Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?
~ G.K. Chesterton
The Internet is buzzing over Luke Cage, the latest Marvel superhero show from Netflix. I’ve watched only a few episodes, but it’s pretty good so far, with compelling drama, solid acting, a funky soundtrack—and thank heaven, a sense of humor.
In art, as in life, humor is invaluable. Shakespeare understood this. He wrote a lot of comedies, and even his tragedies have gleams of humor. Romeo and Juliet is full of dirty jokes, and Hamlet has the funny gravedigger. (I don’t even like Shakespeare’s plays, but that scene from Hamlet makes me smile.) William Shakespeare is widely regarded as a master storyteller, and comic relief is a key part of his stories.
Comic relief is a storytelling technique in which humorous moments, characters, or dialogue are included in an otherwise dark or serious story. The purpose of comic relief is generally to relieve tension, softening stories that might otherwise be unpleasant or unpalatable.
(Comedies can’t have comic relief because they’re already comical. Comic relief describes not a comical tone, but a break from a serious one. Incidentally, if tragedies have comic relief, shouldn’t comedies have tragic relief? Just wondering.)
When Netflix began making shows about Marvel superheroes, it began with Daredevil, an outstanding series that I totally loved. Daredevil used comic relief very effectively. It’s a dark show. Its heroes (and, unexpectedly, its villains) wrestle with guilt, rage, self-doubt, and other inner demons. A lot of people die violently. Corruption runs rampant. Heck, there’s even a lot of literal darkness.
Fortunately, the darker elements of Daredevil are kept in check by comic relief. My favorite character, Foggy Nelson, brings sarcasm, cheerful pessimism, and warm humanity to a fairly angsty cast of characters. One of the villain’s advisers, Leland Owlsley, reacts to everything with a perfect mixture of snark and grumpiness. Even Daredevil’s mentor, a ruthless killer named Stick, speaks with a dry, sardonic sense of humor. There’s just enough humor (and humanity) in Daredevil to make the darkness and tragedy palatable.
Then came Jessica Jones, Netflix’s follow-up to Daredevil, and lo, it was painfully bleak. Without going into details—believe me, they aren’t pleasant—it’s a show about violence, abuse, betrayal, addiction, and toxic relationships, with some rape metaphors thrown in for good measure. The entire show hinges on the protagonist’s abusive relationship with a super-powered sadist. Yeah. Nasty stuff.
The thing is that Jessica Jones is actually an artistic, thoughtful, well-written, well-acted drama. It’s just painful to watch. There’s nothing to brighten the gloom or ease the tension. (David Tennant is in it, and he’s awesome, but his character is a cruel, rapey, mind-controlling stalker, so… yeah, that doesn’t help.) None of the characters are likable, and there’s no comic relief. Wait, no, I recall one joke. I think it might be repeated once. That’s it. Jessica Jones is thirteen episodes of misery.
I’ve seen the first season of Daredevil twice. I will never watch Jessica Jones again. The hope and humor in Daredevil make the darker bits bearable. Jessica Jones is all darker bits.
So far, Luke Cage, which follows the events of Jessica Jones, has been really good. There aren’t as many quips as in Daredevil—man, do I ever miss Foggy Nelson—but the characters in Luke Cage at least have a sense of humor, and it makes a world of difference.
Not every tragedy needs comic relief. I can’t help but think of Shūsaku Endō, who wrote such terrific novels as Silence and The Samurai. There’s no humor in these books, and they’re more powerful for it.
Comic relief isn’t an absolute necessity, but it’s often helpful. Stories are told to edify, sure, but also to entertain… and who doesn’t appreciate a laugh?