Definition of Comedy

Comedy is a form of entertainment meant to be humorous, whether in literature, television, film, or stand-up. The goal of most comedy examples is to induce laughter in the audience. There are many different forms of comedy, such as screwball comedy, black comedy, innuendo, parody, satire, pun, comedy of manners, romantic comedy, farce, burlesque, sarcasm, dramatic irony, and self-deprecation. Different forms of comedy are more popular in different cultures and in different eras.

The word comedy comes from the Greek word κωμῳδία (kōmōidía), which originally meant a play with a happy ending. Etymologically, the word was formed as a compound of κώμη (kṓmē), meaning “village,” and ᾠδή (ōidḗ), which meant “singing.” Thus, even before it referred to the popular type of play, comedy was simple a village revel. Over time the word slowly began to take on the humorous connotation that we know it as now. In the Middle Ages, a comedy was expected to produce laughter.

Common Examples of Comedy

There are countless examples of stand-up comics, as well as examples of comedy in film and television that are a part of popular culture. Here are some examples of comedy:

  • Jerry Seinfeld, on airplane travel:

“They show you how to use the seatbelt, in case you haven’t been in a car since 1965. ‘Oh, you lift up on the buckle! Oh! I was trying to break the metal apart. I thought that’s how it works.’”

  • “The Simpsons”, season 5

Homer: ”Your old meat made me sick!”
Apu: “I’m so sorry. Please accept 5lb of frozen shrimp”
Homer: “This shrimp isn’t frozen! And it smells funny!”
Apu: “Okay, 10lb”
Homer: “Woohoo!”

  • “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

Sir Bedevere: What makes you think she’s a witch?
Peasant 3: Well, she turned me into a newt!
Sir Bedevere: A newt?
Peasant 3: [meekly after a long pause] … I got better.
Crowd: [shouts] Burn her anyway!

The satirical news site The Onion is famous for its comedic take on different situations. Here are some of The Onion’s most famous headlines:

  • CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years
  • Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews
  • Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

Significance of Comedy in Literature

The definition of comedy has changed over the millennia. In Ancient Greek theater, dramas were classified as comedies if they showed a struggle between the societal norms that older people held to, and the younger people who tried to thwart these norms, often with examples of dramatic irony. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described comedy as an imitation of men who are worse than average, whereas a tragedy depicts men who are better than average.

In Shakespeare’s time, a comedy often included humor but more generally referred to a play in which characters get married rather than murdered in the end. Shakespeare’s comedies are more light-hearted than his tragedies, though sometimes there are moments of levity in his tragedies.

In Shakespearean comedies, as well as many other comedy examples, the characters end up in a better situation at the end than they were at the beginning, whereas in tragedies the characters end up worse than in the beginning (including ending up dead). However, the comedy definition continues to change its meaning and function, especially absurdist plays and narratives in which things do not change much for the characters at all or even get worse (such as in the television series “Seinfeld” or in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). There are many different understandings and meanings of humor in different cultures and throughout the ages.

Examples of Comedy in Literature

Example #1

COUNTESS: Marry, that’s a bountiful answer that fits all
CLOWN: It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks,
the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn
buttock, or any buttock.
COUNTESS: Will your answer serve fit to all questions?
CLOWN: As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney,
as your French crown for your taffeta punk, as Tib’s
rush for Tom’s forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove
Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his
hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding queen
to a wrangling knave, as the nun’s lip to the
friar’s mouth, nay, as the pudding to his skin.

(All’s Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare)

Many of Shakespeare’s plays are considered comedies because of the subject matter and how they end. Indeed, the name of All’s Well that Ends Well indicates that it will be a comedy because it ends well. However, there are also many very funny moments within the play meant to make the audience laugh. Shakespeare had a particular fondness of bawdy humor, which we can see in the dialogue between the Countess and the Clown. They both use innuendo and break taboos to incite laughter in the audience.

Example #2

JACK: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON: Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK: I say it’s perfectly heartless you’re eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.

(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde was a humorous author who is noted for many funny quotes, such as this quote from the same play: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” In the above scene, however, there’s a bit of screwball comedy as two grown men fight over muffins, Jack eventually grabbing the muffin away from Algernon.

Example #3

“What ho!” I said.
“What ho!” said Motty.
“What ho! What ho!”
“What ho! What ho! What ho!”
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

(“Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” by P. G. Wodehouse)

P.G. Wodehouse is famous for his sense of of humor. The above quote shows his sense of the ridiculous and lightly absurd social conventions. Wodehouse has a very dry British wit in his writing.

Example #4

“Why did you walk around with crab apples in your cheeks? Yossarian asked again. “That’s what I asked.”

“Because they’ve got a better shape than horse chestnuts,” Orr answered. “I just told you that.”

“Why,” swore Yossarian at him approvingly, “you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?”

“I didn’t,” Orr said, “walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn’t get crab apples, I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks.”

(Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)

There are numerous examples of absurd humor in Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel Catch-22. In a dialogue of tautology, the protagonist Yossarian tries to understand why his bunkmate Orr talks about walking around with crab apples in his cheeks. The humor is in Yossarian’s frustration that Orr is talking in nonsensical circles.

Example #5

“Yes – yes, good point, Petunia! What were you doing under our window, boy?”
“Listening to the news,” said Harry in a resigned voice.
His aunt and uncle exchanged looks of outrage.
“Listening to the news! Again?”
“Well, it changes every day, you see,” said Harry.

(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling used numerous examples of sarcasm in her Harry Potter series. The exchange between Harry and his aunt and uncle shows how he uses humor to deal with the difficult situation of having to live with them and be separated from his magical community.

Test Your Knowledge of Comedy

1. Which type of person did Aristotle say that comedy was supposed to depict?
A. Men better than average.
B. Men who are about average.
C. Men worse than average.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following scenarios is likely to occur at the end of a Shakespearean comedy?
A. Many characters get married.
B. Many characters get murdered.
C. Younger characters rebel against societal norms that older characters hold to.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following is not considered an example of comedy?
A. Farce
B. Idiom
C. Parody

Answer to Question #3 Show

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