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 ComedyIn 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-ComedyOr 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 ComedyA 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 ComedyPretty 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.
BurlesqueBurlesque 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 ErrorsThe 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
Comedy of MannersHistorically (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
Cringe ComedyIf 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 ComedyAlso 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 HumorIf 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
DramedyA 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 HumorIn 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.
FarceFarce 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 “farce” on 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 ComedyOoh 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 ComedyImprov 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
ImpressionsImitating 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 HumorI 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???)
IronyAs many obnoxious sticklers have pointed out, irony is not rain on Alanis Morissette’s wedding day
Lowbrow ComedyUnlike 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-ComedyThere 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.
MockumentaryWhile 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
Musical ComedyA 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 HumorObservational 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
One-LinersThe most economical joke format, one-liners manage to combine both premise and punchline into a short declarative statement. Take it away, Rodney.
ParodyParody 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.