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Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 2)

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Comedy!   ::   Tragicomedy   ::   Other Forms   ::   Aristotle's Six Elements   ::   Activities


For this lesson, you will need to first read or see a video/dvd of "The Importance of Being Earnest." This play also goes with the acting lessons found in the Performing Arts of Theatre section.

If you've looked at the lesson on Tragedy, I suggested that tragedy should make us feel good, and comedy makes us feel bad. I'm sure you know exactly why tragedy makes us feel good (if you don't remember, you'd better review that lesson!), but why should comedy make us feel bad?

As you recall, tragedy makes us feel good (okay, I've already admitted that this is a leap!) because it shows that human beings can accomplish great things despite what fate puts in their (our) way. Comedy makes us feel bad because it shows us what nincompoops we all are. Laughing at humans doing funny things reminds us that we are stupid fools who make lots of mistakes. Well, aren't we? Okay, okay, maybe you're not, but the rest of us do stupid things all of the time.

Often, if a play ends happily, it is considered a comedy, even if there are no jokes. This is especially true of plays written more than 100 years ago.

Comedy can be divided into two main categories, which can then be subdivided into even small categories. The two main categories are simply High Comedy and Low Comedy. The chart below indicates the very basic differences. It is good to remember that some types of comedy include both or seem to overlap. Hey, it's art!

High Comedy - Deals with "intelligent" ideas. Often requires or is enhanced with intellectual evaluation.
Low Comedy - Deals with ideas that require less thought and evaluation. Often bathroom humor, falling on butt, slipping on banana peels, etc.

Low Comedy

One movie title sums it all up: Dumb and Dumber. Low Comedy is comedy that does not rely on intelligence to be funny. The Three Stooges or anyone else that slips on banana peels, falls down on their butt, gets poked in the eye, gets a pie in the face are executors of Low Comedy.

Lest you think this is a modern phenomenon, be assured that such comedy has existed since the dawn of time. Early forms of low comedy included the Greek Satyr plays, in which characters dressed like satyrs (men on top, goats on the bottom) made dirty jokes and wore giant phalli.

There are a few types of low comedy, including:

  • Farce - A play form that includes a lot of mistaken identities, slapstick humor, bathroom humor, ludicrous situations, etc. Farce is usually fast-paced and relies on actors having good timing and not being afraid of making a buffoon of oneself.
  • Burlesque - A play that lampoons other artistic works, especially theatre.

The odd thing about low comedy is that it can become high comedy, if used intelligently. The ludicrous act of falling on one's bottom, can indeed be intelligent, if used as a symbol, satire or parallelism.

You like low comedy? Well, you're in good company. It's probably the most popular type of comedy around. Think of it next time you laugh and milk comes out of your nose.

High Comedy

I know, I know. You're thinking to yourself, "But I like low comedy. I think it's funny. Who are these invisible, fuddy-duddy scholar- types who say it is "low" compared to some other form of comedy that "they" call "high" comedy?" Maybe you're right. Still, high comedy requires a bit more finesse, and I personally find it much more satisfying. Kind of like oatmeal in the morning: it fills you up.

High comedy is comprised of several subcategories, of which these are probably the most important and recognized:

  • Comedy of Manners - You should have read The Importance of Being Earnest, which most folks consider a comedy of manners. And it is just that: this play makes fun of the manners, or brainless rules, of society. Nearly every bit of humor in the play makes fun of the behavior that was required to live in late Victorian society. The play is still immensely funny today because many of these manners still exist. Comedy of manners is usually full of verbal wit, and it often takes place in upper class society. Comedy of manners is a bit more difficult to find nowadays. However, try watching a Woody Allen film. His films often make fun of societies stupid little "rules."
  • Satire - If you've seen political cartoons, you've probably seen satire. It is sometimes similar to comedy of manners in that it deals with aspects of society, but satire wants its audience to see social problems and perhaps even motivate change. For some great examples of satire, visit the webpage of web-animator Mark Fiore. He has dozens of short little animated films that comment on his perceptions of social ills that need to be fixed.
  • Dark Comedy - This is humor that makes fun of things that are supposed to be held with respect. So making fun of the girl in the wheelchair is usually no-no, unless you want to use dark comedy. However, it often also makes fun of ideas that are sacred or special. Like the Pastor who, with his arm around the new widow as they stand in front of the casket, says, "It's okay. Just think: In a few years, we'll laugh about this." If you laugh at comedy, and feel guilty about it later, it's a good chance it's dark comedy. Dark comedy can often be considered "low" comedy, but since it usually deals with ideas, I like to stick it in the "high" comedy area. Where would you put it?

"High Comedy"

Write your own very short (1 page) play scene that is either a comedy of manners or a satire. 1 page is about how long it will take to get one or two really good jokes in. Have no more than three characters, or you'll get bogged down. Please indicate which of the two types of comedy you are writing. This is a play, and so will look in format like The Importance of Being Earnest. It is NOT a story or poem. Make sure that you include a character's name, the dialogue he or she speaks, and any stage directions needed.

Remember, if your scene is a comedy of manners, it will probably deal with upper class people and make fun of the stupid rules to which they must conform.

If your scene is a satire, it will probably make fun of social leaders, their policies, or of social situations in general.

For more on comedy, check out the Theatre History lesson on "Commedia dell 'arte."

Why Do We Laugh?

What makes funny things funny? Sure, it's funny until someone gets an eye poked out! But what is funny? Why are things funny?

Good question. Here are some thoughts:

  • Incongruity - Things are funny because they don't belong. Think of the President of the United States with a fish on his head. See? The President doesn't belong. The fish is pretty normal until you get a President under him. Then it's funny.
  • The Unexpected - Some things are funny simply because we don't expect them. They could be incongruous, as described above, or they could simply be unexpected. Imagine two gals sitting in a hot tub. One of them says, "Gee, I wish I had a bowl of ice cream." POOF! Suddenly she's holding a bowl of ice cream. Ice cream and hot tubs aren't THAT incongruous, but the suddenness of the ice cream makes it kinda funny.
  • Machines - Some things are funny because even though humans are not machines, we sometimes act like them. When this happens, it can be funny. I remember acting in a scene from Neil Simon's Prisoner of 2nd Avenue. In the play, I was the stressed out protagonist. One funny comic bit I did was to simply pace back and forth like a robot. It may not sound funny, but it was. Watching me go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth while my "wife" was trying to help me solve problems worked really well. She chased me back and forth and it seemed as if nothing would stop me. I was like a machine.
  • Being Something We're Not - Related to the other reasons we laugh as described above, sometimes we laugh simply when someone is something they are not. This is incongruous, for sure, and it can also be unexpected and machine-like. But I like to use it as a whole new category.
  • Distortion - Some things are funny because they are distorted, exaggerated, or manipulated to be funny. On Spongebob Squarepants the other day, an angry squirrel chased a rude starfish out of a room. When the starfish returned, the lower half of his body was fine, but between his shoulders and his head was a trombone that stretched his neck to ludicrous length. I laughed. It was funny.
  • Identification - When we identify with someone else's situation, it could be funny. We see the guy who slips on the ice and falls down, and we laugh—because that's happened to us.

"Why Do We Laugh"

Note an example either from TV, film, a play or from real life of each of the above reasons we laugh. If you laugh at something, note where it fits. Give one example for each of the above descriptions.

Copyright 2008, David Sidwell. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Huh? Theatre? The Basics! (Part 2). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License