The Genius of the Tragic Comedy


“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) Photo courtesy of

Parker Aniszewski

Think back on your favorite comedic moments in film. When I think about my favorite moments of pure comedic genius, almost every one of them has some level of tragedy that inspires the comedic events, creating my favorite sub-genre of film, the Tragic Comedy.

My favorite comedic moment, is from the 2006 movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” a dark, quirky and innately hilarious movie, with great performances from Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin and a very young Abigail Breslin. During one scene while the family is on a road trip, the son Dwayne (Dano) finds out his lifelong goal of being a fighter-pilot for the Air Force, isn’t obtainable because of his recently discovered color blindness. 

Normally, a character might react in a quiet, mad, even sad manner; but with Dwyane, it really adds another element to the story. Dwayne had taken a vow of silence until he became a pilot, and up until this point in the movie, he hadn’t said a single word. We are even told earlier in the movie that he’s been silent for around nine months, so when Dwayne comes barrelling out the van freaking out, he runs to the middle of a field and yells the ‘F’ word as loudly as possible, you feel the pain and anguish from his character. In my mind, this is not a funny moment but rather a truly sad one. When I watched this scene for the first time, I was crying and laughing hysterically at the same time. The highs of this scene are so high, and the lows are so low that the scene feels heavy, like it has real weight to it. The irony of the conflicting emotions is the mechanism that creates a darkly hilarious, yet crushing scene.

One element of the tragic comedy that I absolutely love is how these stories are able to tackle what’s weird, scary or even taboo about our culture, and makes jokes about them. When done right, these moments feel like they fit in with the tone of the movie and are not just used for cheap laughs. A screenwriter’s ability to make something like pregnancy, a bad breakup or even death funny, is truly a unique aspect these sort of movies are capable of. 

One movie that nails this level of seriousness and humor about their topic, is “500 days of Summer.” This movie is edited in a chronologically incorrect fashion, chronicling the relationship of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). It is shown to us one day at a time, jumping from the highs to the lows of being in a relationship. The movie does a great job with parallel shots and symbolism, showing how a traumatizing experience like a breakup can affect one’s outlook.

The key to nailing the tragic comedy genre is being able to encapsulate both the highs and lows of whatever topic the story is on, along with the inherent irony these situations present. When the greatest highs or the lowest lows hit while enjoying the story, it really does make these moments that much more powerful.