In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Comedy

  • Introduction
  • Comic Theory/Criticism
  • American Comedy
  • Silent Comedy
  • Slapstick Comedy
  • Screwball Comedy
  • Parody
  • Satire
  • Comedian Comedy
  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Pedagogy

Cinema and Media Studies Film Comedy
Lucy Fischer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0199


Film comedy is a ubiquitous form of cinema, present from the medium’s earliest days with little “mischief joke” movies such as the Lumière brothers’ L’arroseur arrosé (1895) in which the “hoser gets hosed.” Comedies were popular not only in turn-of-the- century France but also in the United States, with Thomas Alva Edison producing shorts such as A Wringing Good Joke (1899) in which a boy ties his grandfather’s chair to the wringer of a washer and mayhem ensues. While some consider comedy a film genre, it is such a broad category that others liken it to a mode (e.g., melodrama) that itself is divided into various genres: romantic comedy, satire, parody, and the like. Comic movies were popular throughout the silent era, with the first major stars being comedians (for instance, Charlie Chaplin or Max Linder). While much of the humor was physical and slapstick (pies in the face, people falling down, and machines run amuck), more sophisticated works were soon produced by directors such as Ernst Lubtisch and Cecil B. Demille—who adapted comedies of manners (about high society, romance, marriage, and divorce) to the screen. Parodies were also soon produced as when Buster Keaton made Three Ages (1923), a send up of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). With the coming of sound, the nexus of comedy shifted to the vocal register with performers imported from Broadway, radio, or the vaudeville circuit. Hence, cinema saw the appearance of fast-talking performers such as the Marx Brothers, mumbling comics such as W. C. Fields, and sexually suggestive dames such as Mae West. With sound came the expansion of romantic comedy (in which sexual repartee substituted for lovemaking) as well as the development of other genres more consonant with dialogue: screwball, satire, and parody. With comedy’s coming of age in the cinema, new themes and perspectives emerged: although in the early days, women were frequently butts of the joke (for instance, the characters played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films), in more contemporary times they became forceful comediennes (for instance Roseanne). While at the 20th century’s dawn ethnic minority characters were often maliciously stereotyped, beginning in the later 20th century, they would become comic heroes in their own right (as Eddie Murphy or Woody Allen did). All the genres pioneered in the first days of film history remain vibrant today (including slapstick) and the range of comic forms remains emphatically international.

Comic Theory/Criticism

These works (either monographs or anthologies) attempt to present a wide range of information about the comic film mode. Horton 1991 and Rickman 2001 are anthologies with critical essays on film comedy that cover a broad spectrum. Mast 1979 and King 2002, on the other hand, attempt to offer their own theories and paradigms of film comedy. Neale and Krutnik 1990 considers not only film but also television comedy, a related field. Two special issues of Velvet Light Trap are devoted to film comedy. Sound Comedy focuses on sound-era comedy, while Comedy and Humor explores comedic forms across eras, cultures, and media.

  • Horton, Andrew, ed. Comedy/Cinema/Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    A scholarly anthology of essays of comic theory and criticism. Topics include comedy and matricide, “penis size” jokes, and cartoon comedy. Performers mentioned range from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen to The Three Stooges. Contributors include Lucy Fischer, Noel Carroll, Dana Polan, Peter Brunette, and William Paul among others.

  • Horton, Andrew, and Joanna E. Rapf. A Companion to Film Comedy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118327821

    A wide-ranging survey of comedy which includes twenty-four essays by major multidisciplinary scholars that explore international cinema to consider various subgenres of comedy (slapstick, romantic, satirical, ironic) as well as diverse theories of humor. Included are articles that consider Native American, African American, European, Middle Eastern, and Korean comedy as well as mainstream US film.

  • King, Geoff. Film Comedy. New York: Wallflower, 2002.

    Utilizing formal, sociohistorical, and industrial perspectives to “take comedy seriously,” this broad study examines such topics as “gross-out” comedy, the relationship between comedy and narrative, the slapstick tradition, romantic comedy and darker forms such as political satire. It also examines changes in comedy over time and in different national contexts.

  • Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

    A broad introduction to film comedy with chapters on such topics as comic structures, comic thought, categories and definitions of comedies, the clown versus the dialogue traditions. The volume also surveys comic film history from silence to sound—focusing on such performers as Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon and such directors as Sennett, Lubitsch, Clair and Renoir.

  • Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    An investigation of film and TV comedy that examines genres and forms (e.g., slapstick, the comedy of the sexes, the television sitcom), humor and narrative, gags and jokes, comic events, and questions of comedy and realism.

  • Rickman, Gregg, ed. The Film Comedy Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.

    A wide-ranging anthology on silent and sound comedy with articles by practitioners (e.g., director Leo McCarey or performer Buster Keaton), as well as analytical pieces by noted theorists and critics (e.g., Paul Willemen, James Agee, Richard Schickel). Topics covered include gag structure, humor and male desire, comic stereotypes, romantic comedy, comic auteurs (e.g., Charles Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, W. C. Fields).

  • Special Issue: Comedy and Humor. Velvet Light Trap 68 (2011).

    Explores comedy across periods, media, and cultures. Subjects range from gender in silent-era comedies to comedy on the web. Not entirely focused on film comedy, one essay deals with television comedy. The essays here assert that it is important for comedy to be studied seriously. Articles available online by subscription.

  • Special Issue: Sound Comedy. Velvet Light Trap 26 (1990).

    This issue concentrates on an examination of the comic subjects that somehow do not fit the usual categories. The essays either shed new light on old auteurs or turn attention to traditions that have been unmentioned or slighted in other histories. Articles by Henry Jenkins, John Groch, Michael Selig, Frank Krutnik, and William Paul.

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