Warning: while this post may be about comedy, don’t expect it to be comic.
I would consider the quote “comedy is tragedy plus time” an old saw, but it’s still an interesting idea. Could every tragedy become funny, given enough time? The British comedian David Mitchell seems to think so. (His video rant, which tries to explain why Vikings raping and pillaging in the Dark Ages is funny, but the Soviet takeover of Berlin in 1945 isn’t yet, is embedded below.)
The quote should really be, tragedy plus time allows for comedy. Depending on how you portray events, you can still achieve either a laugh or tears, and sometimes both. That’s what art is all about, right? But can you imagine taking a scene say, Schindler’s List, and turning that into a rip-roaring farce? Wait, no! Don’t even try to imagine it, because, as they say in another cliché: “it’s too soon. ” You can make jokes about Nazis (not much fun in Stalingrad), but please, no jokes about their atrocities. Personally, genocide strikes me as one of those events that is impossible to turn into comedy, no matter how long ago it happened. (But perhaps I’m not really trying. Maybe there is some good humor to be had in the Church’s elimination of the Cathars, for example.)
Proto-goth and journeyman of the bon mot, Horace Walpole once wrote to a friend, “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
I think I like that quote even more, because it gets to the heart of the difference between the two. Of course, it may be that I remember the quote: “Comedy is tragedy plus time” as coming out of the pie-hole of Alan Alda’s character (the abrasive Lester) in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and not from Carol Burnett, as the Wikiquote would have us believe. (Crimes & Misdemeanors was a 1989 Woody Allen film, and Burnett’s quote is attributed in 2004 in Wikiquote. I’ll let wiser heads sort the provenance out.)
I definitely don’t agree with Lenny Bruce, who said: “Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.” The beauty of satire is that you can go for it right away. It might not get any laughs if it’s too early though.
Of course, none of these sharp observations are as funny as Mel Brook’s 2000-Year-Old Man (1961): “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
If you’re still looking for help on this one, you may find the tragedy-to-comedy conversion chart useful:
(via Comics vs Audience)
Now, as promised, here’s Mitchell on why the Vikings aren’t funny. I do agree with him on one thing for sure: the Vikings didn’t wear horns on the helmets.