Utilizing the Drama in Comedy

written by Sarah McLean

Comedy mirrors real life, from its foibles to its triumphs. That’s what makes it funny. If comedy is being completely honest, it’s also, at times, dramatic.

Actors are taught early on to find the comedy and lighter moments in a drama so performances are layered and interesting. But drama in a comedy? Nothing kills comedy more than making it dramatic. But that’s only when a script is written to be funny and isn’t honored as such. What about the moments, in a comedy, that are written to be dramatic? Do they have a rightful place in sitcoms? Are those moments also allowed to be funny?

Frequently, hugely dramatic moments in sitcoms yield the biggest laughs.  As an audience we need that cathartic moment in order to feel a sense of resolution in order to move on. A laugh that lets us know everything is going to be okay. Our heroes will go on, stronger than they were before. The greater the rise, the greater fall. In other words, the more gut wrenching and real a dramatic moment is, the bigger the laugh. Add to that a television show where we care so deeply about the characters that we get wrapped up in their lives, for better or worse, in comedy and drama, ‘til network cancellation do we part, and you have the possibility of an exponential resolution.

The one catch to all this is that sitcoms have to earn these dramatic moments. And it can take years. When an audience is watching a new show, we are learning who these characters are and what we can expect from them each week. Throw in a dramatic moment in this early courtship, and we’re put off. Confused. Not sure what we’re getting. We just want the comforting laugh to shake off a stressful day as we get to know our new friends. (Clever and well-thought-out laughs are a bonus.)

When a show has been on long enough they can get away with breaking the traditional comedy rules and creating their own. Like occasionally being dramatic, for instance. But only because we know who the characters are and we trust the writers not to jerk us around.

Will & Grace’s penultimate episode was not funny. There were a few jokes here and there, because it is still a sitcom, but really, it was a hugely dramatic episode to set up the series finale in which Will and Grace, always inseparable, unceremoniously go their separate ways. In fact, the last few episodes leading up to the series finale were more dramatic and heavy rather than comedic and light. A hugely successful, award-winning, critically acclaimed comedy ended its 8-season run, for the most part, dramatically. But, because it’s still a sitcom, viewers leave the show with a warm, fuzzy feeling of fulfillment. (Minimal spoilers, you can still watch if you’ve never seen it.)

Perhaps my favorite dramatic moment in a sitcom comes from a later season episode of Roseanne. In lieu of not doing the scene justice and risk ruining it, I’ll let you watch and judge for yourself:

It goes without saying that Laurie Metcalf (Jackie) is a brilliant actress, but in this scene specifically she is phenomenal. On top of the great writing, she takes a deeply personal, emotional moment, and mines it for every truth that it is worth. It’s both funny and sad. Comedic and dramatic. Painful and wonderful. We’re glad we’re not her but can empathize with what it would be like.

The show takes what is unfortunately a universal situation, death, and makes us laugh at it and how absurdly we sometimes handle it. And that’s not to undercount the moments leading up to the resolution. The jokes before Jackie gets on the phone, the quiet stillness at the very beginning. Each set up more perfect than the last, building to the ultimate pay off. Mind you, this was just the opening to the episode, setting the tone that what will follow for the remainder will make you laugh and cry. Maybe at the same time.

It’s hard to think of ways to make a dramatic moment genuinely funny. But if you go to the honesty of the situation, that’s where you find its humor. How do you make death funny without it being obscene? Take a real-life scenario or possibility (having to call loved ones) and then ask, ‘What could happen in that situation to compound the agony one is feeling (the person you call is deaf so you are forced to repeat the awful news) in a humorous way (you’re now repeatedly screaming that someone has died, only to give up and say they’re fine)?

And for whatever this says about me, that scene is one of my favorite sitcom moments in television history.

Are there any dramatic moments from sitcoms that have stood out for you? How do you feel when you see pure drama in a sitcom? Let us know what you think!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *