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Tragedy plus time equals comedy, or why you shouldn’t trust Wikiquote

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.)

Funny VikingThe 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:
Tragedy to comedy conversion chart
(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.

Wouldn’t it be tragic if you didn’t find yourself reading some of my longer humorous fiction?

Books of Mark A. Rayner

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HT to Renal Failure and Unfinished Rambler for helping me waste time on a Saturday morning. Thanks to Xoxé Tétano for the vintage viking. Banana photo by Andreea Ch from Pexels. Originally posted in June, 2009.


  1. Norwegian Nookie HA!

  2. Frenchie Frier Frenchie Frier

    This begs to be treated humorously, which draws me toward a serious response. According to the commode down the hall from me, humor has it’s roots as a reaction to the unexpected, and a generally more practical reaction to the unexpected than either violence or sorrow. So when you have tragedy that is fresh, I suspect that the sorrow response is just too strong, but given time, humor has time to take over, and with it the sanity that it brings.

  3. Mark A. Rayner Mark A. Rayner

    Humor = sanity. I like it.

  4. I love your comedy-tragedy chart! Did you come up with that? I’d love to include it in a doctoral thesis I’m doing – okay with you? If so, lemme know so I can give you appropriate credit! Thanx. ML+

  5. Oh, I wish I’d designed it. Very funny. I found it at comic vs audience, and there’s a link to it under the chart.

  6. Well Mark, I’m still confused as ever on what is comedy and what is not. All’s I know is people need to lighten up and learn to laugh at themselves!

    Nice post!

  7. AppleJack AppleJack

    My apologies in seeming disruptive, but Wikiquote doesn’t claim Carol Burnett said the phrase in 2004. Instead, the book they have cited was PUBLISHED in 2004. There are books that were published in the very early 90s (and perhaps earlier, I didn’t dig too deeply) that attribute the quote to her as well. Given the frame of time to write/publish a book, I would say people were aware of the quote before the movie came out.

    It’s been additionally attributed to Mark Twain, but I’ve found little other than web rumors to support that, compared to piles of books who say Burnett.

    I just don’t want you to claim something so strongly when it can very possibly (and perhaps probably) be incorrect based on a misreading of a citation.

  8. As I said, I am happy to let wiser heads sort it out. But even if Burnett said it in the 90s, the Woody Allen film predates it. (It came out in 1989, and would have been in script form earlier.) However, given that Lester says it, I’d be willing to bet it was a hackneyed phrase even then.

    “If it bends, it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny.”

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