The Comic in the Midst of Tragedy's Grief with Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby, and Others

Cynthia Willett, Julie Willett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The function of the comic in the midst of tragedy is not clear. After all, is it simply comic relief that wounded nations, communities, or individuals seek? Tragedy has long been cast as memory and mourning while comedy offers for the masses a Nietzschean moment of joyful forgetting and for the Stoic mind a measure of transcendence from our grief. The latter view came into prominence for modern American culture with the nineteenth-century satirist Mark Twain, who wrote that “the secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow,” which has been interpreted through the often-quoted formula: comedy is tragedy plus time. The assumption is that we need some distance emotionally in order to mock or transcend the tragic. While we grant the humor of transcendence can produce some momentary relief through emotional distance, we wonder if there might be another way that humor can deal with suffering? Popular psychology often speaks of five stages of grief, and while that progression seems too linear and simplistic, we find that the now much more inclusive comic stage has something to offer their audiences struggling to make sense of a volatile world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)535-546
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


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