The Seven Tenets of Comedy and their Application Today
Created | Updated Jan 16, 2012
The concept of analysing comedy to its fundamentals was an idea that originated from the Ancient Romans. The most inquisitive and controversial of races, they were not happy to simply take the Greek approach of philosophising the nature of comedy, arriving instead at the seven tenets, or categories, by which comedy could broken down and described. Surprisingly, given the evolution in this field, these tenets are still as valid today as they were then.
Over the years, the categories have been ordered in various ways, arranged by 'most sophisticated', 'most historical' and so forth. With the recognition that comedy is distinctly subjective, this entry lists the tenets in alphabetical order.
One - Farce
Farce is the concept of an otherwise un-comical individual or group of individuals finding themselves in an absurd situation, which may hence prove to be comical. It is perhaps the best documented of all forms of comedy, the origins of most modern day farces being rooted in Shakespeare's comedies.
The acknowledged master of farce in the latter half of the 20th Century is playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, television viewers may see elements of his work in the sitcom Frasier
Two - Irony
Mother of the sarcastic comment and the biting, one-line retort, irony has often been mistreated down the years. It is, simply, the refutation of a statement that all parties know, or believe, to be fact. Because of the difficulties involved in inflecting written text, irony is more than any other a verbal form of comedy. Because of its concise nature and ease of invention, it is also perhaps the most misused and most easily forgotten.
It is difficult to provide examples of classic irony, both for the above reasons, and because the form has been woven into satire (qv) almost from its birth. Ironically, the most memorable uses of irony are in statements that were not originally intended to be comedic. Take, for example, the 1998 quote from Tony Blair:
I never predict anything, and I never will do.
Irony is often also sought where none was originally intended; it is advisable to note that many parts of the arts are self-contradictory and over-analysis is futile.
Three - Parody
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that imitation is in the form of parody, that isn't necessarily so...
Admittedly it can be hard, if not impossible, to tell the difference. Parody is defined as the imitation of the recognisable features of a character or style and is therefore reliant on its audience recognising the original. It is certainly the most historic of the seven tenets, having its roots in Classic Greek works such as Aristophanes' Frogs and Clouds. Parody abounds in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and has been a mainstay of comic writers up to the present day. Perhaps the most abundant modern use of parody is in TV sketch shows - The Fast Show being an obvious example. Not to be confused with Pastiche or Satire (qqv).
Four - Pastiche
Often bundled in with parody, pastiche is a more subtle form of comedy. Parody is the imitation of a genre of subjects, whereas pastiche is the imitation, with intention to flatter, of a particular subject. Much of the comedic value is to be had from the audience recognising an unheralded pastiche. It is the gentlest form of comedy, and often the shortest-lived; when a new subject arrives, the pastiche of the old subject dies just as quickly as the subject itself.
Film, TV, and literary lovers can seek out countless pastiches for themselves; the under-rated Terry Pratchett deserves a mention for his many sparkling works in this area. Mention must also be made especially of the visual arts, where pastiche lends itself to an even subtler form of re-representation. Musical pastiches are also rife; Saint Saëns' Carnival of the Animals contains many such, including a brilliant spoofing1 of Offenbach's Orpheus In The Underworld.
Five - Satire
Perhaps the most difficult to describe of the categories, Satire is broadly a cross between irony and parody. It is imitation with intention to wound and/or correct, and is justly regarded as the cruellest form of comedy. Along with pastiche, satire tends to be very short lived; a future generation will not necessarily understand the reasons behind today's satirical targets.
Satire traditionally has been the province of low-key magazines, such as Punch and Private Eye, but perhaps its greatest outlet today is in 'comedy' TV shows (the forerunners of which were BBC Radio 4's The News Quiz, which later evolved into BBC TV's Have I Got News For You and BBC TV's That Was The Week That Was).
Six - Slapstick
The most visual of the comedy forms, and interestingly the only title which does not derive from Greek or Latin stems2. Slapstick consists entirely of physical comedy: people falling over, walking into things, and otherwise causing themselves (apparent) injury for general amusement, what would perhaps be known today as 'home video out-take show' syndrome.
Because most slapstick was ad-libbed onstage, very little survives in manuscript to suggest the history, although we know that court jesters and their ilk have carried on the tradition since medieval times. Therefore, most of the best evidence exists on 20th Century film. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the obvious forerunners, but Donald O'Connor's entire performance in the film Singin' In The Rain was one long slapstick routine worthy of note3. Although often derided as childish, slapstick has been an integral part of the most popular situation comedies for many years, evidenced by the British public recently voting Only Fools and Horses' Delboy-falling-through-the-bar scene their second favourite comedy moment.
Seven - Surrealism
Although surrealism may be thought of as a modern-day invention, the Romans realised the necessity of the introduction of deliberate non-sequiturs in order that comic threads may advance.
The concept is simple: any situation that is not immediately obvious as being relevant disorients the audience, whose laughter is then a self-righting mechanism. Examples range from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream through the entire oeuvres of Swift, Orwell, Verne and Clarke up to this site's beloved Douglas Adams. Surrealism was, of course, the method of choice for the Monty Python team, and remains so for the vast majority of today's stand-up comedians.
One surprising omission from the list is wordplay, or punning. Although wordplay (anagrams and so forth) certainly existed for the Romans, it was considered more of an art form than comedy (witness the Sator Square for example). Punning has more recently evolved into a source of humour, justly having its devotees. For a good example, it is hard to look much further than the classic Four Candles sketch written by Messrs Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker.
None of the contents of this entry should be applied with studious seriousness. The underlying message behind the seven tenets is that if the audience wishes to seek amusement, they should never accept anything at face value. It is also worth remembering that many comedies do not fall neatly into single categories. It is possible, and common, to combine parody and pastiche, satire and farce, and countless other permutations.