Comedy: The Sources of the Comic

Updated on November 18, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Comedy: A Distinguishable Genre

Comedy does not depend primarily on how a play ends. What is more important is that there is a comic spirit inherent in the dialogue and situations. According to Henry Bergson, the fundamental difference between “Drame” and “Comedy” is that, the former deals with personalities while “Comedy” deals with types and classes. At the same time, there are other characteristics of “Drame” beyond mere presentation of the “dramatis personae”.

“A drame, even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten, their general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all, but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated; hence, the title of a drama can seldom be anything else than a proper noun. On the other hand, many comedies have a common noun as their title: l’Avare, le Joueur, etc. “

(Henry Bergson: Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic)

Moreover, comedy depends upon sensibility of audience or the lack of it. When the audience sympathizes with any character, they tend to lose the spirit of laughter. If one feels pity for Mercer in “The Woman Hater”, the play runs the risk of not appearing mirthful at all. Same goes with the case of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” or Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”. Therefore, we seem to lose an appreciation for what was considered risible a few centuries back. As man passes from savagery to civilization, his emotions, together with sensibility, rises.

Comedy vs Drame and Satire

This further accounts for the fact that so few real comedies are produced in modern times. Sensibility has its obvious associations with morality which forms the basis of Drame. Pure comedy artificializes the personalities. With the rise of sensibility, modern audience is enabled to go beyond this artificiality and reduce it to moral essence. In a nutshell, comedy stands for types, insensibility and artificiality while “drame” stands for individuality, emotion and moral sentiment.

A distinction must also be made between satire and comedy to grasp the concept of the comic spirit. Satire may certainly be laughable. It may as well bring forth a roar of mirth. However, what distinguishes a satire from real comedy is the motive of the playwright. A satire, however laughter-evoking, is objected to cast derision upon some person or trait of society. We do not sympathize with “Volpone”, Swift appeals to intellect while Thackeray is a satirist because of his extraordinary perception.

However, it must be noted that satire may be so mild that it fades within the folds of humour and wit. The satiric spirit might become sufficiently strong in a comic dramatist and make him ridicule certain follies, but only with the intension to evoke laughter. The purest comedy appeals solely to the laughing instinct in us. It appeals to the emotional core of the audience and not just the intellect.

Comedy: Its Social Aspect

What then follows is that comedy may contain elements of indirect moral edification, rooted in social conventions. On the other hand, laughter is a highly social phenomenon, a group reaction. Greatness of a “type” rules out the possibility of laughter; only when that “type” is felt to be not so greater than the average, laughter is aroused. This is, undoubtedly, the unacknowledged reproof of society. However, such social quality in laughter is never consciously present in the mind of the playwright. It may be that comedies which have a latent tendency of moral edification are remembered because of our growing sensibilities.

I do not mean that we could not laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection, but we must, for the moment, put our affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity. In a society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life...would neither know nor understand laughter.

— Bergson
Laughter: A social phenomenon
Laughter: A social phenomenon

Sources of the Comic

Aristotle had the conviction that the risible lies in degradation of men to worse beings which are merely objects of merriment. According to Hazlitt, “The essence of the laughable is the incongruous, the disconnecting of one idea from another, or the jostling of one feeling against another.” Degradation, incongruity, automatism might mean much or little, yet they fail to explain all the manifestations of the laughable. The essential source of the spontaneous laughter would perhaps be a desire for liberation from the restraints of society. It is the liberation of the natural man from the ties of a mechanical social status. Incongruity, wit and humour are some of the sources of the risible, to name a few.


It is the incongruity of Jove in Amphitryon’s shape, or of Mercury in form of a serving man that provides the prime comic essence in Dryden’s play. It must, however, be noted that, hilarity in comedy fails to arouse unless eccentricity is placed against mere normality of events. The dramatis personae, who are individualized yet not absurd, present humour with eccentricities beside them. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Theseus and Hyppolyta form the center around whom the eccentric artisans become the source of hilarity. This once again can be interpreted in terms of universality that is discussed in "Universality in Comedy". The endeavour to establish a contrasting relation between two sets of characters brings forth the essence of comic conflict.

Bottom: Body as the source of the comic
Bottom: Body as the source of the comic | Source


The arousal of laughter may be two-fold: through wit or through absurdity. Laughter arising out of wit (language devices such as pun, inversion of proverbs, etc) is a conscious one. Absurdity gives way to unconscious and hence spontaneous merriment. The danger of using wit as a comic device is often doing away with this spontaneous comic spirit. The playwright often tries to sustain the brilliance of wit and at times ends up allotting witty speeches to characters who are not expected to behave so wittily. Such lack of discrimination renders a typical monotony and weariness to those plays. One may take “The Way of The World” or “The Importance Of Being Earnest” as examples where the audience cannot help but sense the lack of true amusement, save the brilliant dialogue. Wit, very much like incongruity, kills the comic spirit, when presented in excess.


Humour, unlike wit, has always some half-wistful glance at the past. It has in itself a soft appeal standing against the hardness of plays founded on wit. In humour, sentiment and satire are brought together harmoniously where satire sheds off its harsh malice. Humour may be displayed through characters, situations and manners. The humour of character is to be discovered in its fullest form in the characters like Falstaff, who is highly intellectual yet whimsical. It is sufficient to compare him with any of the heroes of Congreve to see the contrast. At least, Mirabel would never think of laughing at himself.

Sir John Falstaff, one of the most famous comic characters in all English literature, who appears in four of Shakespeare’s plays. Entirely the creation of Shakespeare, Falstaff is said to have been partly modeled on Sir John Oldcastle, a soldier and
Sir John Falstaff, one of the most famous comic characters in all English literature, who appears in four of Shakespeare’s plays. Entirely the creation of Shakespeare, Falstaff is said to have been partly modeled on Sir John Oldcastle, a soldier and | Source

The comic character is often one with whom, to begin with, our mind, or rather our body, sympathises. By this is meant that we put ourselves for a very short time in his place, adopt his gestures, words, arid actions, and, if amused by anything laughable in him, invite him, in imagination, to share his amusement with us; in fact, we treat him first as a playmate.

— Bergson

There is, therefore, no clear pointers regarding the sources of the comic. While some playwrights choose physical incongruity or wit as the fountainhead of comedy, others choose situational humour as more appealing factors. Whether a comic performance gains applaud depends on the expectation and quality of the audience. After all, drama, unlike narrative genres, is about performance and presupposes a validation by the receiving end of the dramatic performance, or the audience.

Which of the following is the best comic device?

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Questions & Answers

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