"What's the word for when something that started out being funny ends up depressing the hell out of you? Insert that word here."
— Jenny Lawson, Let's Pretend This Never Happened
A Tone Shift
over the course of a comedy series' run, named for the process undergone by the print comic Cerebus the Aardvark
It's any story/series which starts out light, episodic, and comedic, and then assumes dramatic elements and a more coherent continuity
. It chiefly occurs in works where parts have been broadcast/published before other parts have been written, as that means the older parts can't be revised into conformity.
Often seen in media where artists are expected to write a few short stories first to see how the public will react, and then start writing longer and more serious story arcs once the magazine/tv channel/company gives the go-ahead. It can also be intentional, with the lighter mood at the beginning allowing readers to meet and become attached to the characters before the story arcs with the dramatic elements begin.
Many newspaper comics undergo the opposite process
as a cartoonist puts some fairly serious storylines the first few years but then lapses into recycled gags.
This condition also has a temporary version. After a while, many shows will begin to get enough respect to be considered for awards, and will create a specific episode for this. Since there's a Comedy Ghetto
in effect, an episode of a show made as Emmy Bait will have fewer laughs and will usually tackle a more intense theme. When watching a show on DVD or in syndication, these episodes can stand out.
If the series has previously been fueled by high weirdness
, then the transition can be rocky. Some comics tie themselves in painful knots trying to Retcon
an accumulated pile of weirdness with invented physics. Others sweep the stranger things under the rug
and try to present a more respectable face
. More often, the weird is left in place, but retrofitted
into a more dramatic role. In a good case, the combination of drama and high weird can be invigorating. In a less successful case, it can be excruciating.
An instance of Mood Whiplash
. When this entire process happens in a single moment, it's a Gut Punch
. If the change is only temporary, it's A Very Special Episode
. A Sudden Downer Ending
incorporates this by default, as downer endings are rarely seen as humorous
May be a case of Growing the Beard
if it actually works. Either way, fans may not wait to declare it Ruined FOREVER
Compare to Shoo Out the Clowns
, where the Plucky Comic Relief
is written out of the show (or possibly killed off) to show that things have become serious. See Big Damn Movie
for when this applies to The Movie
of an otherwise episodic series. When this happens to actors in Real Life
, it's known as Tom Hanks Syndrome
Please note that this doesn't automatically mean Darker and Edgier
, though it often does. It's Cereb
us, not Cerberus
; not that the latter's reputation
It is entirely possible for a work to get more serious, but still keep its lighthearted tone. Likewise, a work can get Darker and Edgier
, but still be just as zany.note