Mel Brooks once said something to the effect that comedy is harder than tragedy, because while it’s easy to make one person cry at something, it’s a lot harder to make them laugh. Whether or not that’s true, some of the greatest television dramas of the past couple decades have risen to this challenge by blurring the lines between genres. By incorporating comedic elements into their episodes, they’ve provided audiences with hilarious scenes that stay with viewers for years. But why? What advantage is there in inserting these moments of levity into otherwise bleak proceedings? The one thing that some of the most successful and beloved shows of recent years – like Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” – have in common is a surprisingly deft comic touch.
First, it’s a necessary tension breaker. After scenes and entire episodes dealing with the various intricacies of betrayals and murders, an audience needs something to relieve that pressure, breaking up the funeral dirge of favorite characters and grim moments. The deftest writers, those of the shows previously mentioned, are usually very good at incorporating these moments of laughter into plot-driven parts, making it natural rather than a transparent attempt at easing the tension and angst inherent in life, death and tragedy. For example, in “Game of Thrones,” while the wedding between Tyrion and Sansa is a veritable downer moment that finds two beloved characters in a situation neither enjoys but are forced to undergo, the writers find time for a drunken Tyrion to make merry and therefore mock the seriousness of the occasion.
Another instance of this can be found in “Breaking Bad,” when, during a tense stand off with rival cartel thugs, the writers find a way to add a bit of comedy to Mike the Cleaner’s actions as he frees Chow from the clutches of nefarious men. It’s a tense stand-off that leads to a streak of physical comedy that lets the audience unclench their muscles and breathe easier.
In both cases, the writers are undercutting the pervasive dark mood with a moment of levity, preventing viewers from curling up in a ball as a result of all the heaviness. If the mood never changes from grim and dour, the audience shoulders too much of a weight and grows tired, thumbs resting heavily on the channel button. That break in the proceedings, the gift of a laugh in the face of overwhelming odds, allows the audience some much-needed relief from the constant emotional assault, rewarding them with a well-earned serotonin boost.
The other reason it pays to incorporate comedy into these dramatic stories? Realism. That may sound preposterous when talking about shows with dragons and zombies and bad guys with an insatiable bloodlust, but it is an important factor in grounding the proceedings in the real world and making them relatable. Life, despite all of its slings and arrows, still provides moments that take people away from the constant crush of their day to day of whatever reality in which they’re living. Heck, even when things are at their bleakest, it can be gallows humor that allows people to maintain their sanity in the face of overwhelming difficulties. The fact is that real people aren’t super serious all the time; they aren’t marching forward into the shadows grimfaced and joyless. So when the writers inject their narratives with moments of comedy, they are skirting surrealism and instead creating a real world to which people can relate. That bonds the characters (and by extension, the show) to the viewers and makes the world in which they live a believable one.
Take, for example, one of the best scenes to ever come out of “The Wire.” When investigating an old shooting – one that will shine new light on an ongoing case that has pitted the Baltimore PD against an exceptionally brilliant drug operation – the writers find a way to make the discoveries funny. This scene could easily be an incredibly solemn look at what was missed the first time, how police botch their jobs, or even an attempt to show just how great our ‘heroes’ are at their police work. Instead, by only using everyone’s favorite four-letter word and variations therein, it becomes both a masterclass on the word’s usage and a pretty funny moment where the detectives are rendered otherwise speechless at what they’re encountering.
It’s an entirely relatable scene that humanizes the detectives and grounds the overarching plot in a realistic moment while also furthering the plot.
Of course, not every comic scene absolutely has to further the plot; some are just character moments that allow audiences to laugh at a beleaguered member of the cast. Like on “Mad Men,” when Pete Campbell responds, after an unfortunate reversal of fortune, to his co-worker:
Or in “The Sopranos,” when drug-addled lost boy/mob enforcer Chris tries to bond with his idol Martin Scorsese outside of a nightclub by namechecking “Kundun.”
It’s these little moments of comedy for characters that broadens their horizons and makes them fully realized individuals. Sure, some can be relied on more than others to offer up quips, like Paulie Walnuts in “The Sopranos” or Jesse Pinkman in “Breaking Bad,” but both characters endure dark and trying times as well, and it’s the light shone in these moments that make their more dramatic beats hit even harder. Since audiences know that these people are capable of having lighthearted moments or being funny, when the drama does occur, it’s amplified, because now there is no solace in the comedy and no easy punchline to emerge.
Some dramatic shows largely eschew comedic moments, like “The Walking Dead.” There are a handful of jokes in that show, but mostly it’s everyone being stone cold and serious about their predicament, speaking in absolutes and ultimatums. Others are funny in spite of themselves, like the soap operatics of Shonda Rhimes’ various programs or “Empire.” But when the writers intentionally infuse their normally dark and dire world with a shot of comedy, when they show the real human side of the characters in between the murders and jockeying for power, it opens up the show and makes it much easier for audiences to believe in what they are watching. They can laugh a little, smile a bit, enjoy this moment however brief, but it goes a long way towards endearing the characters to viewers and making the world they inhabit one that is readily recognized.