What are the Different Types of Comedy?

Kelley Holley, Heather Carroll
  • Author
    Kelley Holley

    Kelley is a PhD candidate in the humanities. She has over 5 years of experience as an instructor, teaching courses in theatre and communications. She has an extensive background in pedagogy.

  • Instructor
    Heather Carroll

    Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

In this lesson, understand the history of comedy and learn about comedy-drama. Find out the different types of comedy, and how comedy has developed over time. Updated: 11/28/2021

History of Comedy

Comedy is a broad theatrical genre that is composed for humorous intent. There are many forms of comedy ranging from the comedy of manners to sitcoms. Originating in theatre, comedy has spread to other performance mediums including film, television, and audio plays. Comedy can be traced back to Ancient Greek origins, though it likely precedes this. Comedy became a staple in Ancient Greece when it was performed at the Lenaia festival in 442 BCE. During the festival, five playwrights would compete with one play each. Soon, the festival became associated with comedy and political satire. All of the extant comedies from the 5th century in Greece are by Aristophanes. These include Clouds (423), Lysistrata (411), and The Frogs (405). Aristophanic comedies are commentaries on contemporary politics, theatre, and above all the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata is a clear example of his political satire. His plays established that comedies typically had a happy ending, a trend that lasted for centuries and is still common today.


Sculpture of Aristophanes

Sculpture of Aristophanes


Aristotle claimed that comedy grew out of improvisations by the song leaders. He further argued that comedy was created by Epicharmus, who lived the the Dorian colony of Syracuse. Though it is known that Aristotle wrote more on comedy as part of his treatise The Poetics, this section is no longer extant.

Comedy was a popular genre of performance in Ancient Rome. The two major comedic playwrights of Rome were Plautus (c. 254-c.184 BCE), and Terence (195 or 185-159 BCE). The influence of these two playwrights on the comedy of the next several centuries cannot be overstated. Their work influenced playwrights like the German nun Hrosvitha in the 10th century, and Spanish playwrights in the 16th century. Many have attributed their comedies as a major influence in the development of drama during the Renaissance.

Types of Comedy

Since the days of Ancient Rome, many types of comedy have developed, including romantic, satirical, comedy-drama known as tragicomedy, farce, black comedy, and anti-humor, among many more. Romantic comedies are a mainstay of cinema, though many call As You Like It by William Shakespeare the first romantic comedy. Romantic comedies typically are light in tone, with two lovers getting together at the end. Traditionally, this form of comedy has ended in marriage. Satire is a form of biting comedy that uses mockery to target political and social topics. Modern examples include late-night shows like Saturday Night Live, theatrical examples include Tartuffe (1668) by Moliere, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) by Bertolt Brecht.

Farce is related to satire, in that both often critique contemporary matters. However, farce differs through the use of physical humor, and zany or ridiculous situations. Plautus has inspired many farcical works through his characterizations. Examples of farce include She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith (1771,) and the television show Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974). Black comedies find humor in areas that are not usually associated with it, including morbid topics, crimes, and other areas that are typically considered taboo. A comic famous for black comedy is Lenny Bruce. Anti-humor takes this one step further. Anti-humor is a type of comedy in which the situation, or the "joke," told is intentionally unfunny. Any humor that is found is through the supposition that it could have been funny at all! Anti-climax and non-sequiturs are frequent tools used in anti-humor. Subsequently, some have argued that it is related to the Dadaist movement in the early 20th century.

In a sense, comedy can be sorted into umbrella categories: high comedy and low comedy. High comedy uses language as its main vehicle for comedy. Wordplay and wit are common tools for high comedy, as well as subtle characterizations. High comedy also imagines its audience as a more sophisticated, well-educated crowd. Low comedy, on the other hand, uses physical or crude comedy. It is often imagined for a less sophisticated audience. Though there is a perceived divide between the two, particularly in regard to audience, high and low comedy each have a wide audience.


Drawing of She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer Drawing


A Happy Ending

I want to start this video out with a little test. I'm going to make a statement. You see how you react.

The only thing the main character in a dramatic comedy needs is a happy ending.

If you didn't laugh, good for you! You are a high-minded, serious individual who is ready for a high-minded, serious explanation of dramatic comedy.

If you did snicker, even if to yourself, then you probably need to get your head out of the gutter, even though you are well on your way to understanding ancient Greek dramatic comedy.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Dramatic Farce: History, Examples and Playwrights

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:06 A Happy Ending
  • 0:40 Origin & Definition
  • 2:50 Characteristics
  • 3:43 Types
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

Origin and Definitions

While historians aren't exactly sure about the origins of dramatic comedy, it is probable that it's linked to ancient bawdy plays where men dressed up as satyrs - half-man, half-goat beasts - to get drunk, sing, and entertain the crowd with their sexual innuendos.

Now, that's just plain silly.

But this probably isn't too surprising, given that much of today's dramatic comedy on television and film utilizes sexual undertones (or blatant sexual references) to enhance the comedic effect. Over time, though, comedy has become more than just an exaggerated view of human sexuality.

In the literary sense, dramatic comedy is a drama where the characters experience a change for the better and work things out with hope for the future. And yes, that happy ending is part of hope for the future. The Poetics, written by philosopher Aristotle, is the leading resource for defining tragedy. Unfortunately, the portion of the text that explains comedy has been lost, but we still can derive some definition from the earlier parts of Aristotle's famous work. In the simplest terms, whereas Aristotle saw tragedy as portraying humans better than they are, he saw dramatic comedy as portraying humans worse than they are. That doesn't mean that dramatic comedy sees humans as evil. Instead, dramatic comedy shows us our flaws and often portrays us as base, meaning ignorant or of low social class.

Within the dramatic comedy sub-genre, we can explain the humor in two different ways: high comedy and low comedy. High comedy uses social satire, wit, and subtle characterizations that are geared toward an educated group. The television show The Big Bang Theory is a good example of high comedy today. It is expected that the audience will understand the cultural references and subtle humor, which make the show entertaining. Low comedy, on the other hand, uses bawdy jokes, physical humor, drunkenness, and silly visuals for the sake of getting people to laugh. The Three Stooges, with its head-bops and foolish characters who make odd noises, is a more modern example of low comedy.

Characteristics of Dramatic Comedy

So, what should you expect if you go to the theatre for a comedic play? Well, dramatic comedies mostly will focus on ordinary people and their lives. As a result, the characters are typically everyday-people from lower to middle class families. The comic hero isn't a hero in the sense that he or she is indestructible. Actually, the hero in a dramatic comedy just needs to be likeable in some way so that the audience will hope his or her success will be found in the story. In fact, the characters that do come from high society are often pompous instead of noble when it comes to their role in a comedy.

These ordinary characters fall into ordinary plots that focus on ordinary problems. These problems are solved without too many real complications. The plot itself is mostly predictable, with the audience feeling a sense of approval as the comedic hero finally has his happy ending.

Types of Comedy

That being said, as with any form of entertainment, there are various ways in which a dramatic comedy can be written. The humor, plot, and characters all contribute to the comedy type.

To begin, the farce, which will be discussed in more detail in a separate video, is a low comedy that uses base characters and improbable circumstances to entertain the audience.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Video Transcript

A Happy Ending

I want to start this video out with a little test. I'm going to make a statement. You see how you react.

The only thing the main character in a dramatic comedy needs is a happy ending.

If you didn't laugh, good for you! You are a high-minded, serious individual who is ready for a high-minded, serious explanation of dramatic comedy.

If you did snicker, even if to yourself, then you probably need to get your head out of the gutter, even though you are well on your way to understanding ancient Greek dramatic comedy.

Origin and Definitions

While historians aren't exactly sure about the origins of dramatic comedy, it is probable that it's linked to ancient bawdy plays where men dressed up as satyrs - half-man, half-goat beasts - to get drunk, sing, and entertain the crowd with their sexual innuendos.

Now, that's just plain silly.

But this probably isn't too surprising, given that much of today's dramatic comedy on television and film utilizes sexual undertones (or blatant sexual references) to enhance the comedic effect. Over time, though, comedy has become more than just an exaggerated view of human sexuality.

In the literary sense, dramatic comedy is a drama where the characters experience a change for the better and work things out with hope for the future. And yes, that happy ending is part of hope for the future. The Poetics, written by philosopher Aristotle, is the leading resource for defining tragedy. Unfortunately, the portion of the text that explains comedy has been lost, but we still can derive some definition from the earlier parts of Aristotle's famous work. In the simplest terms, whereas Aristotle saw tragedy as portraying humans better than they are, he saw dramatic comedy as portraying humans worse than they are. That doesn't mean that dramatic comedy sees humans as evil. Instead, dramatic comedy shows us our flaws and often portrays us as base, meaning ignorant or of low social class.

Within the dramatic comedy sub-genre, we can explain the humor in two different ways: high comedy and low comedy. High comedy uses social satire, wit, and subtle characterizations that are geared toward an educated group. The television show The Big Bang Theory is a good example of high comedy today. It is expected that the audience will understand the cultural references and subtle humor, which make the show entertaining. Low comedy, on the other hand, uses bawdy jokes, physical humor, drunkenness, and silly visuals for the sake of getting people to laugh. The Three Stooges, with its head-bops and foolish characters who make odd noises, is a more modern example of low comedy.

Characteristics of Dramatic Comedy

So, what should you expect if you go to the theatre for a comedic play? Well, dramatic comedies mostly will focus on ordinary people and their lives. As a result, the characters are typically everyday-people from lower to middle class families. The comic hero isn't a hero in the sense that he or she is indestructible. Actually, the hero in a dramatic comedy just needs to be likeable in some way so that the audience will hope his or her success will be found in the story. In fact, the characters that do come from high society are often pompous instead of noble when it comes to their role in a comedy.

These ordinary characters fall into ordinary plots that focus on ordinary problems. These problems are solved without too many real complications. The plot itself is mostly predictable, with the audience feeling a sense of approval as the comedic hero finally has his happy ending.

Types of Comedy

That being said, as with any form of entertainment, there are various ways in which a dramatic comedy can be written. The humor, plot, and characters all contribute to the comedy type.

To begin, the farce, which will be discussed in more detail in a separate video, is a low comedy that uses base characters and improbable circumstances to entertain the audience.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by comedy drama?

Comedy drama is also known as tragicomedy. This is a form of comedy that merges elements of tragedy and comedy together, often placing dramatic characters in comedic situations, or introducing comedic characters into dramas.

What are comedy themes?

Comedies often consider topical themes, including current affairs, politics, social conventions, and marriage. Black comedies integrate a wider range of themes that are often seen as the subjects for tragedies. These are frequently taboo subjects.

What are characteristics of comedy?

There are many characteristics of comedy, including physical humor, also known as slapstick, wordplay, wit, comedic situations, and comedic delivery. As a genre, comedies typically have a happy ending. Historically, many comedies have had concerned common people, whereas tragedies have featured characters of high status.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account