We just finished reading Macbeth in English, and it made me think back to reading Romeo and Juliet last year. One of the major issues we discussed in that play was whether it was a tragedy or comedy. What is interesting to me is how one piece of writing can be rightfully argued as two genres that are about as opposite as they can be. There are plenty of essays with compelling evidence for either side even today, hundreds of years later.
We prepared for this essay with sheet that listed the elements of comedy and the elements of tragedy so we could analyze the play using those to help us make our decision. I remember having a very tough time choosing because both seemed right when I was actively searching for each element.
I do want to clarify one thing: comedy doesn’t always mean laughing until you can’t breathe, especially not in Shakespeare’s time. When people argue this play as a comedy, they are not saying that it’s comparable to modern sit-coms or comedic plays of this generation. They are analyzing the play from a technical point of view. In a tragedy, something specific usually happens to the main character, and in a comedy, something different usually happens. So even if you didn’t find Romeo and Juliet a knee slapper, you can still argue it as a comedy.
With all of that being said I think it’s really interesting how a shift in perspective can turn something from a tragedy into a comedy or vice versa. If you look at the same story from a different angle, your whole perception of it can change. With some more analyzing and my love of sit-coms, I have found that this principle holds true with a lot of comedy shows today. If you take the most basic summary of the show, and say it, it can go either way. What makes these shows funny are oftentimes the delivery of the lines and the fact that the readers know it’s a comedy. Even the shows that have jokes in their scripts and are clearly funny could be argued either way at its most basic level:
Master of None– This is a Netflix comedy created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. Oftentimes, the humor in this show is created by situational humor, rather than jokes in the script. The show does cover a lot of heavy material such as racism in the media, but the reason that people find it funny and not more like a drama is because they know it’s a comedy so the look for and pay more attention to the comedic elements rather than the serious ones. With a few tweaks in production, this is one of those shows that could easily be a drama (at least the first half of the season) because the subject matter is pretty heavy and you probably would not find very many jokes if you read the script–it’s all about the way the script was delivered.
The next shows I am going to talk about don’t follow that format, but I still think it’s interesting how the one-sentence idea of the show can be read different ways, even though it is not directly related to my point about Shakespeare. Just read:
Speechless–An ABC comedy created by Scott Silveri. This is about a boy who has a mental disorder that costs him the ability to speak. The show focuses on how he lives his life without speaking, and how his family tries to help him.
The Office (American version)–An NBC comedy adapted for American TV by Greg Daniels (originally on BBC created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant). This is essentially about a boss at a paper company who desperately wants to befriend his employees and fit in with everyone at his office. Once he leaves the show, it becomes about employees living their lives at a paper company.
The Mindy Project–A formerly FOX and currently Hulu comedy created by Mindy Kaling. This show is about an Ob/Gyn who is single and desperately trying to settle down, find love, and get married.
This probably isn’t profound at all–just something that is hitting me right now. But if you read what each show is about, it does not sound like a comedy. Speechless and The Mindy Project sound like dramas, and The Office sounds sad and kind of boring (which is so hard for me to write because it is my favorite show of all time). But they are all hilarious. The Office and The Mindy Project has scripts that will make you laugh out loud because of the amount of jokes in them, and Speechless has funny scripts but a lot of what makes it funny is the stage direction and the delivery of the lines.
I even remember watching a panel discussion of The Mindy Project because I love the show, and the cast went down the line and talked about their favorite romantic comedies. I found it funny how a cast member would sometimes name a film, and someone else would argue it as a drama, because they focused on different aspects of the movies and looked for different elements of “tragedy” and comedy. The same movie, with a different perspective, can be taken in such different ways, even when we are given more than just the script. Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but I find it fascinating.