Let's Relieve Comedy of the Idea of Comic Relief | National Humanities Center

Humanities in Class: Webinar Series

Let’s Relieve Comedy of the Idea of Comic Relief

Literary Criticism; Literary Theory; Comedy; Cultural Studies

John Bruns (Professor, Film Studies Program and Department of English, College of Charleston)

December 5, 2023

Advisor: Erik Jon Byker, NHC Teacher Advisory Council

One of the most common ways of understanding how comedy functions—in film, literature, social and political discourse, and in all cultural artifacts—is that it relieves us of serious, even tragic, matters. It is sweet but brief respite from serious, critical engagement with matters we deem of importance. What this implies is that comedy cannot, or should not, try to tell us anything about serious, even tragic, matters. Looked at another way, “comic relief” is a reductive formula that gives short shrift to the force and reach of comedy and, at the same time, serves to reinforce cultural and academic attitudes that only sober matters are worthy of critical attention. Such is our shared, automatic thinking—or non-thinking—when it comes to comedy. What would it mean to do away with the idea of “comic relief” once and for all? What if we were to question the trivialization of comedy and argue instead that this trivialization is related in some way to the fear that, if left to its own devices, comedy will tell us what we simply do not want to hear?

Webinar Resources

These readings provide information about the usefulness of comedy as a critical tool, and about how irreverence is a healthy mode of thought.


Literature / Education Studies / Literary Criticism / Literary Theory / Comedy / Cultural Studies /


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