A Totally, Absolutely Serious Guide to All of the Different Types of Comedy

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A Totally, Absolutely Serious Guide to All of the Different Types of Comedy

There’s probably a joke in the fact that Inuits have at least 50 different words for “snow.” Each word doesn’t mean exactly the same thing, of course — aqilokoq, for example, means “softly falling snow” while piegnartoq points to the white stuff that’s especially good for sledding. It’s not that weird, really. Because Inuits are so immersed in snow culture, they simply have more nuanced terms to describe it. 

And so it is that Cracked has decided to get particular about comedy. We all have a sense of what “comedy” means, but what if we told you that there are at least 46 different types, none of which are particularly good for sledding? Let’s get granular with a ludicrous lexicon that describes every type of comedy we can think of. (And yes, we already see the comments section filling up with the ones we missed.)

Alternative Comedy

In the 1990s, comics like Janeane Garofalo, Dana Gould and Patton Oswalt began hitting bookstores and coffee shops with their flannel-clad comedy version of what was happening in the alt-music scene. Oswalt described it as “comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa” (although later he would admit alt-comedy sometimes meant not doing the hard work of writing jokes). Like all things alternative, alternative comedy eventually became mainstream comedy.

Anti-Comedy

Or anti-humor involves a performer delivering material that is intentionally not funny. It relies heavily on the notion that much humor derives from surprise. In the case of anti-comedy, the audience has an expectation that a punchline is coming. Surprise! It’s not. Andy Kaufman was one of its finest craftsmen, reading entire chapters of The Great Gatsby before befuddled audiences figured out that was exactly the joke. 

Body Horror Comedy

A form relatively new to the mainstream, Sarah Squirm has carved out a niche by using gross-out blood and guts to shock audiences into hysterics. It’s working better on SNL than I would have predicted — she’s even gotten Martin Short in on the pus-splattered act.

Blue Comedy

Pretty much all comedy is somewhat blue these days (Okay, not you, Jim Gaffigan), but in the vaudeville era, “working blue” could get a comic fired. Blue meant cursing of any type or making reference to sex, religion or whatever else management deemed inappropriate. On some circuits, according to Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians, requests to edit suggestive material were delivered backstage to comics in blue envelopes. Lose the blue or lose your job. By the 1950s, working blue could probably get you work, albeit on a seedier side of town.

Burlesque

Burlesque started with sweaty comics stammering through risque jokes in between the acts audiences were really paying to see: Scantily clad women. More recently, nearly naked performers perform much of the campy comedy, with more of an emphasis on the wink.  

Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors is an actual Shakespeare play, a short-ish goof full of mistaken identities, slapstick pratfalls and silly wordplay. The term “comedy of errors” has come to mean virtually the same thing — any work that gets laughs from the seemingly endless number of mistakes made by its main characters. The Lily Tomlin/Bette Midler comedy
Big Business is one modern-day take. Congress is another.

Comedy of Manners

Historically (we’re talking the Restoration period), a comedy of manners poked at the artifice and ridiculous rules of sophisticated society. Brits are especially good at this kind of thing, satirizing the hypocrisies of the posh class in 20th-century comedies as varied as My Fair Lady and
A Hard Day’s Night. On American television, Frasier is a prime example of pin-pricking the pompous. 

Cringe Comedy

If you’ve ever seen the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office, you’ve completed a master class in cringe comedy. The laughs are generated by our discomfort at the characters’ unbelievable social awkwardness and self-inflicted distress. Some would argue that with hit shows like The Rehearsal, American comedy is currently in an era of Peak Cringe. Warning: You might feel terrible while you’re laughing your ass off.

Dad Jokes

“My wife said I should do lunges to stay in shape. That would be a big step forward.” We’re not sure why dads are the main practitioners of this particular brand of hokey comedy, but as a culture, that’s what we decided. The key ingredients: Upon dad delivering a cornball one-liner, offspring roll their eyes, laugh involuntarily and attempt to exit the moving car.

Dark Comedy

Also known as black comedy or gallows humor, dark comedy finds laughter in life’s most depressing subjects. If you think The White Lotus is funny, you get it. 

Deadpan Humor

If you’re a fan of the old Howard Stern Show, you might remember Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, a comic who laughed hysterically at his own punchlines. To understand deadpan humor, imagine Martling’s polar opposite. Better yet, enjoy the work of
Steven Wright, a comedian who has yet to crack a smile. Wright’s monotone delivery and emotionless expression are way funnier than Martling’s insufferable cackles. 

Dramedy

A portmanteau of comedy and drama, dramedies want to have it both ways. Why not? “Dramedy” just means television shows that are a little bit more like our real lives, which tend to have both laughs and heartache. The cute-ish term peaked in the 1990s with TV programs like Northern Exposure, Doogie Howser, M.D. and Ally McBeal. Lawyers aren’t always serious, who knew? (Nowadays, we sort of expect our shows to be this way.)

Ethnic Humor

In vaudeville, according to Wayne Federman’s The History of Stand-Up, the majority of comics based their acts on exaggerated ethnic charactersn — Irish, Black, German, Jewish and Italian among them. Those ethnic archetypes are the basis for the Marx Brothers, Federman argues:
  • The original Groucho was based on a German dialect character.
  • Harpo and his red fright wig were based on his own Irish character, Patsy Brannigan.
  • Chico, of course, was a-based on Italian a-stereotypes.

Clearly out of style today but still in practice by comedians trying to be “edgy” and occasionally, Jimmy Fallon.

Farce

Farce is a theatrical and cinematic staple, defined (by Merriam-Webster) as “a light dramatic composition marked by broadly satirical comedy and improbable plot.” That’s a pretty broad definition and if one were to search farceon IMDb, you’d figure just about any comedy could qualify. We’ll go with examples like Duck Soup, Some Like It Hot and A Fish Called Wanda as comedies that combine wicked satire with convoluted storylines.

Highbrow Comedy

Ooh la la! Highbrow comedy assumes you’re a bit of a smarty-pants, able to grasp its literary allusions and sly metaphors. We suppose you don’t have to be familiar with Marshall McLuhan and his seminal work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man to get Woody Allen’s jokes, but it sure helps.

Improvisational Comedy

Improv creates funny scenes based on audience suggestions, as seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. There are lots of variations on that theme, and we won’t get into arguments about who invented improv, but let’s go out on a limb and state that its popularity in America more or less began at Chicago’s
Second City. Now could someone please shout out an article of clothing and an unusual profession?

Impressions

Imitating famous people doesn’t seem like it should be its own form of comedy, but it’s undeniable that there is an entire category of comedians whose acts consists of just that. A weird rule of thumb: Impressionists are almost always funnier posing as other people than they are as themselves. 

Inside Humor

I once worked in an improvisational comedy troupe that had this rule: “Inside jokes are out.” In other words, it was important to remember that the mere mention of Maria Conchita Alonso wasn’t intrinsically funny to any audience member who wasn’t a member of our group. It’s also a good rule at dinner parties: If half the people at the table don’t know Dan from Accounting, don’t expect them to get your “funny” reference. (That said, inside jokes can be screamingly funny between people in the know. Unlike Dan from Accounting, amirite???)

Insult Comedy

Irony

As many obnoxious sticklers have pointed out, irony is not rain on Alanis Morissette’s wedding day
that’s just back luck. But how does one actually define it? The King’s English definition is probably as good as any: When something is said, the surface meaning and the underlying meaning are not the same. If you really need an example, how about the President in Dr. Strangelove shouting that there can be no fighting in the war room? A little too ironic, don’t you think?

Lowbrow Comedy

Unlike Woody Allen and his “medium is the message” wit, lowbrow comics like the Three Stooges get the job done by kneeing one another in the nads. Show Woody and Curly to a bunch of nine-year-olds, and our money is on the Stooges. 

Meta-Comedy

There are lots of different definitions for meta-comedy, but we’ll keep it simple and call it humor about humor. For example: “An Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walk into a bar. The bartender turns to them, takes one look, and says, What is this, some kind of joke?’”

Deadpool gets laughs from Deadpool knowing he’s in a superhero movie. Hulu’s Reboot also falls into this category, a sitcom about a sitcom that makes fun of genre tropes even as it’s reinforcing them.

Mockumentary

While Ricky Gervais’ version of The Office brought the mockumentary into the TV mainstream, he readily acknowledges that he was heavily influenced by the films of Christopher Guest. From acting in
This is Spinal Tap to writing and directing Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest is the king of using cinéma vérité-style filmmaking to achieve the ridiculous. 

Musical Comedy

A Broadway staple, musical comedy is just what it sounds like — a funny story punctuated with funny songs. Musical comedy classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Grease still hold up, while the form continues to evolve with comedies like Schmigadoon! (actually a meta-musical comedy about musical comedies) and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (a meta-music bio pic about music bio pics). 

Observational Humor

Observational humor finds weirdness in the mundane and turns it into high hilarity. While there are many practitioners (George Carlin could get 20 minutes of material out of where to put his stuff
), did you ever notice that the form has become virtually synonymous with Jerry Seinfeld?

One-Liners

The most economical joke format, one-liners manage to combine both premise and punchline into a short declarative statement. Take it away, Rodney.

Parody

Parody works best when a genre or form has very specific characteristics to poke fun at. Mel Brooks made a career out of it, producing Blazing Saddles (a Western parody), Young Frankenstein (a horror movie spoof), High Anxiety (a take-off on Hitchcock) and Spaceballs (a send-up of Star Wars). Parodies rely on audience familiarity with genre tropes to get the gags. 

On television, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live feast on parody, both specific (Grouch was a parody of The Joker) and general, with most episodes featuring some combination of game show, talk show and commercial spoofs.

Physical Comedy

The Three Stooges were already mentioned in the lowbrow comedy section, but physical comedy doesn’t always have to involve pain. Sure, a Home Alone paint can to the face
counts, but so does something as simple as dealing with an overactive chocolate conveyer belt. 

Political Comedy

There was a time when comics might have been afraid to make jokes about their leaders, but it’s pretty much established at this point as an American tradition. Our two most popular late-night hosts are Greg Gutfeld and Stephen Colbert, both of whom specialize in taking swings from either side of the aisle. None of this politician pounding seems as sublime, however, as when Jon Stewart was dealing on The Daily Show.

Prop Comedy

Draw your own conclusions.

Romantic Comedy

If When Harry Met Sally taught us anything, it’s that men and women have their differences, but they still want to get busy! So thank goodness for romantic comedies, the genre created so that Kate Hudson and Hugh Grant will always have jobs.

Satire

Like “irony,” you’ll have as many people telling you what satire is not as those willing to define exactly what it is. Here’s our take: Satire is parody’s cousin in that it exists to make fun of something, but there’s an extra layer of pointed social commentary that elevates satire above an SNL game-show spoof. For example, check out The Onion at its best. Not only is it a parody of the way news is reported in America, but its best headlines also jab those in power right where it hurts.

Self-Deprecating Humor

God laughs at those who laugh at themselves, or something like that. Jim Gaffigan is a master, with jokes that acknowledge his myriad faults like overeating, arriving late and being extremely, extremely pale.

Shock Comedy

The heart of shock humor can best be summed up by the joke The Aristocrats, in which any given comedian pulls out all the stops to deliver the most heinous, foul, overtly sexual, utterly depraved punchlines they can devise. It’s not that what the comedian is saying is particularly clever — we laugh because we can’t believe such deplorable words could emanate from a human being’s mouth. Do we have to warn you Bob Saget is about to go off here?

Screwball

The screwball comedy, most popular in the 1930s and 1940s, is similar to the romantic comedy, except with more of an emphasis on how crazy the idea of love is in the first place. Screwball comedies often featured exceptionally fast-paced dialogue as a weapon in the battle of the sexes. The swell dame usually came out on top, see? You can take that to the bank.

Situation Comedy

Television’s most enduring form of comedy, at least until recently. Twenty-two minutes of jokes, give or take, leaving eight for the sometimes-just-as-funny commercials. The situation part generally described the premise of the show: seven castaways stuck on an island, a show about nothing, six friends trying to make it in New York, a bunch of nobodies stuck working in a paper office. Often revolving around the workplace or family (and often, the family we make at work), sitcoms pretty much rule. They also have the best theme songs.

Sketch Comedy

One way to think of sketch comedy is that it’s like a situation comedy but smaller. Premise + character + twist = laughs. Saturday Night Live is the most enduring purveyor of sketch comedy, but new kids like Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave show there’s plenty of life left in the form. 

Slapstick

The term “slapstick” actually comes from, well, slapping sticks, an act that exaggerates the sound of a comedic punch to the kisser. While we’ve stated that physical comedy is broad enough to incorporate Lucy’s chocolate factory or John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks, slapstick is pretty much confined to the comic joys of pain and violence, whether it’s Punch and Judy dolls slapping each other around, Chevy Chase falling down a flight of stairs or Sideshow Bob getting acquainted with garden equipment. (Can you hear the sticks slapping together?)

Sophomoric Humor

To be honest, we should probably have combined sophomoric humor with lowbrow humor, but then we couldn’t have shown the Animal House food fight, which surely included at least a few sophomores.

Stand-Up Comedy

One reason stand-up is such a pure form of comedy is how little you need to get up and running. You pretty much just… stand up. (You need to sit for some reason? That works, too.) A microphone helps, but you can shout in a pinch. It’s a surprisingly new art form, just over 100 years old give or take, depending on what you call “stand-up comedy.” But it’s dominant now, and the Ali Wongs of the world show no signs of stopping.

Surreal Humor

Non sequiturs! Incongruity! A general not-making-of-the-sense! Surreal humor is illogical and strange, and for some, an acquired taste. Sample yourself some Tim and Eric and see if the comedy inspires your mouth to go pop-pop-pop. Sproing.

Toilet Humor

Four-year-olds love jokes about bodily functions, and apparently, many 40-year-olds do as well. There’s just something about the sound of flatulence that brings otherwise sophisticated grown-ups to their knees. FOR POOPING, PROBABLY!

Topical Humor

Saturday Night Live cold opens aren’t generally the funniest part of the show, but by gum, they sure are timely. Topical humor centers around what’s happening right now!, like the comedy featured in late-night monologues and thirsty Twitter feeds. The main problem with topical humor? That subject that seemed so important on Monday afternoon may be long forgotten by the time your variety show goes into reruns. Who’s ready to revisit the foibles of Mitt Romney?

Tragicomedy

Way more depressing than the aforementioned dramedy, tragicomedy combines laughs with profound human misery. Who would try to wring laughs out of a troubled war veteran with PTSD who splits his days either committing violent murders or taking acting classes?  You’d have to be insane or BIll Hader to try to pull that off. 

Ventriloquism

The only form of humor more depressing than tragicomedy.

Wordplay

More than just puns and double entendres (although those are fun too), wordplay is “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.” And no one liked to play with words more than George Carlin, a man fascinated with the hypocrisy and elasticity of language. Why, he’d even go to jail (and did) for the right to explore how an entire nation can get its collective underpants in a bundle over seven utterances that, in the end, are just words.

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