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Cerebus Syndrome

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"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 towards Dramedy over the course of a comedy series' run, coined by Eric Burns-White on the now-dead webcomic review blog Websnark after the process undergone by the print comic Cerebus the Aardvark.note  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 cannot 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, 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 series 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. May be heralded by a Wham Episode. 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. When an introduction of a specific character suddenly makes the entire work become serious, then the said character is a Knight of Cerebus. A Sudden Downer Ending incorporates this by default, as downer endings are rarely seen as funny.

May be a case of Growing the Beard if it actually works. Otherwise, fans may respond with They Changed It, Now It Sucks! and Too Bleak, Stopped Caring.

This process may also involve Going Cosmic, with the work beginning to incorporate highly philosophical and theological themes.

It's Cerebus, not Cerberus; not that the latter's reputation helps any.note 

Trope relations:

A Super-Trope to:

Tropes that relate to playing with this trope:



  • 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 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 
  • Not to be confused with the "Cerebus Effect", which refers to both the popularization of trade paperback format in comic book publishing and the effects it had on writing.

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  • Comedian/singer Rodney Carrington, a longtime fixture on The Bob & Tom Show, underwent this starting around 2007. Known mostly for his mix of profane stand-up comedy and equally profane songs such as "Letter to My Penis", "Morning Wood", "Dancing with a Man", and "Titties and Beer". However, he began recording albums consisting largely or entirely of songs, some of which were considerably more serious in tone than before. This culminated in him getting a Black Sheep Hit on the country music charts in 2009, when the dead-serious Christmas song "Camouflage and Christmas Lights" got to #31.
  • George Carlin, in spades. His early stuff was pretty straightforward comedy bits and characters, such as "Baseball vs. Football" and "Hippy-Dippy Weather Man." Then moved on to a bit more satire and slice of life, such as "Seven Dirty Words" and "Stuff." After that, he put the pedal to the metal, and the general tone of his set was "You have no rights; you have owners." "You have no choice; you have the illusion of choice." "Fuck hope."

    Films — Animation 

  • The Adventure Zone: Balance started out as a zany, fairly light-hearted podcast about three brothers and their father playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons together. As the story went on, the plotlines became a lot darker and more intricate, especially during "The Suffering Game" and the arcs that followed. Most of the darkness can be attributed to the fact that, while Justin, Travis and Clint would joke around during earlier serious moments, they start to really take the campaign seriously after the reveal of the Red Robe's true identity, leaving a lot less room for goofs.
  • Wolf 359 starts as a semi-lighthearted sitcom in space, which suddenly becomes a lot darker after Hilbert mutinies and tries to kill the rest of the crew. After this, the podcast becomes a lot more focused on drama and mystery, ditching the sitcom-aesthetic almost entirely.

    Print Media 
  • Computer magazine MacAddict, one of the two magazines split off from the defunct CD-ROM Today in 1996 (boot, now Maximum PC, was the other). When it started out, MacAddict was unafraid to have fun: they often included little cartoons in the letters section and back page (even a stick-figure mascot, Max, who was also used in their reviewing scale); the pages were bright, colorful and rife with Running Gags (for several issues, they joked that each magazine was soaked in Downy before it was shipped out); the CD that shipped with every issue would include something funny like a video of the staff destroying a Windows computer; and so on. In the early 2000s, the magazine got a white, sterile makeover (replacing the Max scale with a normal five-star scale), and the tone gradually shifted to a far more serious and straight-laced approach. This shift culminated in 2007, when the magazine was renamed Mac|Life.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • The year 2006 was, for the most part, a lighthearted year for WWE. Except for some lingering angst over Eddie Guerrero's untimely death the previous year, there were plenty of comic gimmicks (The Boogeyman, Hornswoggle, Vito wearing a dress) and even screwball storylines with D-Generation X reuniting to fight the villainous cheerleaders in the Spirit Squad, other funny heels such as "Mr. Kennedy", and the parodic "Rated-RKO" stable of Edge and Randy Orton. Also, this was before Maria Kanellis had shed her "bimbo" personality. All these comedic elements were even lampshaded by John Cena in a backstage segment with Kanellis. Then, as 2006 closed out and gave way to 2007, things started getting really serious. The Spirit Squad was disbanded; Rated-RKO beat Ric Flair to a bloody pulp; Triple H was badly injured and dropped out of sight; Shawn Michaels went solo and began displaying more heelish characteristics; and Orton left Rated-RKO and began his transition into the sociopathic "Viper", randomly attacking Legends in almost stalker fashion and then beginning a vendetta against Cena that culminated in kicking Cena's father in the head. And the less said about what happened to Chris Benoit, the better. Things got still darker in 2008, with Chris Jericho returning as a Dark Messiah who eventually turned completely heel; Ric Flair being retired by Shawn Michaels, who was then attacked by both Jericho and an almost heel Batista for it (with Batista all but murdering Michaels in an Extreme Rules Match during which he said he hated Michaels and he was not sorry for what he was doing to him); Kane becoming a psychotic heel again after several years of being a face; Edge being put in an angle with The Undertaker as punishment for betraying Vickie Guerrero on what would have been their wedding day and slowly becoming unglued before temporarily being sent to Hell; and Jeff Hardy becoming a much darker character in creepy corpse paint and being stalked by a mysterious assailant (who in 2009 would turn out to be his brother, Matt).
  • Braun the Leprechaun aside, the Dungeon of Doom's feud with Chris Benoit in 1996-1997 WCW was generally devoid of the cartoonish elements of the DOD's feud with Hulk Hogan in 1995-1996.

  • Let George Do It initially started out as a comedy about a soldier back from the war going into business as a professional odd-jobs man, doing things too silly or embarrassing for others to do, including occasional work as a private detective. He had a lovely young woman to assist him, with a gee-whiz little brother to get into light-hearted trouble. Over the course of several episodes, however, changes like the sudden disappearance of the kid brother and the music going from full orchestra to organ-only darkened the tone of the show to the hard boiled detective series that the show is known for being now.

  • Camelot starts out extremely lighthearted, with Camelot as a perfect fairy tale kingdom full of silliness and happy comedy. By the end, the kingdom has fallen, Arthur has been betrayed by the two people most dear to him in the world, and he is about to go meet his own doom. He instructs little Tommy Malory to write and preserve the memory of when things were good, to inspire the future.
  • The Fantasticks also has its Happily Ever After moment coming at the end of Act 1. Act Two begins with the characters discovering that their Happily Ever After... isn't.
  • Into the Woods is all wishes and dreams coming true in the first act, but then Act Two begins and the giant shows up.
  • Next to Normal is a lot of fun and jokes about a quirky family, until a one-two punch partway through the first act— Diana stops taking her medications, and her teenage son Gabe (who encouraged her to go off her meds) is revealed to be dead and Diana's hallucination. It only deteriorates more in the second act.
  • William Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure while composing his greatest tragedies. Described as his "farewell to comedy", it ended in weddings (as all his comedies did) but had very little to laugh about. It was also the last one he wrote, except for The Tempest and The Winter's Tale.
  • Most of the first act of Wicked is a light-hearted story about a green girl trying to fit into school and becoming friends with her popular, ditzy roommate while also falling in love with the class clown. By the end of the Act, culminating in "Defying Gravity", Elphaba discovers the truth behind the Wizard and vows to right his wrongs, getting her labeled as public enemy number one and having her best friend choose fame and power over the side of good and truth. That's just Act 1; it gets much worse in the second act.
  • The first two-thirds of 1776 are, by and large, hilarious, though there are moments of seriousness. But after the song "Cool, Conservative Men", the musical takes a sharp turn for the dark, kicked off by the haunting tearjerker "Mama, Look Sharp". There are occasional moments of levity afterward, but they are few and far between as the play grapples with the true cost of revolution and the "original sin" of slavery.


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Alternative Title(s): First And Ten Syndrome, Funny Series To Serious Series


The Symptoms

In his review for Helluva Boss, Saberspark brings up traits that fit the trope of Cerebus Syndrome.

How well does it match the trope?

4.6 (15 votes)

Example of:

Main / CerebusSyndrome

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