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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  • Don Newbury

    Of all who wrote regularly and now are gone, I most miss Erma Bombeck. She brought belly laughs in 400 words or so. Wrote her once, thanking her. She wrote back, a note she no doubt wrote herself (I think it was Underwood upright; I know it was on copy paper that used to be so common in news rooms–and don’t ask me what’s a news room) and I remember her response verbatim, despite the disappearance of four decades since the writing. “Dear Don: Please pardon my delay responding to your letter. I’m further behind with my correspondence than I am with the laundry.) Funny even in a casual note, which, BTW, was signed “Erma,” written with a copy pencil. I’ll stumble across it in my “papers” one day, if I’m fortunate enough to have a few more stumbles….As to you, Caleb, I KNOW you could write humor, because it rolls off your tongue in conversations–stories told well with an economy of words. That’s what troubles most folks…..

    • Caleb Pirtle

      If you have a note from Erma, you have a treasure in your files. She was brilliantly funny, and these are times when we need more humor just to make it through the day, which is why the columns you and Stephen Lang write are so important to me and our readers.

      • Don Newbury

        Thanks so much, Caleb! To be mentioned in the same ‘graph as Stephen Lang is an honor in itself. He’s a brilliant humorist I want to meet one of these days.

  • The relentless pursuit of funny can be exhausting – we keep losing our standup comics and comedians like Robin Williams to the pressures, which drive some of our funny voices to drink and drugs.

    But there should be funny moments in books, softer pieces in all the hardness, or they start to sound like dirges.

    Real life has both – I let those moments into the writing when they come up.

    Think of levity as leaven, to lighten the load.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I think that’s my problem, Alicia. I don’t have enough lighter, softer, or humorous pieces in all of the dark noir. I will change.

  • jack43

    I sat/lay on the gurney in the ambulance wired up like a Christmas tree attempting to elicit a laugh from the EMT who responded with a confused frown. Unfortunately, the stroke had frozen the left side of my body including my mouth and tongue, and my best material emerged in a stream of blather. That’s my way of coping. It seems I share the trait with former President Reagan who joked with surgeons as they wheeled him into the operating room to remove the bullet deposited by a would-be assassin.

    Humor is sacred, laughter golden. Juxtaposing it with tragedy sweetens both. After all, how could we truly appreciate our blessings if we didn’t have curses with which to compare them?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      God bless those who make us laugh in the midst of despair. God help us to try and do the same. Humor, black or otherwise, is the way we all cope with life.

  • It’s no wonder so many comedians suffer with times of despair. I happen to agree with you. Light moments, whether it’s by way of one-liners or a quirky character, does wonders for dark novels.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I should have learned it a long time ago, Sue. I’m just now figuring it out.

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