First Law of Tragicomedies
"In any work that has both drama and comedy, the drama will rise proportionally with the level of tension in the story. The comedy will do the reverse."
A "tragicomedy" (better known as a "dramedy
") is a mix of lighter and darker material that uses humor to lighten the tension and drama as a way to show the audience that something serious is going on. This is a difficult balancing act to carry out, and only a few shows have ever done it successfully.
In the worst cases, however, over the course of a series of books, films, television episodes, or other media, the subject might start out mainly comedy, switch to dramedy at about the halfway point, then continue to become darker and less comedic
until beloved characters start getting wiped out with frightening regularity
. Fans are then more justified in complaining that the series Jumped the Shark
with a Genre Shift
To prevent this, a show might intentionally keep all the high-tension drama for climaxes and action scenes, while saving all the comedy for the filler moments when nothing too important is actually going on. Other times, outright comedy will be added to an otherwise work of straight tragedy.
If it does this by pushing comedic characters Out of Focus
or having them Put on a Bus
, that's Shoo Out the Clowns
. If the work frequently shifts between tragedy and comedy without warning, that's Mood Whiplash
. If the actual plot
has jumped the tracks and gone in a completely different direction, it's Halfway Plot Switch
- the trope on this page only applies a tone change.
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Anime and Manga
- Lampshaded in The Slayers, when a comedic moment happens in the middle of the dramatic battle against the Big Bad. When the funny is over, a character breaks the Fourth Wall to explain that the show had gotten a little too dramatic, so the funny moment had to happen.
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann veers sharply into drama after episode sixteen, presses that throttle down, and then abruptly releases it for the last three episodes... only to slam it back down for its ending. Viewers were sharply divided.
- Mahou Sensei Negima! does a good job with this once the Cerebus Syndrome kicks in, with the heavily dramatic moments more or less balanced out by comedic moments.
- Cowboy Bebop had Ed and Ein do a quick fade any time the plot took a dark turn — their presence equaled comedy. They left the show two episodes before the Bittersweet Ending.
- Chrono Crusade starts out as a fun action-adventure show with supernatural elements. Although there's hints of a darker tone from the start (the main characters are fighting demons, after all), the ending takes a stark turn for the dramatic after a climatic battle at a festival midway through the series. The manga keeps enough comedic moments in the series that it might be closer to Mood Whiplash, but the anime heads full throttle into deep, dark tragedy until it heads straight into an infamous Tear Jerker ending. In both versions, The Hero Dies at the end of the series.
- Fullmetal Alchemist averts this by having silly moments amongst the dramatic ones; impressive in that the story of it is possibly darker than the 2003 anime version, which played it straight with the last batch of episodes dropping the humor altogether.
- Elfen Lied is one of the darker tragicomedies. It does have its silly moments, such as when Nyu is awake early on in the manga, but then becomes even darker after the point where the anime cuts off, where Kakuzawa initiates the final part of his plan to take over the world by infecting the population with the Diclonius virus. Appropriately enough, the comedy portion of the manga is left in the omakes, which is not canon.
- Trigun notably was very light hearted in the first half, and barring some of the really deeper moments such as episode six's ending never really loses its humor. Things took a deeper turn when the main plot kicked in during the second half but still threw in an occasional gag, usually in the first half of the episode. Then during the final 5-6 episodes the comedy was all but dropped. In the case of the manga it was mostly averted: while the main, more dramatic story kicked in much earlier, the humor, while a little more sparse, never completely disappeared even as things got even more serious. For an example: take the following events after Wolfwood's death. In the anime, the episode after we see Vash breaking down at the beginning of the episode and it goes downhill from there for him. In the manga, the chapter after Wolfwood's death has Vash connecting with his new ally Livio and there's a humorous breakfast scene with the two eating to get their strength back up.
- Bone starts out with characters right out of a cartoon short before they get caught up in epic fantasy. There's elements of both at all points of the story, but notably more silliness in the beginning and more of the epic stuff at the end.
- Notably averted in Justice League International, the classic Giffen-DeMatteis run, with the story arc "Breakdowns." As the name might suggest, "Breakdowns" was one of the darkest times in the entire history of the Justice League, in any of its incarnations. It was also hysterically funny.
- In The Muppet Christmas Carol, Gonzo and Rizzo (the comic relief Narrator and the comic relief Greek Chorus, respectively) disappear after the arrival of The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come... but not before a little Lampshade Hanging:
I don't think I can watch any more! Gonzo:
When you're right, you're right. (Turning to face the audience:)
You're on your own, folks. We'll meet you at the finale! (after the Christmas Yet To Come sequence is over) Scrooge:
I'm home. Gonzo: (suddenly narrating again)
Yes. The bedposts were his own, the bed was his own, the room was his own. (cut to Gonzo and Rizzo watching Scrooge through the window) Rizzo:
Hi, guys! We're back! Gonzo:
We promised we would be.
- Shaun of the Dead does this to good effect.
- The World's End somehow maintains equal parts hilarious comedy and serious drama all the way to the end when it adds tear-jerker pathos to the mix. You're horrified by Gary King's antics even while you are laughing helplessly at them.
- Click, an Adam Sandler movie, fits this trope to a T. It starts out as a film with a guy who uses a magical remote to see a jogger's boobs jiggle in slow-mo, and begins a little more dramatic when he accidentally jumps one year ahead, but still had plenty of comedy. When he jumps ahead, he's there corporeally, but not mentally, he's basically zoned out, on "auto-pilot", so his social life falls apart, but for some reason he's a great architect. Then he jumps ten years into the future, where his wife left him, and he's severely overweight. It just goes straight into drama, leaving comedy in the dust when he jumps past his father's death, and then comes into his own. But then say hello to comedy after the climax it was All Just a Dream, or it was time traveled away, take your pick.
- Good Morning Vietnam
- In Bruges, although the tragic elements are there from the beginning, and there is still a bit of comedy left towards the end.
- Do the Right Thing: While not a total comedy, the film features many slice of life comedic moments peppered between racial tensions... before a giant riot occurs over the death of a local black youth. Trash can flying ensues.
- The musical Camelot with Richard Harris does this amazingly well. The movie starts out as a light-hearted comedy, then very gradually gets darker leading to an inevitable, heart-wrenching conclusion. The high point is Burton/Arthur's reprisal of the lighthearted title song from the beginning, now sung dramatically, and his agony at the line, "For one brief shining moment!"
- The Cable Guy (most notable for starring Jim Carrey) starts out as a comedy about a man and his goofy cable guy, and evolves into a disturbing thriller about a man and his criminally insane stalker cable guy.
- The soundtrack for Edward Scissorhands is divided into two "acts" precisely because of this trope - it starts out rather sunnily, but begins to move down a darker path as Edward falls in love with Kim (and rejects Joyce's advances). Once Edward participates in the house robbery, the comedy gradually drains from the film altogether.
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (a fairly faithful adaptation of an Edward Albee play of the same name) fits this. One troper has described it as "a movie that starts out as a dark comedy then gets darker and darker until it's not even a comedy any more." There are still jokes all the way through, but they get increasingly nasty and bitter.
- Tropic Thunder, of all movies, has all three lead characters be crippled by questions of identity and self-worth while the climax is going down. It doesn't last too long, but it's very strange for a wacked-out Ben Stiller farce which earlier on had the lead character wearing a panda's head like a hat.
- The majority of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is played for comedy, but it becomes dramatic towards the end with the whale hunters and the return to the future. The beginning of the film when the probe reaches Earth and the crew heads back in time is also played mostly seriously.
- Stranger Than Fiction. The trailer lied.
- City of Craftsmen is a Russian film about peaceful people opposing the invaders who occupy their city. The film alternates between deadly serious scenes and total slapstick.
- For example, in the climax the citizens, which secretly armed themselves before, start fighting with the soldiers. We see many being killed with swords and spears, on both sides. This culminates in battle in which both the leader of the invaders and the leader of La Résistance die. Then the resistance leader comes Back from the Dead, and we are treated to the fight where citizen totally pwn the invaders with large spoons, brooms, frying pans, and the like.
- While the book doesn't fit this trope, and the film is pretty cynical overall, A Scanner Darkly's film adaptation was rather lighthearted for the first 53 minutes. Then Luckman collapses. Things get progressively darker after that.
- Inverted by Being There, which begins with serious scenes of a developmentally delayed man being evicted from his home when his employer dies, but it quickly turns to comedy once the main character is on his own.
- The Room actually follows this pretty rigidly. The first half is mostly baffling moments of comedy and meandering subplots, while the second half cuts away all the subplots in favour of the main infidelity storyline, before the protagonist is Driven to Suicide.
- Frozen plays this pretty straight, with the funnier moments and musical numbers concentrated more in the first half while the harder drama coming into play more in the second half. Ironically, Plucky Comic Relief character Olaf doesn't show up until the halfway point, which explains why his comedy is more limited than the trailers would have you believe. He does help counteract the increased seriousness of the main characters at that point, however.
- Catch-22, despite being hilarious as a whole, becomes increasingly dark as the story progresses, eventually throwing out all comedy in one of the final chapters. Subverted in some ways, considering that before it gets truly horrific, many of the moments of comedy could, if observed objectively, be taken for equally horrifying. This suggests that the increasingly serious tone and likewise decrease in jokes is more an intentional device of the writer and not a direct consequence of the trope.
- Since the novel continually re-visits previous events, it contains a lot of things that are initially humorous, then tragic as they are explained. A good example would be the dead man in Yossarian's tent.
- This is the course taken by the increasingly dark Harry Potter series. Also, each individual volume internally features this: if Harry's alone, facing his destiny, it'll be deadly serious. If he's with his friends, someone will crack a joke at some point.
- This eventually reached the point where the trailers of Harry Potter movies strikingly resemble a preview of a horror film.
- Everything Is Illuminated. It's rather pronounced in the film.
- The Invisible Man starts out as a lighthearted comedy but takes a darker turn halfway through.
Live Action TV
- Mash is the ultimate example of this trope in American pop culture. Its reputation veered from being among the zaniest of zany sitcoms (by the standards of the time) to Tear Jerker-a-minute episodes vying with All Quiet on the Western Front for the title of "most depressing anti-war screed ever".
- One great example, and probably a turning point for the series in this regard, was the episode with Henry Blake's departure, which is filled with corny in-jokes about the guy and his history on the show right up until the abrupt, heart-rending, soul-crushing last-minute surprise.
- Although there was plenty of serious stuff in Mash early on — take Sometimes You Hear The Bullet. The main difference is in the (dis)integration of the elements rather than the amount of either: in the early days comedy and tragedy often happened back-to-back in the same situation, whereas in later years episodes would often feature distinct "funny" and "serious" plotlines.
- Parodied on one episode of Futurama, where iHawk (a robot expy of Hawkeye) actually has a switch on his side that goes from "irreverent" to "maudlin".
- The first twenty or so minutes of any Scrubs episode will be hilarious; the rest will be depressing.
- Which kinda makes sense, considering the doctors are trying to avoid the unbearable soul-crushingly inevitable depression of their jobs by focusing on the lighter moments. Only when they have to confront the bad stuff do they actually lose their humor.
- Scrubs strikes a great balance between the two, and for this reason they never have a very special episode, since in a way every episode is one.
- Stargate SG-1 episode "Window of Opportunity" is very funny in almost every scene — with the exception of the very dramatic climax.
- "Urgo" is pretty much the same way (and when the climax ends, the humor comes back).
- You know you're watching Supernatural when, apart from the one or two Breather Episodes they do a season, the episodes have about ten minutes worth of cracky fun and the other thirty is laced with a deep
- Tyler Perry's House Of Payne has a tendency towards this which changes depending on which character is in the spotlight at the moment.
- Joss Whedon's raison d'etre: Buffy and Firefly contain frequent switches in tone between comedy and drama/tragedy frequently - some episodes will be extremely comedic in tone, some almost completely without humour and terribly bleak. Almost every episode of both shows will generally contain elements of both. Whedon particulary delights in cutting straight from comedy to tearjerkers and vice versa (for instance, in Firefly Mal tells Simon that Kaylee is dead. Cue slow-mo run to her bedside, accompanied by desolate strings on the soundtrack. Kaylee's fine. Mal's psychotic. Everyone splits their sides at Simon's expense). In Buffy, in keeping with the trope described on this page, the lighter subplots and snappy dialogue tends to fall away a lot as seasons near their climax.
- Doctor Who, due to being a Long Runner and veering all over the Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror, has engaged with this in all sorts of different ways over the years:
- The Doctor has been a naturally funny character since his second story, "The Daleks". Many stories throughout the show's entire run have exploited this along with his heroics - by having him mostly removed from proceedings that are supposed to be terrifying, then showing up and being hilarious when it's time for him to defeat the monster, defusing both the narrative tension and the in-story threat at the same time. The most obvious use of this is probably "The Christmas Invasion", in which the Doctorless and Doctor-heavy portions of the story differ in tone so much it's almost to the point of Lampshading this - note particularly how the Translation Convention only switches on when the Doctor emerges, which immediately makes the Carrionites less threatening by making them more like - well - Doctor Who villains.
- Robert Holmes's writing in general and tenure as script editor is characterised by heavily hammering the horror and comedy simultaniously, as he had a very morbid sense of humour but also relished the opportunity to make Doctor Who genuinely disturbing. This approach is typified in things like the intentionally outrageous Attack of the Killer Whatever Nightmare Fuel that are the Autons, the Cute But Psycho, Creepy Good characterisation he Enforced upon the Fourth Doctor, the way the Sontarans take the Proud Warrior Race Guy trope to comical yet horrible extremes, mixing Bloodier and Gorier and Crapsack World content with plenty of fart jokes, hilarious Those Two Guys dialogue about Gorn-tastic Body Horror, even the odd bit of planned Special Effects Failure for dramatic effect... all of which is used as deliberate Mood Dissonance to make things as disturbing as possible.
- The Russell T Davies approach relies a lot on witty dialog and funny jokes, but it also knows how to make things serious in particularly epic and/or sad moments. He also has a very similar love of combining horror and comedy, but in a more self-aware, Campy way rather than in exploiting the resulting Bathos.
- The Steven Moffat approach is somewhat more segregated. Unlike RTD or Holmes he doesn't use silly monsters at all, and while the Doctor can do comical things to defeat them (holding them up with Jammie Dodgers, etcetera) it's only temporary defeat, never his final solution for dealing with the monster, which is usually something much more serious. He also wrings a lot of drama and angst out of his characters. However, he likes to surround pure Horror and drama material with snappy sitcom-style dialogue, with pure comedy sequences becoming common (where RTD's would usually be bittersweet in tone) and World of Snark supporting casts. The result of this is that Mood Dissonance is avoided, and he lightens scenes that aren't meant to be scary and pumps in the darkness when they are - the traditional approach to this trope.
- In a two-part arc on Barney Miller, department policy and the stringpulling of Inspector Luger cause the 12th precinct to be converted into a homicide division. At first it's the occasion for slightly darker than usual gags about murder. Then a gruff shopkeeper is killed after Barney had had to turn him away before because his case didn't involve homicide. That largely stops the comedy until The Denouement in which the squad is reassigned to a lighter felony.
- Little Shop of Horrors fits this law, though the film adaptation does not.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Inverted by William Shakespeare's ''A Winter's Tale'', one of the earliest tragicomedies. The first half is a gloomy, melodramatic, and heartbreaking tragedy of a king who wrongfully suspects his wife of infidelity. Then a guy gets eaten by a bear, and it becomes a pastoral romantic comedy.
- In fact, the term "tragicomedy" was originally coined to describe plays that started out like tragedies but ended with redemption and reconciliation instead of Kill 'em All. Two of Shakespeare's younger contemporaries, John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, were particularly well known for their tragicomedies, and for a time the form was so popular that some of Shakespeare's darker tragedies were given Lighter and Softer revisions with happier endings.
- Up until Act III, and aside from the opening, Romeo and Juliet is essentially a Romantic Comedy.
- The musical 1776 follows a similar arc. It begins comedically, then darkens; and while it has a happy ending, it has to travel through some very dark territory to get there.
- A lot of light-hearted operas (e.g. La Bohème, Don Giovanni, La Traviata or pretty much any opera in the "fallen woman" genre, etc.) take a dive toward the dramatic in the final act. Mozart himself said that any good comic opera needs at least one seria (read: dramatic opera) character or arc.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street starts off as a Black Comedy, though the end is not very funny.
- Nier is a generally grim adventure with what can only be described as Wham-packed, but it also has a vast number of optional sidequests with truly hilarious developments and resolutions. Even during the main plotline, the banter between the main character, Deadpan Snarker Weiss, and foul-mouthed Kaine can get riotously funny.
- While Conkers Bad Fur Day is mostly a very funny game there are some grim moments breaking through the facade. While before this is mostly cruelty against minor characters, this falls back on Conker himself in the ending. After all the time Conker was searching for his girlfriend, he finally finds her only to lose her, perhaps even twice: Not only does she seem quite aloof and not very happy to see him, she also dies at the end. Afterwards, he gets a chance to wish her back to life, but just momentarily forgets about her. In the end he is "King of all the lands", but ultimately without any of the happiness that his wealth could otherwise afford him. He gives an epic monologue on materialism ending with "The grass is always greener, and you don't really know what it is you have until it's gone...gone...gone...". At the end we see him in the Tavern again, alone and drinking, afterwards waggling off in an uncertain future.
- The Saga of Tuck also follows this to a T: when Tuck is beaten and left near death Stuffed into a Locker, all the cracking wise grinds to a halt until he's out of the hospital. This annoyed a few fans who accused it of Cerebus Syndrome.
- Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog does this, complete with downer ending, though YMMV.
- Parodied in an epilogue by the Stylistic Suck Mega Man 10 team, Aggravated Assault / Heaven's Hammarz. Space is Serious Business, and you're not allowed to make jokes in space, or else you'll be thrown out the airlock. Naturally, a lot of drama unfolds during the protagonists' adventure in space, although there is an odd scene of the parents of Vampire Trunks (Sheep Babe's supposed love interest) trying to get him to marry a ham sandwich. At the climax of the story, Commando Man explains to Sheep Babe that "marry" in vampire terms means to eat, explaining the ham sandwich scene. He then gets thrown out the airlock despite his protest that he wasn't joking.
- Almost totally averted by The Venture Bros.. The jokes almost never stop, no matter how serious things get. Word of God claims it actually ruined an intended Moral Event Horizon - The Monarch once put a hooker through a death course, making references to shows like LOST. The creators intended this to be his big creepy Moral Event Horizon, but people just found it hilarious. Otherwise, it's done very well.
- Similar to Cowboy Bebop's varying levels of Ed and Ein, Avatar: The Last Airbender used Momo. If Momo is around, the plot is generally going to be funny, or at least lighthearted. When things go all life-and-death and serious, Momo is nowhere to be found.
- Lampshaded in the Grand Finale, when Aang actually sends Momo away before engaging the Final Boss.
- Subverted in the episode "Tales of Ba Sing Se." While the episode has its share of drama (Iroh's Tale specifically), Momo's segment of the episode is the only one that actually advances the plot.
- Subverted in Adventure Time on the "Holly Jolly Secrets" episode. We're learning the big secret revealing a recurring antagonist, the Ice King, as a Tragic Villain. Literally right after this, Jake tries to humorously say, "drama booomb~!" but the comedy is just not there, not for the audience or any other characters. The rest of the episode following that has at least one other joke, and it's mixed in with what is supposed to be an odd mix of tragedy and heartwarming.