Name some examples of humorous tragedies in film and literature
September 19, 2012 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I need suggestions of fictional or non-fictional books or films that deal with illness or dying in relation to humor/the absurd.

This is a pretty broad question, so I'll provide just a bit of background. I'm writing an essay about theories of humor (specifically touching on incongruity theory, benign violation theory, and the role of repetition in humor) as applied to personal narrative -- essentially how farce arises from tragedy and the elements necessary to humor.

I need to bring in some sources from film or literature that engage with incongruity/repetition/futility/disappearance, or published memoirs of illness or dying without neat, happy endings BUT which are humorous or absurd.

Writers I've been looking at so far: Kafka, Auster, Millhauser, Rakoff. My knowledge of film is sorely limited (but film is great because it takes less time to watch a movie than read a book).

If I can put this succinctly, I'm basically looking for examples that deal with the idea of the punchline not being worth the joke. Or that the punchline is that there is no punchline.

If anyone can make sense of my explanation and request, I'd appreciate your suggestions greatly.
posted by Felicity Rilke to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It may be tangential to your question, but Norman Cousins discussed the role of humor in healing in his memoir "Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient."

You might also look at (SNL veteran) Gilda Radner's memoir, "It's Always Something."
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:09 PM on September 19, 2012

I loved A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, which in part concerns a main character dealing very poorly with what may or may not be skin cancer.

The Publisher's Weekly review says, "Haddon's descriptions of the characters' misery, especially George's rapid descent into madness, are too graphic to be comical," but I disagree completely. I laughed until I cried. I did at least have the grace to feel a little guilty about it, though.
posted by something something at 1:11 PM on September 19, 2012

If I'm reading this correctly, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five seem like what you're looking for.
posted by SugarAndSass at 1:16 PM on September 19, 2012

Not certain what you're going for exactly, but a couple come to mind:
The Loved One, book by E. Waugh; later a film by Terry Southern
Waking Ned Devine, film
posted by LonnieK at 1:23 PM on September 19, 2012

The film Fearless deals with this a little, especially how farce arises from tragedy, which is what the main character (Jeff Bridges) tries to point out to the lawyers and others going after big money following an airplane crash that he survived.
posted by perhapses at 1:34 PM on September 19, 2012

The novel Extinction by Thomas Bernhard might also be worth checking out.
posted by perhapses at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2012

Is theater OK? If so, then Beckett's Endgame definitely fits the bill.
posted by scody at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2012

Opening pages of Three Men In A Boat deals with illness
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:44 PM on September 19, 2012

Satantango might also fit the bill, although it is a film that takes longer to watch than it does to read the novel.
posted by perhapses at 1:49 PM on September 19, 2012

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir by Mark Vonnegut (Kurt's son) has some wonderfully absurd bits about illness/health/dying.
posted by pantarei70 at 1:52 PM on September 19, 2012

More film recommendations: The Exterminating Angel and possibly Everything for Sale.
posted by perhapses at 2:04 PM on September 19, 2012

Seconding Endgame.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:05 PM on September 19, 2012

Endgame is available as part of the Beckett on DVD series.
posted by perhapses at 2:11 PM on September 19, 2012

Siegfried Sassoon was probably the most satirical of the Great War poets, and his humor was of the gallows type. Devastating, savage wit compressed into a few lines. The best of his stuff is in Counter-Attack and Other Poems -- a few good examples would be "The General," "Editorial Impressions," and my favorite, "Fight to a Finish."

Edgell Rickword's "Trench Poets" is very, very black humor.

On Preview--lots of Beckett. Happy Days is what comes to mind for me with regard to death and humor. The main character is a woman who spends the entire play buried in the earth up to her chest.

Some good films might be the movie version of Catch-22, Love and Death, Woody Allen's parody of 19th-century Russian novels, and the original movie of MASH.

And then there's Julia Sweeney's one-woman show, God Said "HA"! in which she somehow manages to make cancer funny. To me, it's kind of a gold standard of illness-related humor. There's a memoir, too, but the show is better.
posted by tully_monster at 2:12 PM on September 19, 2012

Scenes from Later Life by William Cooper.

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot by John Callahan.

Lopsided by Meredith Norton.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:12 PM on September 19, 2012

I'd also recommend the non-fiction book Laughing at Nothing. He goes into great detail about incongruity as it relates to humor and to nihilism. He might even have a few film examples he discusses.
posted by perhapses at 2:17 PM on September 19, 2012

One more film: World's Greatest Dad
posted by perhapses at 2:27 PM on September 19, 2012

Maybe 50/50?
posted by PaulaSchultz at 3:39 PM on September 19, 2012

This is perhaps a different take on a very serious subject but Joe Versus the Volcano?
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:44 PM on September 19, 2012

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections deals with age and dementia in a manner approaching the absurd.
posted by sagwalla at 3:46 PM on September 19, 2012

And maybe Winter Passing
posted by perhapses at 3:59 PM on September 19, 2012

Harold and Maude?
posted by kbar1 at 9:43 PM on September 19, 2012

Definitely check out Don Delillo's White Noise.
posted by DZack at 12:35 PM on October 31, 2012

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