First Law of Tragicomedies
"In any work that has both drama and comedy, the drama will rise proportionally with the level of tension in the story. The comedy will do the reverse."
A "tragicomedy" (better known as a "dramedy") is a mix of lighter and darker material that uses humor to lighten the tension and drama as a way to show the audience that something serious is going on. This is a difficult balancing act to carry out, and only a few shows have ever done it successfully.
In the worst cases, however, over the course of a series of books, films, television episodes, or other media, the subject might start out mainly comedy, switch to dramedy at about the halfway point, then continue to become darker and less comedic until beloved characters start getting wiped out with frightening regularity. Fans are then more justified in complaining that the series Jumped the Shark with a genre Bait and Switch.
To prevent this, a show might intentionally keep all the high-tension drama for climaxes and action scenes, while saving all the comedy for the filler moments when nothing too important is actually going on. Other times, outright comedy will be added to an otherwise work of straight tragedy.
If it does this by pushing comedic characters Out of Focus or having them Put on a Bus, that's Shoo Out the Clowns. If the work frequently shifts between tragedy and comedy without warning, that's Mood Whiplash. If the actual plot has jumped the tracks and gone in a completely different direction, it's Halfway Plot Switch - the trope on this page only applies a tone change.
- Lampshaded in The Slayers, when a comedic moment happens in the middle of the dramatic battle against the Big Bad. When the funny is over, a character breaks the Fourth Wall to explain that the show had gotten a little too dramatic, so the funny moment had to happen.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann veers sharply into drama after episode sixteen, presses that throttle down, and then abruptly releases it for the last three episodes... only to slam it back down for its ending. Viewers were sharply divided.
- Mahou Sensei Negima does a good job with this once the Cerebus Syndrome kicks in, with the heavily dramatic moments more or less balanced out by comedic moments.
- Cowboy Bebop had Ed and Ein do a quick fade any time the plot took a dark turn—their presence equaled comedy. They left the show two episodes before the Bittersweet Ending.
- Chrono Crusade starts out as a fun action-adventure show with supernatural elements. Although there's hints of a darker tone from the start (the main characters are fighting demons, after all), the ending takes a stark turn for the dramatic after a climatic battle at a festival midway through the series. The manga keeps enough comedic moments in the series that it might be closer to Mood Whiplash, but the anime heads full throttle into deep, dark tragedy until it heads straight into an infamous Tear Jerker ending. In both versions, The Hero Dies at the end of the series.
- Fullmetal Alchemist averts this by having silly moments amongst the dramatic ones; impressive in that the story of it is possibly darker than the 2003 anime version, which played it straight with the last batch of episodes dropping the humor altogether.
- Elfen Lied is one of the darker tragicomedies. It does have its silly moments, such as when Nyu is awake early on in the manga, but then becomes even darker after the point where the anime cuts off, where Kakuzawa initiates the final part of his plan to take over the world by infecting the population with the Diclonius virus. Appropriately enough, the comedy portion of the manga is left in the omakes, which is not canon.
Comic Books[edit | hide]
- Bone starts out with characters right out of a cartoon short before they get caught up in epic fantasy. There's elements of both at all points of the story, but notably more silliness in the beginning and more of the epic stuff at the end.
- Notably averted in Justice League International, the classic Giffen-DeMatteis run, with the story arc "Breakdowns." As the name might suggest, "Breakdowns" was one of the darkest times in the entire history of the Justice League, in any of its incarnations. It was also hysterically funny.
- In The Muppet Christmas Carol, Gonzo and Rizzo (the comic relief Narrator and the comic relief Greek Chorus, respectively) disappear after the arrival of The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come... but not before a little Lampshade Hanging:
Rizzo: I don't think I can watch any more!
Gonzo: When you're right, you're right. (Turning to face the audience:) You're on your own, folks. We'll meet you at the finale!
- Shaun of the Dead does this to good effect.
- Click, an Adam Sandler movie, fits this trope to a T. It starts out as a film with a guy who uses a magical remote to see a jogger's boobs jiggle in slow-mo, and begins a little more dramatic when he accidentally jumps one year ahead, but still had plenty of comedy. When he jumps ahead, he's there corporeally, but not mentally, he's basically zoned out, on "auto-pilot", so his social life falls apart, but for some reason he's a great architect. Then he jumps ten years into the future, where his wife left him, and he's severely overweight. It just goes straight into drama, leaving comedy in the dust when he jumps past his father's death, and then comes into his own. But then say hello to comedy after the climax it was All Just a Dream, or it was time travelled away, take your pick.
- Good Morning Vietnam
- In Bruges, although the tragic elements are there from the beginning, and there is still a bit of comedy left towards the end.
- Art School Confidential was billed as a comedy, and it holds to this, for about a half hour, after which point it finds it has exhausted its source material and can no longer sustain anything resembling humor, and then it just becomes more and more depressing as it tries to become a subversive Mind Screw, without really understanding some of the fundamental trappings of the Mind Screw (for example, first you must acknowledge that your audience has a mind before you try to mess with it).
- Do the Right Thing: While not a total comedy, the film features many slice of life comedic moments peppered between racial tensions... before a giant riot occurs over the death of a local black youth. Trash can flying ensues.
- The musical Camelot with Richard Burton does this amazingly well. The movie starts out as a light-hearted comedy, then very gradually gets darker leading to an inevitable, heart-wrenching conclusion. The high point is Burton/Arthur's reprisal of the lighthearted title song from the beginning, now sung dramatically, and his agony at the line, "For one brief shining moment!"
- The Cable Guy (most notable for starring Jim Carrey) starts out as a comedy about a man and his goofy cable guy, and evolves into a disturbing thriller about a man and his criminally insane stalker cable guy.
- The soundtrack for Edward Scissorhands is divided into two "acts" precisely because of this trope - it starts out rather sunnily, but begins to move down a darker path as Edward falls in love with Kim (and rejects Joyce's advances). Once Edward participates in the house robbery, the comedy gradually drains from the film altogether.
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (a fairly faithful adaptation of an Edward Albee play of the same name) fits this. One troper has described it as "a movie that starts out as a dark comedy then gets darker and darker until it's not even a comedy any more." There are still jokes all the way through, but they get increasingly nasty and bitter.
- Tropic Thunder, of all movies, has all three lead characters be crippled by questions of identity and self-worth while the climax is going down. It doesn't last too long, but it's very strange for a wacked-out Ben Stiller farce which earlier on had the lead character wearing a panda's head like a hat.
- The majority of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is played for comedy, but it becomes dramatic towards the end with the whale hunters and the return to the future. The beginning of the film when the probe reaches Earth and the crew heads back in time is also played mostly seriously.
- Stranger Than Fiction. The trailer lied.
- City of Craftsmen is a Russian film about peaceful people opposing the invaders who occupy their city. The film alternates between deadly serious scenes and total slapstick.
- For example, in the climax the citizens, which secretly armed themselves before, start fighting with the soldiers. We see many being killed with swords and spears, on both sides. This culminates in battle in which both the leader of the invaders and the leader of La Résistance die. Then the resistance leader comes Back From the Dead, and we are treated to the fight where citizen totally pwn the invaders with large spoons, brooms, frying pans, and the like.
- While the book doesn't fit this trope, and the film is pretty cynical overall, A Scanner Darkly's film adaptation was rather lighthearted for the first 53 minutes. Then Luckman collapses. Things get progressively darker after that.
Literature[edit | hide]
- Catch-22, despite being hilarious as a whole, becomes increasingly dark as the story progresses, eventually throwing out all comedy in one of the final chapters. Subverted in some ways, considering that before it gets truly horrific, many of the moments of comedy could, if observed objectively, be taken for equally horrifying. This suggests that the increasingly serious tone and likewise decrease in jokes is more an intentional device of the writer and not a direct consequence of the trope.
- This is the course taken by the increasingly dark Harry Potter series. Also, each individual volume internally features this: if Harry's alone, facing his destiny, it'll be deadly serious. If he's with his friends, someone will crack a joke at some point.
- This has now reached the point where the trailers of Harry Potter movies strikingly resemble a preview of a horror film.
- Everything Is Illuminated. It's rather pronounced in the film.
- The Invisible Man starts out as a lighthearted comedy but takes a darker turn halfway through.
- M*A*S*H is the ultimate example of this trope in American pop culture. Its reputation veered from being among the zaniest of zany sitcoms (by the standards of the time) to Tear Jerker-a-minute episodes vying with All Quiet on the Western Front for the title of "most depressing anti-war screed ever".
- One great example, and probably a turning point for the series in this regard, was the episode with Henry Blake's departure, which is filled with corny in-jokes about the guy and his history on the show right up until the abrupt, heart-rending, soul-crushing last-minute surprise.
- Although there was plenty of serious stuff in MASH early on—take Sometimes You Hear The Bullet. The main difference is in the (dis)integration of the elements rather than the amount of either: in the early days comedy and tragedy often happened back-to-back in the same situation, whereas in later years episodes would often feature distinct "funny" and "serious" plotlines.
- Parodied on one episode of Futurama, where iHawk (a robot expy of Hawkeye) actually has a switch on his side that goes from "irreverent" to "maudlin".
- The first twenty or so minutes of any Scrubs episode will be hilarious; the rest will be depressing.
- Which kinda makes sense, considering the doctors are trying to avoid the unbearable soul-crushingly inevitable depression of their jobs by focusing on the lighter moments. Only when they have to confront the bad stuff do they actually lose their humor.
- Stargate SG-1 episode "Window of Opportunity" is very funny in almost every scene—with the exception of the very dramatic climax.
- "Urgo" is pretty much the same way (and when the climax ends, the humor comes back).
- You know you're watching Supernatural when, apart from the one or two Breather Episodes they do a season, the episodes have about ten minutes worth of cracky fun and the other thirty is laced with a deep
- Tyler Perry's House Of Payne has a tendency towards this which changes depending on which character is in the spotlight at the moment.
- Joss Whedon's raison d'etre: Buffy and Firefly contain frequent switches in tone between comedy and drama/tragedy frequently - some episodes will be extremely comedic in tone, some almost completely without humour and terribly bleak. Almost every episode of both shows will generally contain elements of both. Whedon particulary delights in cutting straight from comedy to tearjerkers and vice versa (for instance, in Firefly Mal tells Simon that Kaylee is dead. Cue slow-mo run to her bedside, accompanied by desolate strings on the soundtrack. Kaylee's fine. Mal's psychotic. Everyone splits their sides at Simon's expense). In Buffy, in keeping with the trope described on this page, the lighter subplots and snappy dialogue tends to fall away a lot as seasons near their climax.
- Doctor Who is a good example. It relies a lot on witty dialog and funny jokes, but it also knows how to make things serious in particularly epic and/or sad moments.
- Little Shop of Horrors fits this law, though the film adaptation does not.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Inverted by William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, one of the earliest tragicomedies. The first half is a gloomy, melodramatic, and heartbreaking tragedy of a king who wrongfully suspects his wife of infidelity. Then a guy gets eaten by a bear, and it becomes a pastoral romantic comedy.
- In fact, the term "tragicomedy" was originally coined to describe plays that started out like tragedies but ended with redemption and reconciliation instead of Kill'Em All. Two of Shakespeare's younger contemporaries, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, were particularly well known for their tragicomedies, and for a time the form was so popular that some of Shakespeare's darker tragedies were given Lighter and Softer revisions with happier endings.
- Up until Act III, and aside from the opening, Romeo and Juliet is essentially a Romantic Comedy.
- The musical 1776 follows a similar arc. It begins comedically, then darkens; and while it has a happy ending, it has to travel through some very dark territory to get there.
- A lot of light-hearted operas (e.g. La Boheme, Don Giovanni, La Traviata or pretty much any opera in the "fallen woman" genre, etc.) take a dive toward the dramatic in the final act. Mozart himself said that any good comic opera needs at least one seria (read: dramatic opera) character or arc.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street starts off as a Black Comedy, though the end is not very funny.
Video Games[edit | hide]
- Nie R is a generally grim adventure with what can only be described as Wham-packed, but it also has a vast number of optional sidequests with truly hilarious developments and resolutions. Even during the main plotline, the banter between the main character, Deadpan Snarker Weiss, and foul-mouthed Kaine can get riotously funny.
- While Conkers Bad Fur Day is mostly a very funny game there are some grim moments breaking through the facade. While before this is mostly cruelty against minor characters, this falls back on Conker himself in the ending. After all the time Conker was searching for his girlfriend, he finally finds her only to lose her, perhaps even twice: Not only does she seem quite aloof and not very happy to see him, she also dies at the end. Afterwards, he gets a chance to wish her back to life, but just momentarily forgets about her. In the end he is "King of all the lands", but ultimately without any of the happiness that his wealth should afford him. He gives an epic monologue on materialism ending with "The grass is always greener, and you don't really know what it is you have until it's gone...gone...gone...". At the end we see him in the Tavern again, alone and drinking, afterwards waggling off in an uncertain future.
Web Comics[edit | hide]
- Sluggy Freelance tends to be especially obvious with this trope.
Zoe: Was that supposed to be a joke? This is no time for jokes!
Riff: Sorry, my angst-train derailed for a minute there. Die, Kizke, die!
- Also note that K'Z'K was at least once defeated by puns.
- From Chapter 5 on, every page of Gunnerkrigg Court featured commentary (usually quite wry) by the author below the comic. In Chapter 16, just before the plot's excursion into Psychological Horror territory, the comments abruptly stopped. When several fans complained about the missing commentary, Tom replied,
"Page notes will return when the chapter stops being about dead people. Come on."
- The Order of the Stick subverts this and manages to have a joke (or five) in almost every strip, no matter how plot critical. Somehow it does this without undermining either the comedy or the drama. About the least amount of comedy that you can get is this and this. (Spoiler Warning: both comics feature the deaths of major characters.)
- Excuse me. I must present the single darkest strip in the entirety of the comic.
- The Walkyverse usually follows this law to a T. Also subverted/lampshaded by the author, David Willis, by stating that "before we can proceed [with the excessive drama], this strip needs an EMERGENCY BATMAN INFUSION!"
- Also noticeably spoofed with - well, you know those little plastic tabs on battery-operated toys? Where the battery won't work until you pull it? Robin pulls a tag marked "Drama".
- Everyday Heroes also plays this trope straight. The first few chapters showed a superhero treating crime-fighting like a regular 9-to-5 job, and his super-powered daughter trying to be a normal high school student. Then we get a flashback into Jane's past, and all of a sudden her boss is a Complete Monster and her best friend gets Stuffed Into the Fridge. More recent chapters have lightened up and brought back the comedy.
- Homestuck plays around with this. At the beginning, it's a zany story about a somewhat dimwitted nerdy kid running around his house doing random things with his quirky clown-obsessed father while his friend manipulated his house through a computer game, to his dismay. Then it turns out the game is an Artifact of Doom bringing about the apocalypse, but the comic still stays funny. Fast-forward a few Acts, and the Comedic Sociopath Punch Clock Villain with a distaste for the silly costumes his superiors make him wear has become a Complete Monster who massacres countless Redshirts. That's pretty dark, but there are still plenty of jokes to be heard. Eventually, though, major characters start dropping like flies, and there's often very little humor for long stretches. However, even when things are extremely serious, the comic often delights in treating them like jokes, and its moments of genuine lightheartedness never go away completely, coming back especially in force at the beginning of Act 6. (Not that this puts a damper on the seriousness at all)
- This has given rise to the meme of "MS Pain Adventures", an edited image deliberately ramping up the grimdark by putting the main characters on a battlefield drenched with blood, as well another of the words "Kids and Fun!" pasted over scenes of death and destruction.
Web Original[edit | hide]
- The Saga of Tuck also follows this to a T: when Tuck is beaten and left near death Stuffed Into a Locker, all the cracking wise grinds to a halt until he's out of the hospital. This annoyed a few fans who accused it of Cerebus Syndrome.
- Doctor Horribles Sing Along Blog does this, complete with downer ending, though YMMV.
- Almost totally averted by The Venture Brothers. The jokes almost never stop, no matter how serious things get. Word of God claims it actually ruined an intended Moral Event Horizon - The Monarch once put a hooker through a death course, making references to shows like Lost. The creators intended this to be his big creepy Moral Event Horizon, but people just found it hilarious. Otherwise, it's done very well.
- Similar to Cowboy Bebop's varying levels of Ed and Ein, Avatar used Momo. If Momo is around, the plot is generally going to be funny, or at least lighthearted. When things go all life-and-death and serious, Momo is nowhere to be found.
- Subverted in Adventure Time on the "Holly Jolly Secrets" episode. We're learning the big secret revealing a recurring anatagonist, the Ice King, as a Tragic Villain. Literally right after this, Jake tries to humorously say, "drama booomb~!" but the comedy is just not there, not for the audience or any other characters. The rest of the episode following that has at least one other joke, and it's mixed in with what is supposed to be an odd mix of tragedy and heartwarming.