How do you write a story that has elements of both comedy and tragedy?
Plenty of those in the film industry have offered their commentary on the dichotomy between comedy and tragedy. Charlie Chaplin once said, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." Carol Burnett said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Even Aristotle speaks about these literary elements in Poetics. So, clearly the two are closely linked, but how have screenwriters used this relationship to create stories that are equally hilarious and heart-wrenching?
In this video essay, Jack Nugent of Now You See It explores the delicate dance between tragedy and comedy, how the two intermingle to not only expose and intensify one another but to expose and intensify the emotion of the audience as well.
There are films that are tragic, there are films that are comedic, but the films that blend both of these literary elements seamlessly are known as tragicomedies. Some of your favorite films might be tragicomedies: Lars and the Real Girl, About Schmidt, and pretty much every film Wes Anderson has ever made. The film that Nugent explores in the video is directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Little Miss Sunshine, a depressingly uplifting tale written by screenwriter Michael Arndt about a family of losers finding victory in their loser-y-ness.
Nugent unpacks many of the tragic and comedic elements of this quintessential tragicomedy in order to find out how they work together to make the film so powerful. It's sad and makes you cry. It's funny and makes you laugh. It has a quasi-happy ending where the characters get a resolution, but not quite the one they were looking for.
But it's not just about laughing and crying. There's something very unique about this genre; this special burn that the tragedy gives to the comedy, this special light that the comedy gives the tragedy. Little Miss Sunshine manages to tackle very real horrors, like death, suicide, and even the sexualization of children by using comedy to soften the blow. The comedy allows viewers to open themselves up, to become vulnerable enough to empathize with tragic moments and characters.
Think about it: a young son watching his father march toward his death in a Nazi concentration camp is tragic; no one would argue otherwise. But the sting is felt so much deeper when Roberto Benigni's character Guido from Life is Beautiful does this in a comedic way.
Or this: a young man tries to kill himself in his mother's bathroom; there's nothing funny about that. However, when Luke Wilson does this in The Royal Tenenbaums it's a very strange and uncomfortable scene to watch, because up until this point his character, as well as the film, has been more funny than anything else. Even his statement, "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow," is a darkly comedic declaration to make.
So, if you're writing a tragicomedy, perhaps the most important thing to understand is that your most heart-wrenching moments are probably going to be built up by moments that make your audience laugh. And in the same exact way, your most hilarious moments will most likely be built up by moments that make your audience cry.
All this is is a small reflection of the exquisite mundanity of life: we laugh, we cry, we're granted the supreme victory of birth and then we're granted the supreme defeat of death. It's funny because it's real, it's sad because it's real, and it's drama because it's life.
As Mark Twain once said, "There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy."