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The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel.
What is comedy? Much written on tragedy, but defining the comic is more difficult. One
definition: The comic is the product of a perceived incongruity between a subjectmatter/issue/situation/topic and its treatment/expression.
Low Comedy: lacks seriousness of purpose or subtlety of manner and has little intellectual
appeal—quarrelling, fighting, noisy singing, boisterous conduct in general, boasting,
burlesque, trickery; buffoonery, clownishness, drunkenness, coarse jesting, wordplay, and
High Comedy: Pure or serious comedy—appeals to the intellect and arouses thoughtful laughter
by exhibiting the inconsistencies and incongruities of human nature and by displaying the
follies of social manners.
Burlesque: Form of comedy characterized by ridiculous exaggeration and distortion. The
sublime may be absurd, honest emotions may be turned to sentimentality, a serious
subject may be treated frivolously or a frivolous subject seriously
Farce: A light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot, exaggerated character, and often
slapstick elements are used for humorous effect.
Lampoon: A broad satirical piece that uses ridicule to attack a person or group
Parody: A composition imitating or burlesquing another, usually serious, piece of work.
Designed to ridicule in nonsensical fashion an original piece of work. Parody is in
literature what the caricature and cartoon are in art.
Satire: Holding up to ridicule the follies and vices of a people or time
Slapstick: Boisterous form of comedy marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes
Travesty: Presents a serious (often religious) subject frivolously—reduces everything to its
lowest level.
**NOTE—TRAVESTY, BURLESQUE & PARODY are similar, but travesty always makes a
mockery of a serious subject, whereas burlesque and parody may do the reverse.
The Comedic Ladder
by Brenden Kenney—College Board Consultant
Comedy of Ideas
 Characters argue about ideas like politics, religion, sex, marriage;
 Characters use their wit and their clever language to mock their opponent in an argument;
 Subtle way to satirize people and institutions like political parties, governments, churches,
war, marriage
Comedy of Manners
 Amorous intrigues (love affairs) among the upper classes
 Focus is on witty language, clever speech; insults and ‘putdowns’ are traded between
 Society is often made up of cliques that are exclusive with certain groups as the in-crowd,
with everyone else on the peripheral
 Plot is full of coincidences, mistimings, mistaken identities;
 Characters are puppets of fate—they are twins, born to the wrong class, unable to marry, too
poor, too rich;
 Loss of identity because of birth, fate or accident;
 Sometimes they are twins separated unaware of their double
Low Comedy
 Dirty jokes, dirty gestures, sex and elimination are subjects of the humor;
 Exaggeration or understatement are the extremes of the humor with a focus on physical like
long noses, cross eyes, humped back and deformities;
 Slapstick, pratfalls, loud noises, physical mishaps, collisions are part of the humor of man
encountering an uncooperative universe
The Difference between COMEDY AND TRAGEDY
Hero involved
Catharsis (purging of pity and fear)
Metaphysical order
Importance of the soul
Assumption that “words mean what they
Focuses on psychological truth (realism,
Marriage, feasting, babies
Hero aloof
Laughter (purges inhibitions)
Accidental (spontaneous) autonomous
Self-conscious (body) “to be human is
inherently funny”
Meaningless in our attempts to
communicate. Language is fallible.
Everything can also mean its opposite
(fantasy, dreams, surrealism, romanticism)
1. Comedy is based on irony.
1. Awareness of irony is an intellectual, not emotional process
2. Comedy lifts us out of our emotional responses
3. With emotional defenses down, our mind can see the need for change in a
comic character.
4. Typically the comic character is blind to his misperceptions but repeats the
rigid behavior.
5. Good comedy allows us to feel superior to the characters.
6. Despite our superior position, we see similarities between the comic
characters and ourselves.
7. We sense our own rigidity and blindness are like the comic fool’s and note
the laughter the comic fool arouses.
8. Comedy acts as a way to change the individual or the society using laughter.
9. Satire, ridicule, burlesque often work in the service of change.
10. Comedy uses exaggeration, understatement, role reversal and generally the
devices of irony to make us laugh and compare.
Caricature: A representation in which the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated
to produce a comic or grotesque effect
Colloquialism: Use of slang or informal language—includes regional dialect
Deflation: An object either assumes or is given elevated status and then is treated in such as way that estimation of
the object decreases.
Disparagement: To speak of in a slighting way; belittle; reduce in rank or esteem
Euphemism: a more agreeable or less offensive substitute for a generally unpleasant word or concept
Hyperbole: Exaggeration or overstatement.
Incongruity: A surprising contrast occurring through situation, image, allusion, character, diction, anachronism, etc.
Invective: Harsh, abusive language directed against a person or cause. Invective is a vehicle, a tool of anger.
Invective is the bitterest of all satire.
 Verbal irony: Discrepancy between what is stated explicitly and what is really meant
 Situational irony: Discrepancy between what is expected and reality
 Dramatic irony: Discrepancy between what the reader or audience knows and what a character knows
Knaves & Fools: In comedy there are no villains and no innocent victims. Instead, there are rogues (knaves) and
suckers (fools). The knave exploits someone “asking for it”. When these two interact, comic satire results.
When knaves & fools meet, they expose each other.
Litotes: A form of understatement in which a thing is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite. For example,
“She’s not uninterested in boys” to mean she’s boy crazy is to use litotes
Malapropism: An inappropriateness of speech resulting from the use of one word for another which resembles it.
The term is derived from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, the Sheridan’s The Rivals, who was constantly giving
vent to such expressions as: “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”
Non-sequitur: Inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premise or evidence.
Oxymoron: A group of apparently contradictory terms suggesting a paradox—i.e. Jumbo shrimp
Paradox: A statement that appears to be self-contradictory or opposed to common sense but upon closer inspection
contains some degree of truth or validity
Parody: A work that closely imitates the style or content of another with the specific aim of comic effect and/or
Pun (Zeugma): A play on words based on the similarity of sound between two words with different meanings
Sarcasm: An exaggerated form of verbal irony; bitter, caustic language that is meant to hurt or ridicule someone or
something. The term came from the Greek word “sarkazein” which means “to tear flesh.”
Stereotyping: A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image
Understatement: when the literal sense of what is said falls detectably short of (or under) the magnitude of what is
being talked about. When someone says “pretty fair” but means “splendid,” that is clear understatement
Wit: While this term has more specific uses in Renaissance and 17 th century writing, for modern works, it generally
refers to clever uses of language to arouse laughter