Turning Tragedy into Humor

28 Nov

Chaplin eating his shoe

In Silverscreenings article on Dr. Strangelove, she brought out a very interesting aspect of the film, how Stanley Kubrick originally intended his film to be a serious drama, but he kept having ideas for his film that he knew would make people laugh, so he instead turned the film into a comedy. Ultimately, she felt that the humor made his point about nuclear warfare all the more potent.

Humor can serve many purposes. One is simply to entertain and make us laugh (always pleasant). Another is rhetorical, to make someone’s position look absurd. I have to admit to being leery of humor used in this way. Not because it isn’t effective or even funny, but because I always feel like I have to be on the alert that I do not allow the humor itself to change my mind.

But another use of humor, the one Silverscreenings highlighted, has really fascinated me. It is to use humor to make something that is not funny at all more accessible to us. Using humor to help us comprehend something that might otherwise be too horrible to grasp. Two masters of this technique who I have been thinking about recently are Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens.

Perhaps the finest example of turning something terrible into an indelible moment of humor is the scene in The Gold Rush, where Charlie Chaplin and his friend, played by Mack Swain, are starving in a cabin during a snow storm. Chaplin cooks his boot and serves it for Thanksgiving and later Swain imagines that Chaplin is a chicken and chases him around the cabin trying to shoot him. It’s funny, and yet starvation is actually horrible. While the German army were sieging Leningrad, the inhabitants ate glue. One reads of stories of people becoming deranged with hunger. During the Stalin-induced famine of 1933 in Ukraine, there were a startling number of people who ate other people.

Curiously, it does not seem like Chaplin exaggerates at all in The Gold Rush. He just made it funny. He took a topic that no one would particularly like to watch and made us watch it. He does the same thing with poverty.

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasentness behind him

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasantness away

Charles Dickens is another person who uses humor in this way. Not exactly a barrel of laughs, but Beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist could have been a loathsome character (which he really is), but Dickens turns him into a figure of fun, even though it’s clear Dickens hates him and everything he stands for (the workhouse), but even gives him several unforgettable lines (“The law is a ass”). By making Bumble unforgettable, Dickens also makes the workhouse unforgettable.

I’m reading Our Mutual Friend right now, Dickens’ last completed novel, where we meet the wealthy Mr. Podsnap, who has a trick of using his arm to metaphorically sweep all unpleasant subjects away from him – any subject that would “bring a blush into the cheek of the young person [his daughter].” Hunger, poverty, the existence of other countries other than his own. I think that is what Dickens uses humor to do, to prevent us from sweeping it all behind us.

But it also makes it accessible. Few people would voluntarily watch a movie or read a book about starvation. I’m not sure starvation is something we could fully comprehend (unless we had really gone hungry) or even nuclear warfare. We understand intellectually, but not truly. Humor can give one an “in.” A way to approach the subject and really look at it.


Posted by on November 28, 2016 in Books, Movies


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14 responses to “Turning Tragedy into Humor

  1. Eric Binford

    November 28, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    “… use humor to make something that is not funny at all more accessible to us. Using humor to help us comprehend something that might otherwise be too horrible to grasp.” Very well put. Examples: psychopathy in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), war in MASH (1970), medical malpractice in The Hospital (1973), misogyny in Tootsie (1982), family dysfunction in Terms of Endearment (1982), the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful (1997), etc. In all cases humor was used as a sort of “sugar” to make the bitter medicine go down.When done right, it’s illuminating. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 28, 2016 at 8:18 pm

      Those are great examples! I was really hoping to hear some other examples – thanks! I was having trouble getting my mind off of Dickens Chaplin and trying to think of other films. And your examples show how humor can illuminate serious topics even besides overt tragedy (like misogyny).

      I so love Tootsie! I’ve never seen Life is Beautiful, though, but would like to see that one very much. That seems very bold indeed, to take on the Holocaust with a dose of humor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        November 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm

        Roberto Benigni was clearly influenced by Chaplin (… and Chaplin was influenced by Dickens). Life is Beautiful is definitely Chaplinesque, AND Dickensian. The movie tends to stir up strong emotional responses precisely because Benigni attempted to make a comedy out of the Holocaust. It really shouldn’t work but it does. Anyhow, most people don’t like to be lectured — I have a friend who hates Stanley Kramer’s movies (e.g. The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) because of that — so I think humor is an awesome way to camouflage the message. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          November 29, 2016 at 8:44 pm

          Yes, I think that’s very true! And with humor, it is easier to revisit a story and mine it for all it’s worth because it’s easier to revisit. When I see movies like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas it has a profound affect on me and I’m glad I see it, but it would be hard to watch again – it’s exhausting emotionally.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. FictionFan

    November 29, 2016 at 2:13 am

    Interesting choices! I love Dickens (and will be reading Our Mutual Friend over Christmas) and do see what you mean about his use of humour in bad situations, though he does also use blazing anger, which I personally find more effective. Chaplin, on the other hand, I could never appreciate properly – I always felt I was being invited to laugh at him rather than with him, even when I was a little child (though I didn’t put it that way obviously then). But his humour always made me feel uncomfortable. Thinking about it, I struggle with humour when it’s used in this way – MASH too made me uncomfortable – the film, not the series. The series kinda took the worst of the tragedy out, which made it more palatable somehow. I feel this is a kind of burbly comment, so I’ll stop now… 😉 but thanks for making me think!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 29, 2016 at 11:46 am

      Burbly is good! Thanks for sharing how that kind of humor affects you! You’ve made me think, too. It does seem like a precarious line, whether or not it is appropriate to apply humor to a particular topic.

      I was reading about Buster Keaton’s The General – which was released in 1925. It’s now considered his best film, but at the time it was thought to be in poor taste to make a comedy about a national tragedy (the American Civil War). I suppose it would be like making a comedy about 9/11. But it makes one wonder if someday they will make comedies about it.

      Dickens over Christmas sounds like a lovely thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    November 29, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Much food for thought. I often find myself wondering why I would laugh at some things, and then realize that I have manipulated. Of course, that is the joy of reading/watching the work of those who have a strong hand on their work and the impact they hope to achieve. Laughing is sometimes a release from thinking, but is also an excellent tool for opening our minds to possibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 29, 2016 at 11:50 am

      “Manipulated” – that’s so true! Great point. It’s amazing how one can end up laughing at something that technically, normally, one would find offensive or about something one does not even like or agree with.

      Though it seems like crying is a similar thing. Several of my family members do not like to watch tearjerkers – they says they feel they are being manipulated. I guess it is just more fun being manipulated into laughter.


  4. silverscreenclassicsblog

    November 29, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article which raises the question of human response to all and any situations. The mentioning of Life Is Beautiful and its’ presentation of the Holocaust brings to mind Mel Brooks’ take on Hitler and the Nazis – the sheer absurdity of the whole situation; how stupid and ridiculous the whole notion of racial superiority and the decision to exterminate a people based on that notion is beyond comprehension. Additionally, a story by a survivor (whose name escapes me) touches on this point; at one point whilst in a camp, they broke out in laughter because all other emotions where exhausted and the sheer stupidity of the situation took hold of them.

    If anything, humour does get us thinking, as it breaks through pre-conceived notions and has us thinking from a new and fresh angle. Hence the success of satire a la Dr Strangelove, Duck Soup and others.

    Again, many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 29, 2016 at 9:00 pm

      Thank you! That is an extraordinary story. It’s hard to imagine laughing in a situation such as that, the last reaction I would have imagined, yet hearing it…it seems to show that laughter can result from deep feeling or tragedy just as surely as tears.

      Thanks for the comment and sharing the story!


  5. Silver Screenings

    December 1, 2016 at 4:06 am

    Thanks for the shout-out, and I really enjoyed this thoughtful look at using humour when exploring horrifying themes. A previous commenter talked about “Life is Beautiful”, which is an excellent example. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene that had me laughing – and weeping (with sorrow) – at the same time. I can’t remember another film that brought out these two strong and conflicting emotions at once.

    “Our Mutual Friend” sounds like a terrific read. Must search for it in the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 1, 2016 at 11:55 am

      Though not often listed as one of Dickens top novels, Our Mutual Friend is actually one of my favorite of his novels (there was a terrific BBC miniseries made in 1998, too) – he uses the river as a kind of metaphor that also binds all the story threads together. Very haunting at times.

      Life is Beautiful sounds like a special movie. To evoke sorrow and laughter at the same time – your description is very powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. carygrantwonteatyou

    December 2, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Great post. One of my favorites is Blazing Saddles for its coverage of racism. I find few portrayals quite as effective. Or what about Better off Ted (underrated TV show’s) corporate satire, where the company creates some kind of technology where black workers can’t be seen by the cameras at all. So much incisive commentary there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 2, 2016 at 7:59 pm

      Thank you! And thanks for the great examples! I’ve never seen Blazing Saddles, but ironically just picked it up from the library today and am now looking forward to seeing it more than ever. 🙂



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