Kailee Parsons examines why tragicomedy is the genre that we all need right now
I am certainly not the first to acknowledge, especially in light of the past year, that living in the world is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Life is fundamentally painful and absurd; the incomprehensibility of the world often feels insurmountable. It is difficult not to feel terrified learning to navigate the trials of everyday life, most of us entering our twenties, as we are, in what feels like end times. Like most people, I spent a lot of time in lockdown watching Netflix and YouTube, and at first, everything I wanted to watch was void of emotion: cheesy sitcoms, documentaries, decades-old episodes of University Challenge and Would I Lie to You?. Eventually, though, I wanted to feel something real. I wanted someone to share in the angst and anxiety I was experiencing, something to untangle the complexity of a worldwide pandemic and a life in sudden lockdown. Enter the tragicomedy.
Tragicomedy is the perfect solution for people like me who can benefit from the release of emotion that tragedy offers, but find it just short of insane to watch something sad on purpose. The comic element allows us to enjoy ourselves and let down our guard enough for the story to mean something. Tragicomedy allows us to acknowledge the duplicity of life, to acknowledge the messiness we feel but then to move beyond it, to find catharsis in the humour and whimsy of a broken world.
And, it seems I am not alone. The success of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s hit series Fleabag, for one, seems proof of this. Beyond her mask of witty and sexually charged remarks is a woman who has lost two of the most important people in her life and feels wholly alone in the world as a result. Fleabag is deeply hurting, experiencing loss and shame, and this is really the point of the show. But, it’s funny. Whether you’re tittering uncomfortably at a lewd joke or laughing out loud at a wholly unexpected relational moment (think: Fleabag instinctively smacking her sister when she leans in for a hug), Fleabag is a show that allows you to laugh at its main character as much as you sympathise with her. It is emotionally safe to relate to Fleabag, because there is a level of detachment, and no matter how much we feel we may have screwed up in life, it is difficult to imagine doing so to the extent of Fleabag. In doing so, she becomes a kind of scapegoat: we can release our emotions in our sympathy for her, without thinking about how we experience those painful emotions ourselves.
After a particularly dry quip to her bank manager (Hugh Dennis), Fleabag looks up at him pitifully with mascara stained cheeks. “Is that a joke?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
Elsewhere, Fleabag’s sister Claire’s laughter disintegrates into sobs that come from pain rather than mirth, and both are somehow equally genuine. It’s such a simple moment, but I think it accurately depicts the dichotomy of existence. Life is not all bad, as it turns out, nor all good, and it is often impossible even to tell where to separate the two.
Bojack Horseman is another tragicomedy of note, which takes a bleak and nihilistic approach to examining the philosophical problem of the unhappy king, here a washed-up celebrity who spends all his time chasing hedonistic pleasures and feeling he has lived an empty and meaningless life. Again, the humour of the show and the fact that the central character is a cartoon horse allows us to feel more comfortable with its bleak premise than we might have done if it were a primetime drama. It’s sad, but because it’s also funny, it’s safe.
My personal favourite of this genre is Channel 4’s Flowers, a programme that remains surprisingly unknown despite its cast led by Julian Barratt and Olivia Coleman. The Flowers are a family of eccentric and unhappy artists, headed by Maurice (Barratt), a struggling children’s book author who is having trouble hiding his failed suicide attempt from his wife (Coleman). Once again, it’s a pitch black premise for a sitcom, but it works. The humour comes from the oddball nature of the Flower family and their neighbours, as well as the building of and consequences of Maurice’s lie, never from the mental illness of its protagonists. It also manages to turn the depressed genius stereotype on its head in that Maurice is a highly creative man who can no longer work because of his depression. It is also an odd show, I admit, as are Fleabag and Bojack Horseman, but it is precisely these oddities and imperfections that make the shows so honest.
For me, the thing that makes Flowers in particular so special is its acknowledgement that art can and does have the ability to connect people across time and space. Without giving too much away, it is the very tragedies of life and the courage to share them that let us know that we are not alone, and that things will get better. Though art cannot solve all problems, it often gives us the courage to face another day.
Tragicomedy is not limited to television, of course. Films like Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton and Faris, 2006) fall into this genre, while directors like Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi have made a career out of it.
“My favourite kind of comedy comes from the awkwardness of living, the stuff that makes you cringe but borders on tragic,” says Waititi. “At the end of the day, the reality is we’re all losers, and we’re all uncoordinated… there’s something quite endearing about that.”
Neither is the appeal of tragicomedy new. Certainly many of Shakespeare’s comedies are actually tragicomedies, like Much Ado About Nothing. When thinking of the popularity of tragicomedy in the past, however, I immediately think of the decades just following the Second World War.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a prime example, a stark look at the horror of war and the impossibility of returning to a mundane life thereafter. However, it is also a comedy, as well as a book that captures the rich beauty of being human, forced to recognise that life is completely outside of one’s control. Slaughterhouse-Five also celebrates the necessity of art as its hero turns to science-fiction to grapple with questions of existentialism and loss, as perhaps Vonnegut hopes his readers will with his novels.
Less overtly about the war are the works of J.D. Salinger, a man known for writing about teenage angst who nevertheless saw some of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War. It is perhaps because of these experiences that he is so fascinated with the loss of innocence and naivety, and why young people seem to gravitate toward him today.
Likewise, with the end of the war came the philosophy of existentialism. While some philosophers expressed their beliefs through non-fiction, others, like Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, channeled them into novels or plays. Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, can be considered part of the movement of the Theatre of the Absurd, a genre that explores a loss of meaning or communication between characters.
Though most of us are no longer processing the horrors of the Second World War, it seems as though the genre is flourishing once again. Journalists have observed a sense of nihilism and dark humour in the Millennial and Gen Z generations, a kind of “laugh so we don’t cry” mentality.
What is particularly interesting is that the genre took off long before the dreaded 2020. There was already angst, perhaps economic, perhaps political, or perhaps simply existential, as we attempt to navigate a world that is more technologically connected, yet emotionally more disconnected than we have ever been. A friend of mine recently admitted to feeling guilty when she could no longer stand to hear the news, or respond to the hundreds of world crises that we hear about daily. We are not built to sustain the weight of so much tragedy alone.
So, we turn to art to reassure us that we are not alone, to sort out complicated emotions, and to distract us, at least for some time. Tragicomedy also allows us to see the beauty and humour in life, and to laugh at our own misfortune.
Looking ahead, it seems probable that we will soon see comedy inspired by the pandemic. In fact, various streaming platforms have already offered me their standup specials on the subject. The sitcom Staged, too, is a great example of how we can continue to create when even filming in the same location is prohibited, as well as a wry look at the struggles of Zoom and the intense insanity of lockdown (David Tennant and Michael Sheen standing in their backyards screaming whilst their neighbours call to check on their well-being strikes a real chord).
Actually, given the current situation of Lockdown part two (or is it three…?), I might have to watch Staged again.