once (versus three for tragedy).

The Lênaia. Comedy played a subordinate role in Athens’ main drama festival, the Great (or City) Dionysia, in which five playwrights each offered a single comic play for competition. (Meanwhile there were a total of twelve plays written by three tragedians.) Yet, comedy had the major role in another Athenian festival from about the middle of the fifth century b.c.e., the Lênaia. Held in the middle of winter, this festival was a less cosmopolitan event and attracted fewer foreigners than the Great Dionysia and was also regarded as less important by the tragedians: two tragedians produced two plays each for any Lênaia festival, while the same number of comedians competed as in the larger festival.


Kenneth J. Dover:, Aristophanic Comedy (London: Batsford, 1972).

Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (London: Oxford University Press, 1968).


views updated May 18 2018

com·e·dy / ˈkämədē/ • n. (pl. -dies) professional entertainment consisting of jokes and satirical sketches, intended to make an audience laugh. ∎  a movie, play, or broadcast program intended to make an audience laugh. ∎  the style or genre of such types of entertainment. ∎  the humorous or amusing aspects of something. ∎  a play characterized by its humorous or satirical tone and its depiction of amusing people or incidents, in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity. ∎  the dramatic genre represented by such plays. Compare with tragedy (sense 2).DERIVATIVES: co·me·dic / kəˈmēdik/ adj.


views updated May 21 2018

comedy One of the two main types of drama. It differs from tragedy in its lightness of style and theme and its tendency to resolve happily. It originated in early Greek fertility rites and, in modern usage, refers not only to a humorous play or film, but also to the growing tradition of stand-up routines. As theatre has developed over the centuries, the once clear division between the two dramatic forms has been blurred, as fusions and a variety of sub-divisions of the two have been developed. See also Aristophanes; Greek drama


views updated May 17 2018

comedy professional entertainment consisting of jokes and satirical sketches, intended to make an audience laugh. Recorded from late Middle English (as a genre of drama, also denoting a narrative poem with a happy ending, as in Dante's Divine Comedy), the word comes via Old French and Latin from Greek kōmōidia, from kōmōidos ‘comic poet’, from kōmos ‘revel’ + aoidos ‘singer’.


views updated May 11 2018

comedy †narrative poem with a pleasant ending XIV; †miracle play or interlude with a happy ending XVI; light and amusing play XVII. — (O)F. comédie — L. cōmœdia — Gr. kōmōidíā, f. kōmōidós comic actor, comic poet, f. kômos revel.
So comedian comic writer XVI; comic actor, †stage-player XVII.