Comedy And Serious Topics: How Is It Portrayed In Film?

© Copyright 2017 Alexis Kuskevics, Ryerson University

As one of the leading genres in show business, the production of comedy is a clever approach to storytelling that has formed through the various spectrums of dramatic expression. It offers audience members an opportunity to view their conflicts in a different perspective; supplying them with the necessary tools in obtaining a more positive mindset. It teaches us of the obstacles we can overcome through the prosperity of an optimistic attitude, and even inspires us with a potential to conquer challenging situations. Whether this is a philosophy the public can rely on, or one that they have yet to become comfortable with, the themes of comedy and positivity has grown tremendously within the entertainment industry. In music, it can be discovered through Jimmy Buffett’s classic tune, ‘Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes,’ as he sings about the potential to better people’s lives through the act of positivity. In television, it can be found through acclaimed comedies such as Modern Family and both the American and British versions of The Office. Humour is everywhere, for it is universal. It doesn’t require mutual language to find something funny, and perhaps this is why we can connect so effortlessly with it.

Benigni, Roberto, director. “Life Is Beautiful.” Poster. Cecchi Gori Distribuzione, 1997.

The above examples of comedy are successful because they are able to provide comic relief through even the most mundane experiences (i.e., family life, work). Though, as refreshing as comedy is, an important question remains – what about situations that, in context, are not funny? What of the stories with bleak history and events? Admittedly, humour is most commonly found amongst simple backgrounds, though there are examples of media that have been able to tackle serious topics through humour. In particular, the art of film has been critically acclaimed for their approaches of humour in serious movies. In 2016, a public panel was even held about using comedy to address critical issues in film: “Humour has the power to engage the public in a positive way with sensitive, complex, or controversial issues – reflected in science everywhere,” (Patel, 2016). It is an ideology that is challenging to accomplish, though two films that have been successful in their attempts are La Vita E Bella (1997) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Since the studies of both humour and film include immense backgrounds of research, I will be analyzing these movies through two major theories of comedy: the superiority theory, which is found in La Vita E Bella, and the incongruity theory in Silver Linings Playbook. Altogether, these movies handle serious subjects – mental illness and the holocaust – and although neither of these topics is positive on the surface, the films still manage to humanize the plot through a more uplifting portrayal.

Theories of Comedy

            To expand, there are numerous theories and philosophies that evolved since the inception of comical productions. Comedy is a massive genre, and similar to other major ideologies, it has been studied in both its context and its effect on audience members. Humour, in brief, is described as “an involuntary state of mental amusement that comes about via observation of action, speech, writing, or introspection,” (Olson, 2007). It constantly introduces different perspectives, and amongst the multiple approaches that examine this ideology, there are only two major theories that will be analyzed throughout this paper. The superiority theory, a popular method used in ancient Greek comedy, is designed to make audience members laugh at situations that are exaggerated by the character. “Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves,” (Morreall, 2016). It can be exhibited when someone slips on a banana peel or finds their sunglasses on their head. This is why we laugh when Steve Carrell gets his chest waxed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and when Zach Galifianakis gets tased in The Hangover. Initially, they’re not exactly situations we would laugh at if we were in them – unless you’re the type of person that snickers in uncomfortable situations – but that’s how the superiority theory works. It makes a person laugh because they feel ‘superior’ to what’s happening to the story or character(s), and it is used as the main approach of humour in La Vita E Bella. In addition to this, the theory of incongruity is another major theme of comedy, though will be used to analyze Silver Linings Playbook. The incongruity theory is described as laughing at something that seems misplaced or out of context. It is defined as being the “idea that we laugh at things that surprise us because they seem out of place,” (“Incongruity Theory”, Laugh Lab). This theory surprises us – it challenges our natural perspective of what is categorized as ‘funny.’ It kind of operates more so like a joke; it tries to lead us to the final punch line but the end result is much more different than what the audience members would expect. Given these points, although there are various approaches used in comedy, the superiority and incongruity theory are exercised the most within the entertainment industry.

A Critical Approach to La Vita E Bella

            The first movie to be discussed, La Vita E Bella, is an Italian foreign film that gained critical acclaim when it first debuted in 1997. Titled Life Is Beautiful for English audiences, it tells the story of a father who tries to convince his son that the concentration camp they’re trapped in is merely a game. Throughout the movie, he explains the rules of the ‘game’ to his child – if you ask for food, you lose points, if you do everything that the men in uniform ask you to, you gain points. As can be seen in the trailer linked throughout the paper, the humour used in the film isn’t in response to the backdrop of the holocaust but as a response to how the characters interpret it. Covering a story about the Second World War is no doubt a challenging setting, though the comical relief applied in the film is able to brighten the brutal events. Roberto Benigni, who wrote, starred and directed the film, uses the superiority theory in altering an optimistic take on the historic period. For example, in the scene where a German soldier asks for someone to translate his orders in Italian, Benigni’s character volunteers to do so. Although, instead of translating the accurate rules, he translates what he thinks would further convince his son of the ‘game’ they will be playing in the camp. This scene, and the ones when Benigni rides his bike into a woman and enters a crowded ballroom on a green horse, coincides with the superiority theory. We laugh because it is rather preposterous, and as defined through the superiority theory, it can “also make people laugh, meanly, at things that aren’t technically jokes at all,” (Inglis-Arkell, 2013). It’s his performance that makes us laugh and his performance that makes his cry, because – even through comedy – we can feel the desperation in his pursuit. “Between the tension and feelings of hopelessness and despair, there is optimism and humanity, communicating the message that ultimately goodness will prevail over evil because of the resilience of the human spirit, reflected in [Benigni’s] humour right up to the moment he faces death,” (Armstrong, 2001). Indeed, although the film handles a serious topic, it still manages to demonstrate the beauty of humour and how it can assist us in overcoming the most difficult times. For La Vita E Bella is an inspirational story that uses comedy to enlighten a troubling situation, all with the assistance of the superiority theory.

Russell, David O., director. “Silver Linings Playbook.” Poster. The Weinstein Company, 2012.

Take Two – Mental Illness In Silver Linings Playbook

            As has been previously mentioned, using humour in serious films is also exhibited in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Released in 2012, the Academy-Award winning feature follows the life of Pat Jr.  – played by Bradley Cooper – and his struggle with his bipolar disorder. The film not only portrays the hardships involving mental illness, but also the stigma it is associated with. As can be seen in the trailer, Silver Linings Playbook approaches this narrative with humour, and more specifically, the incongruity theory of humour. It is a film that is made comical through unexpected situations, for that is how the incongruity theory operates. “The neatness of the joke will depend on two things: the degree of contrast between the two elements, and the completeness with which they are made to fuse,” (Monro, 1988). The audience finds examples in this throughout various scenes of the film, but it is most notable in its context. Mental illness has become a crucial subject in society, and it’s not expected of us to laugh at something that experiments with this issue. Though that is how the incongruity theory is designed, we laugh during the film because it creates a safe place in doing so. For example, in one pivotal scene, when Jennifer Lawrence’s character tells Pat that she was fired because she slept with everyone in her office, we laugh. Not because it’s something to find humorous, but because of the delivery and unexpected context of it. “Russell’s script works as a drama and comedy, balancing both in a manner that mirrors reality. Humour can be found following even the dreariest of moments, just as one favourable instant can take a turn for the worse in the next,” (Kutulos, 2012). It’s much of what occurs throughout the film – the main characters Pat and Tiffany are unhinged and we, as an audience, feel their urgency as well. We don’t know what they’re going to say and we don’t know how they’re going to respond to what other people tell them. It’s an adrenaline rush, trying to figure it out, and it’s what keeps us attached to their personalities. “Pat maintains a positive attitude towards living with a psychiatric disorder and is undeterred by the negative reactions of friends and family. Pat Junior models a positive attitude towards treatment, uses medications and is seen to improve,” (Ilves, 2016). The film’s scenes are dependent on the audience not expecting what is to come of it, and that is where the humour hits us the most – where the punch line finally kicks in. All things considered, the movie offers a sanctuary for people to feel comfortable within the orthodox portrayal of it, all due to the success of the incongruity theory.

Are These Approaches Working?

              In the final analysis, La Vita E Bella and Silver Linings Playbook are acclaimed films that depict serious topics through the art of comedy. Both films are universally praised for various reasons – exceptional acting, script, directing – for critics and scholars alike have identified these two features as great pieces of cinematic philosophy. “What is laughed at is a reflection of culture. Indeed, it has become a significant part of the patterns of consumption in culture, as we spend time and money engaged with humorous comics, books, plays and shows, radio and television programs, and films,” (Armstrong, 2001). The films provide audience members an opportunity to view these universal issues of suffering and illness through a different perspective. They allow us to believe in a world where even the worst of conflicts have the potential to be solved, if not in results then in interpretation and attitude. It gives us hope, for the characters in both La Vita E Bella and Silver Linings Playbook are imperfectly flawed, though we still desire to be like them due to their uplifting personalities. They are reckless though responsible, confused yet determined, and we strive to obtain such behaviours. To summarize, while both movies handle a critical subject matter, it is the interpretation that makes them different. These issues are difficult to discuss, they always have been, though the movies approach it in a way where they don’t have to be. Ultimately, the effect of the films is dependent on the audience members, though based on the worldwide acclaim that the movies have obtained throughout the years, it is clear that these approaches have found a concrete place in the entertainment industry.

Armstrong, P. “‘I Cried Till I Laughed’: Film and the Humour of the Holocaust. 2001, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Ilves, Peter K., et al. “The Role of Film in Public Perception of Bipolar Disorder:Perpetuating Stigma in Silver Linings Playbook.” Journal of Ethics in Mental Health, 2016, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

“Incongruity Theory.” Laugh Lab, WordPress, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Inglis-Arkell, Esther. “Bullies Use The Superiority Theory to Turn Laughter Into a Weapon.” Gizmodo, 15 Oct. 2013, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Kutulos, Alex. “Playbook Redefines Rom-Comedy Rules.” Daily Trojan, 19 Nov. 2012, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Monro, David H. “Theories of Humour.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, vol. 3, 1988, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humour.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab, 20 Nov. 2012, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Olson, Eric D. “The Horror of Humour: Tension, Dehumanization, and Related Observations.” Gustavus Adolphus College, 2007, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017.

Patel, Kasha. “Using Humour to Address Serious Topics.” AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting, AAAS, Feb. 2016, Accessed 4 Apr. 2017