Comedy and Tragedy

In Shakespeare’s time, three different flags were raised over the theater prior to a performance to signify the type of play being preformed. Red flags were for histories, plays portraying significant people from the past (i.e. Henry V), white flags for comedic plays (As You Like It), and black flags for tragedy (Hamlet).

Like most people, I’m going to ignore the histories and talk about the big two: comedy and tragedy. Comedies tend to have happy endings, and humor throughout. Usually they end in marriages. Think Happy Face.
Tragedies tend to have darker endings, and are more serious. Usually they end in multiple characters dying, including the protagonist. Sad Face.

As a storytelling culture, we are obsessed with tragedy.

Think of the big hitters in any medium over the past year, any work that has been given a significant reception and recognized as praise worthy. The majority of them are tragic in nature.

This isn’t anything new. My bookshelf marked “literature” has a lot more Sad Face books than Happy Face books. Why is that? Are sad stories better stories?

Maybe we like being sad. We love the experience of feeling, and perhaps we get more of a emotional experience from a tragedy that tugs our heart-strings than a story that tickles our tummy. So, in way, Sad Face stories make Happy Face people, if only because it makes us happy to be sad.

Yeah, that’s a worrying thought.

I’m not sold on it. We love good storytelling, and we are always in need of better stories, but I don’t think a focus on tragedy is necessarily the best course of action for our souls. Look, I’m all for tragedy—bring me the good sad stories, and a box of tissues, and I’ll be all set to bawl my eyes out—but I think we’re missing out if we disqualify the comedies as being significant and praise worthy.

Yet you don’t often hear about high quality comedic storytelling. And if I ask you to think of one of the best stories you’ve ever read, watched, or heard, a comedic story will not come to mind as quickly as four or five tragic tales.

Why is that? I think it’s because we think we live tragic lives. Which, to be fair, we do… in some sense. Life has a lot of sucky things that happen for no good reason. It is easy for us to remember the tragic, and to recount them to others. Tragedy happens, and maybe that’s why we love tragic stories. It hits close to home.

Here’s the thing though—comedy happens too. But we don’t tend to remember the comedy as much as the tragedy. We’ve become so pessimistic that we dwell in the dark and don’t think about the moments of light. Life really doesn’t suck. There are a lot of good things that happen to you, and to those you love. Good things happen, just as often as the bad things. Maybe even more often. So why do we get so focused on the bad, when there is good? We’ve become addicted to tragedy, and, personally, I’m rather sick of it. I want happy endings too, dammit!

Tragedy is fine, and we need to keep telling tragic stories, but remember: anyone can tell a sad story. We’ve all had sad stories happen to us, we can all feel sympathetic towards tragedy. But we’ve also had comedy. Anyone who can tell you a tragedy from their life can also tell you a comedy. As storytellers, we should live in the good times and bad, and make stories that demonstrate both comedy and tragedy, honoring both happy and sad moments.

For now though, I want more comedy. We’ve tipped the scale too long in the dark, we need more light. Keep writing your sad stories if you want, but when you look me in the eye and say with conviction, and a smile, “They all lived happily ever after,” I will want to hear your story.


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