"Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke."
Bathos is a story-telling technique that follows serious ideas with the commonplace or ludicrous. The juxtaposition of these ideas creates humor.
It has its origins in poetry, where lofty prose would be followed with an anticlimax of sorts. It later evolved to cover any instance where the serious is mixed with the surreal or commonplace in order to provide humor.
The trope name
comes from Alexander Pope, who wrote Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry
in 1727, in which he mocks the abuse of tropes and figures of speech by bad writers. In it, he notes that juxtaposing the serious and the trivial creates unintentional humor, which sinks serious poetry.
Bathos can be both intentionally invoked or unintentionally present. It most often appears intentionally in comedic works or those with a comedic undertone, although not always. Unintentional bathos is Narm
Often present in Surreal Humor
. Bathos may cause Mood Whiplash
when it does not appear in an otherwise comedic segment of the work. In Sliding Scale of Silliness Versus Seriousness
, works of bathos either sit firmly in the middle or wildly slide up and down.
Compare Gallows Humor
, where the comedy is used by characters within the story as a tension breaker, and Mood Dissonance
. See also the First Law of Tragicomedies
, a method of averting this.
Please do not place examples that better belong on Narm here or on any main page.
In other words, only intentional Bathos belongs on this page.
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Anime and Manga
- NEEDLESS is full of this. It can best be described as sort of a Fist of the North Star parody stuffed with Postmodernism. There is a story arc called the Bloody Rain Arc, which is changed to the Mustache Arc after several characters notice how many characters with mustaches there are. Said arc is filled with Lampshade Hanging and mustache jokes. Then one of the said mustachioed characters proceeds to kill enough people to make it rain blood.
- One Piece is made of equal parts dark, violent drama and light-hearted goofiness, to the point that some fight sequences manage to include both at the same time.
- The works of Junji Ito are full of this. They take genuinely horrifying horror plots and give them ridiculously silly elements such as haunted balloons that hang people. The result is a story that is downright hilarious... as well as terrifying at the same time.
- Senyuu has more and more of this as the series goes on, culminating in a dead-serious confrontation with the Big Bad being resolved by Alba falling out of the sky onto one opponent, a knight-tank-princess randomly colliding with the other, and a ridiculously blatant semi-literal Deus ex Machina.
- Discussed in Bakuman。: Hattori advises Mashiro and Takagi that their works needs humor, but the kind that fits within their generally serious storytelling. The best example they could think up was Otter #11, in particular a scene where the titular character rams a truck into a building: it's played dead-serious, but undermined by the fact that said character is a human but with a photorealistic otter for a head.
- In Naruto the story became increasingly serious during the Fourth Ninja War, but at various points the tension was shattered by comedic moments. Notable is during the show-down with Kaguya when Naruto uses his gag Harem Jutsu as an actual attack and it works.
Film - Live Action
- The Host revels in this. The main characters rolling around on the floor and crying together at a funeral is either the saddest scene in the movie, or the funniest, or both. Another dramatic and climactic scene is "ruined" when it turns out that the gun they were going to use to kill the monster is empty.
- The "death" of Wilson in Cast Away. You can't help laughing at Chuck bawling over the loss of his volleyball friend, but at the same time you fully empathize with him bawling at the loss of his volleyball friend.
- A particularly funny example in Blazing Saddles has former gunslinger "Waco Kid" Jim telling the woeful story of his career and how he reached a point where he nearly gunned down a six-year old who challenged him. He threw down his gun to end his career, at which point the "little bastard shot me in the ass!"
- In Ghostbusters, Gozer needs a Destructor form and compels our heroes to choose one. They figure out the trick and blank their minds out... except Ray didn't. So now the giant monster that is attacking New York is... the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
- Life Is Beautiful: A running theme of both the movie itself and the In-Universe philosophy of the protagonist is the ability to laugh even in the most tragic of circumstances.
Film - Animated
- An example of the trope that predates Pope's coining of the term comes from John Dryden in Albion and Albanius, where he writes:
"The cave of Proteus rises out of the sea, it consists of several arches of rock work, adorned with mother of pearl, coral, and abundance of shells of various kinds. Through the arches is seen the sea, and parts of Dover pier."
- Pope himself used this trope deliberately in the mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock:
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breath their last,
- The Latin poet Horace jokingly warned poets to avoid starting out a poem in the grand old epic style, lest 'parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus' - "The mountains will labour and bring to birth a comical mouse." Of course, Pope was particularly influenced by Horace, as were most poets of his day. If there had been a 'Poetry Tropes' website in those days, 'ridiculus mus' may well have been the Trope Namer.
- Douglas Adams was quite fond of this trope. From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
- Stand-up comedian and author Lewis Grizzard uses this trope extensively in his routines and writing. From his memorial column for his dog Catfish:
I don’t know why I named him what I named him. He was all curled up in a blanket on my back seat. And I looked at him and it just came out. I called him, “Catfish.” I swear he raised up from the blanket and acknowledged. Then he severely fouled the blanket and my back seat.
- Common throughout The Dresden Files. Top prize probably goes to asking a faerie hit-thing for a donut.
Harry: Nay, but with sprinkles 'pon it, and frosting of white.
- Found throughout P. G. Wodehouse's work. A spectacular example is present in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, with a florid poem describing a sunset that ends with "I say / Doesn't that sunset remind you / Of a slice / Of underdone roast beef?"
- Woody Allen often used this. For example: "Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage." or "The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God's mind—a pretty uncomfortable thought, particularly if you've just made a down payment on a house."
- Lord of the Flies invokes this intentionally at the end when the British Navy comes to rescue the children, in order to draw a comparison between learned civilised behaviour and the children's natural amorality.
- Rick Riordan often uses this technique in his works, especially when Percy Jackson is narrating.
- Casey at the Bat. A minor league baseball game is described with all the pomp and portent of an epic poem, ending with one of the most memorable Anti Climaxes in all of litearature.
Live Action TV
- One Foot in the Grave: Nearly every episode, a serious conversation was interrupted with something completely ludicrous, such as finding a wig in a loaf of bread, or Victor discovering that a workman planted a Yucca plant actually in the downstairs toilet.
- Firefly delved into this from time to time. In "War Stories," Mal and Wash have a very domestic argument while being tortured, much to the bemusement of the torturer. In this particular example, Mal was deliberately antagonizing Wash to keep him from breaking.
- In Community, Abed gives a breathtaking monologue about appearing on an episode of Cougar Town, note in which he questions his entire identity and the point of being interested in popular culture. The entire speech culminates with him "pooping" himself.
- Look Around You is a parody of 1970s BBC educational videos, using Bathos for most of its humor.
- Wilfred, in both the Australian original and American remake.
You've lost your mind. It's like you've got some kind of...God complex. Wilfred:
I'll let you in on a little secret, Ryan. I don't have a God complex. I am God!
Thunder! [Thunder] Ryan:
How did you do that? Wilfred:
- Classic Doctor Who did this well, especially in the Hartnell era. In "Marco Polo," for example, Kublai Khan is built up as this mysterious, terrible, almost godlike being... and then, he and the first Doctor become friends as they commiserate in the aches and pains of advanced age. "The Myth Makers", one of Hartnell's wittiest, derives a lot of its humour from how mundane the semi-mythical Trojan figures are in personality, especially Paris - his attempts to talk Steven down from attacking him are almost Pythonesque in how anticlimactic they are.
Steven: (in Shakespearian tones, pretending to be a Greek soldier) And must my Lord Achilles be roused to undertake your death, adulterer?
Paris: Yes, well, I'm prepared to overlook that for the moment. I assure you I have no quarrel with you.
Steven: I'm Greek, you're Trojan. Is not that quarrel enough?
Paris: Yes, well - personally, I think this whole business has been carried just a little bit too far? I mean, that Helen thing was just a misunderstanding.
Paris: (having won the fight) Now, die, Greek, and tell them in Hades that Paris sent you thither!
Steven: I yield.
Paris: I beg your pardon?
Steven: I yield. I'm your prisoner.
Paris: Well, I say, this sort of thing is just not done.
- The Fourth Doctor pretty much functions entirely on this. He's a dramatic, imposing, Byronic, swashbuckling alien with a gothic Victoriana motif, who wonders up to whatever unspeakable squirming Omnicidal Maniac horror he's pitted against this week, gives it a big grin and offers it a jelly baby.
- The final words of the Seventh Doctor to Ace in "Survival", the final story of the Classic series before the show was cancelled:
Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea is getting cold.
- This is sometimes used in Supernatural, such as in the episode "Wishful Thinking" when a young girl wishes for her teddy bear to come alive and ends up with a suicidal cynical giant stuffed bear.
Teddy bear: It is a terrible world! Why am I here?
Audrey: For tea parties!
- At one point during Triple H and The Undertaker's match at Wrestlemania 27, they send themselves flying through Michael Cole's little cubicle that he calls the "Cole Mine". Despite the serious tone that a match involving Undertaker would usually have, seeing Cole's property go to pieces makes you laugh just a little.
- Causing Bathos is a favorite of many wrestling fanbases, especially WWE fans. The crowd is as much a part of the show as anything in Wrestling.
- In Ōkami during the second (of three) battle with Orochi. Nagi tries to look awesome, but it's hard to take him seriously when he's dressed in women's clothing... and even harder when he falls flat on his face jumping into battle.
- Never the less he cleaves a satisfying victory.
- The player can intentionally create Bathos in Resonance of Fate. Thanks to its Virtual Paper Doll-like clothing and accessories, you can have your characters wearing almost clown-like attire during the most serious of scenes.
- There's also some built into the game's setting to help set the world's tone. An early example is the Arena, known for making spectacles of bloodbaths for profit... and the delicious soft-serve from the concessions stand.
- You can extend that to any game where you can put on joke costumes, and the costumes show during cutscenes.
- Because The Secret of Monkey Island was originally planned as a serious game, all of the artwork is highly realistic and gritty. When the devs decided instead to go for comedy, providing both hilarious dialogue and absurd situations (such as the famous case of crossing a chasm by means of a rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle, lovingly drawn in the highest style 8 bit graphics had to offer), this contrasted with the game's appearance to heighten the humour potential. The sequel continued in this style, but then creator Ron Gilbert left the company, and the games since have used a more overtly cartoony style, which the Video Game Remakes of the first two games switched to. Fans are hotly divided over which is best.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, the Naughty Nightwear item boosts your Speech skill by ten points, leading to cases where you're trying to defuse a hostage situation, talk your way into a restricted area, or decide the fate of the entire Mojave Wasteland... while wearing a set of cheesy leopard-print pajamas or skimpy neglige, depending on your gender.
- Metal Gear is in love with this trope. With the amount of surreal easter eggs and fourth wall breaking, this series may be the all-time champ. A great example would be choosing to wear kabuki facepaint and an orange jumpsuit covered in happy faces that makes goofy noises while wielding a cigar that sprays knockout gas...while fighting the tragic Anti-Villain final boss in one of the most heartwrenching moments in the video game medium.
- Especially the case in any of the games that allow rewatching the cutscenes but with the ability to switch the characters/models used. Old ladies with assault rifles and handbags storming the freighter at the beginning of MGS2? Priceless.
- Silent Hill, another Konami series, was once the darkest Survival Horror game on the market, but has always had a silly side through Easter eggs and old save bonuses. In the first three games, the tragic-to-bittersweet endings could be replaced with joke endings involving alien abduction, another ending in the second game revealing The Dog Was the Mastermind, a Magical Girl costume for the protagonist in the third, as well as alien karaoke, and, most absurdly, Pyramid Head cutting Murphy's birthday cake in Silent Hill: Downpour.
- In Poker Night at the Inventory, many of the interactions between your fellow players invoke this, mostly through the shocked reactions of the others. Examples include Tycho waxing lyrical about giraffes, or Heavy Weapons Guy's Engineer story.
- Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a bit of this. You can pick "funny'" dialogue options in even the most serious scenes, which tend to make Serah look like a ditz.
- You can give your monsters absurd accessories, resulting in things like a massive, intimidating Behemoth wearing an Idea Bulb over its head.
- The "Milkman Conspiracy" level of Psychonauts is loaded with this. Almost everyone you meet is a trenchcoat-clad secret agent in some sort of Paper-Thin Disguise (actually, no disguise; they're simply holding different objects: stop signs for a "road crew worker," hedge trimmers for a gardening husband/father, etc.) and most of the things they say to maintain the facade are Played for Laughs. Every once in a while, however, you'll hear them spout a line that would be pretty pathetic, even devastating, in other circumstances. "Over time, my husband will desire me less, sexually," says the rolling pin-toting "housewife." "Why, God? Why?" says the "grieving widow." It all stays relatively light, given the amusing context, but the tragedy subtext is there and it's fairly difficult to miss.
- Homestuck uses this very frequently, often in conjunction with Mood Whiplash. John makes a dramatic and somewhat Mind Screw-y discovery about his and his best friends' parentage—and then he uses the event to reenact the ending scene of one of his favorite movies. Scenes of well-loved characters dying are accompanied by shots of the dead body landing on a pile of bike horns, or references to an intentionally-bad comic-within-the-comic, or simply a blunt Unsound Effect "DEAD".
- An big part of the hero's personality in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob! is that he responds this way to almost everything. A robot lion chases Bob around his yard, and his only complaint is it kicked over the pile of leaves he'd just raked. Spaceships keep crashing into his roof, and he wonders if other people put up screens to avoid this. He calms paranormal beings by sitting them down to eat some cheesecake or microwave pizza. He shows an alien conqueror that his whole motivation is flawed, and suggests he find a new hobby, like sudoku. And many other examples.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja has quite a bit of this, as one ludicrous situation after another is played dead serious, complete with lingering consequences.
- In Paradox Space (a Spin-Off of Homestuck), the story "Indemnity Double Reacharound" features an extremely dark and gritty art style, a story involving a murder... and all the characters are brightly colored dragons with names like "Pumpkinsniffle" and "Berrybreath", odd Alternian words used in a serious way, and one of the characters speaks using slang that feels completely out of place in the Film Noir setting.
- Daywalt Horror likes to employ this as a way to change up their usual thing.
- In "Meat", two rural men are driving a truck and talking about what to do with the thing they just hit and had loaded into the back, revealing halfway through that said thing was actually a Magical Talking Unicorn.
- In "Vergel Geroth", it features a necromancer reading a spell from The Necronomicon, with a monster rising up in the background as he reads it, eagerly waiting to pounce... only for the summoner to pause and try to puzzle out the pronunciation of the last section. With the monster looking on in exasperation.
- Romeo And Julieta makes use of this, particularly the original film.
- Cancer? Not funny. Clown with cancer? Hilarious.
- The Thwomps: When the thwomps was going to finish Bowser off, the movie suddenly turned into a parody of Tetris
- Bathos is the engine upon which The Onion runs. Mundane events made to sound newsworthy describes a great deal of the content.
- This trope is what drives most of The Venture Bros..
- The infamous pea scene from The Powerpuff Girls. It Makes Sense in Context.
- The Farnsworth Parabox in Futurama has Farnsworth warning near the end: "Everything that ever was, is, and will be is contained in this box, and the actual box is probably worth something as well."
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- In "The Return of Harmony, Part 2", Twilight Sparkle is pushed over the Despair Event Horizon by the failure of the Elements of Harmony, and sadly trudges back to the library in defeat... while thanks to Discord's influence, various ridiculous things happen around her, like pies falling upwards and ballet-dancing buffalo prancing by. It manages to be both funny and tragic at the same time.
- "Luna Eclipsed" sees the Mayor of Ponyville using a spooky voice... only for her clown costume to utterly kill the effect.
- In "It's About Time," Twilight Sparkle's dead-serious proclamation of incoming doom comes close to being ignored due to the Groucho Marx glasses she's wearing due to a collision with a metric ton of party-supplies.
- This supplies one of Avatar: The Last Airbender 's most memorable jokes:
- The Simpsons has always displayed a mastery of playing this trope for comedy:
- In episode "Homer Loves Flanders" Bart tricks Homer into buying what he thinks are tickets to a highly-anticipated football game, only to find that he had actually bought a wig store coupon. He wildly careens from elated, to furious, to contemplative, to giddy, before finally settling on possibly aroused. This takes place over the course of about ten seconds.
- In the DVD Commentary, the show's staff discuss Homer's wild mood swings, coming to the conclusion that the character's ability to immediately return to a default-jolly state from any other emotional state is one of his most endearing qualities. They also observe that Homer, more than any other male main character in probably all of fiction, will burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
- Several jokes over the years have taken a short break from a silly situation to mine Lisa's developing major depressive disorder for comedy. Usually, it's quickly acknowledged and followed by an awkward beat, after which immediately returns to business-as-usual.
- Sumo wrestling is not just Big Fun, and was actually never meant to invoke laughs and giggles. Since ancient times, it had been Serious Business in all aspects of Japanese culture involving it, be it religion, agriculture, politics, or military training.