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High Comedy: Definition & Examples

High Comedy: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:05 Laughter Refined: High…
  • 1:41 Examples of High Comedy
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

It might not be as flashy as high fashion, but high comedy is certainly funnier. Come learn more about this sophisticated brand of comedy in this lesson, where you'll also find a few examples of the genre.

Laughter Refined: High Comedy Defined

Many of the high-end luxury cars that some of us might covet so much are typically marked by their graceful designs and sophisticated engineering. In the world of comedy, such well-built works are known as high comedy, a genre distinguished by elegance and wit and intended to appeal to the intellect.

When, in 1877, Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith first used the term in 'The Idea of Comedy,' he identified high comedy as referring to comedies of manners. These forms of comedic display depict people who must follow a specific code of conduct, like manners (i.e. the strict social codes of Meredith's own Victorian era). Therefore, most of the laughs in a comedy of manners are derived from often-subtle breaches of these protocols, generally presented with well-crafted wordplay.

By contrast, low comedy is considered coarse and unrefined. The genre develops many of its jokes from bodily functions, slapstick, and blatant sexual references -- as opposed to the understated innuendo you might find in high comedy. Low comedy is meant to appeal to our most basic sensibilities (for example, flatulence is funny), whereas high comedy is intended to make us think about why a particular instance is humorous.

We might frequently associate comedic genres with works of stage and screen; however, high comedy can also be found in poems as well as prose pieces, that is, novels and short stories. With such freedom of form, there are myriad examples to choose from, so let's take a look at a few that you might recognize.

Examples of High Comedy

The Importance of Being Earnest

You wouldn't know it immediately, but the title of Oscar Wilde's famous play is actually quite a clever pun. This play on words uses the homophonic relationship between earnest (sincere) and the male name, Ernest, to identify the central comedic theme.

Wilde centers his play on the adoption of the persona of Ernest: a rabble-rousing young man with indelicate manners and appetites. If this weren't enough to set the Victorian sensibilities of the day reeling, we discover that actually two different men assume the same persona as a means of escaping the restrictions society has placed on them. With two men trying to be one person, though, hilarity is sure to ensue as they attempt to interact socially in a society that would, indeed, disapprove of their deception.

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