Comedy Is Tragedy Plus Time

Carol Burnett? Woody Allen? Tig Notaro? Steve Allen? Lenny Bruce? Bob Newhart? Anonymous?

burnett03Dear Quote Investigator: Some humorists are able to transform disastrous or mortifying episodes in their own lives into hilarious comedy routines. Usually some time must pass before a painful memory is distant enough that it can be transmuted into something funny. The popular performer Carol Burnett once said:

I got my sense of humor from my mother. I’d tell her my tragedies. She’d make me laugh. She said comedy is tragedy plus time.

I have heard this formula attributed to other comics such as Woody Allen and Tig Notaro. It seems to apply to general events and not just personal incidents. Do you know who first crafted this formula?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this saying located by QI was published in Cosmopolitan magazine in February 1957. The television personality, actor, and polymath Steve Allen presented his viewpoint on the genesis of comedy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment? The answer is “No, but they will be pretty soon.”

Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits till a certain amount of time has passed. It must have been a tragedy when Judge Crater disappeared, but everybody jokes about it now. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Joseph Crater was a judge in New York City who puzzlingly disappeared in 1930. Newspaper reports on the never-solved case mentioned: a secret blond mistress, missing money, corrupt politicians, and purloined papers. Eventually the event became grist for comedy and even graffiti scrawls such as: 2 3

Judge Crater—Call Your Office

In June 1958 The New Yorker magazine reviewed a recent television program entitled “The Sound of Laughter” which was part of a series called “Wide Wide World”. The show explored humor by presenting multiple samples together with general remarks on the theme. Steve Allen further disseminated the formula he gave in Cosmopolitan: 4

… Harry Hershfield said “Humor is the great common denominator;” Al Capp said “The comic strip is the world’s most popular literary form;” Neil Schaffner, operator of a tent show, said “Ours is a folk theatre, one that springs from the soil, almost self-creative;” Steve Allen said “Tragedy plus time equals comedy;” and Bob Hope said “Laughter is our most precious commodity.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1958 a correspondent with the news service United Press International interviewed Steve Allen who spoke about writing for his NBC television program. He presented an amended version of his equation with a new additive term: 5 6

Allen also has another formula for laughs: “Tragedy plus time plus the will to be amused equals comedy. If you don’t have the will to laugh, you won’t be amused—whether it’s by a Chaplin or anyone like him.”

In November 1962 the popular comic Bob Newhart was interviewed by an Associated Press reporter. Newhart employed a version of the equation satirically, but he used the locution “they say” to indicate that he was not the originator: 7

I’ve already gotten a routine out of the interior decorating job on our apartment in Westwood. They say that comedy is tragedy plus time. After getting the bills I believe it.

In February 1963 the television star Carol Burnett stated a close variant of the formula: 8

Like most clowns who take their comedy seriously, Carol grasps every opportunity to explain her artistic philosophy. To her, “Comedy is tragedy mellowed by time.”

Burnett illustrated the principle with a humiliating tale about hiding in a closet to avoid being given a shot of penicillin by her doctor when she was a child:

I’d just as like have died than face him, but now it’s a howl. Tragic then, funny now, see?”

In 1967 “The Essential Lenny Bruce” was published with material from multiple performances by the comedian and satirist who had died the year before in 1966. Dates were not specified for the routines, but some referenced trials for obscenity and narcotics possession that took place in the 1960s. Bruce used a version of the formula with the word “satire” instead of “comedy”. The following passage mentioned John Foster Dulles, a U.S. Secretary of State who died from cancer in 1959: 9

I definitely know that I could do a satire on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and really get screams with it on television. Although Abraham Lincoln was a wonderful man.

But, here’s the thing on comedy. If I were to do a satire on the assassination of John Foster Dulles, it would shock people. They’d say, “That is in heinous taste.” Why? Because it’s fresh. And that’s what my contention is: that satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

John Foster Dulles was never assassinated. So this passage is rather odd. It is conceivable that Bruce’s routine actually referred to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the name was changed during transcription or editing because the tragic event was too recent.

In 1972 TV Guide magazine printed an article about Carol Burnett that included the equation. This time Burnett ascribed the phrase to her mother who died in 1958: 10

“I got my sense of humor from my mother,” Carol has said. “I’d tell her my tragedies. She’d make me laugh. She said comedy is tragedy plus time.” (Her father, Jody Burnett, died in 1954, her mother in 1958.)

In 1986 Burnett wrote “One More Time: A Memoir” and included a slightly different version of the adage which she attributed to her mother: 11

I liked Mama’s “sayings” better: “Most comedy is tragedy plus time,”

In 1987 Steve Allen released “How To Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You” which included the following discussion: 12

As I’ve said earlier, however, nearly all comedy could he classified under the heading “Tragedy.” That is, the raw material of almost all jokes is serious subject matter. Being broke, hung over, fired from your job—whatever is bad news, that’s what we kid about. Tragedy plus time equals comedy. Given a little time for the pain to subside, dreadful experiences often can be the basis of funny jokes or stories.

In 1989 the film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” was released by Woody Allen who wrote and directed the work. The somewhat unsympathetic character named Lester played by Alan Alda delivered a monologue elaborating on the formula. Lester stated that during a visit to Harvard University some students asked him “What’s comedy?”, and he gave the following reply: 13

I said “Comedy is tragedy plus time, … tragedy plus time”. You see when the night Lincoln was shot you couldn’t joke about it. You couldn’t make a joke about that. You just couldn’t do it. Now time has gone by, and now it’s fair game. See what I mean. It’s tragedy plus time.

In 2012 an Associated Press news story reported on a stand-up performance by the comic Tig Notaro who had very recently been diagnosed with cancer. Using stream-of-consciousness and dark humor she spoke to the audience: 14

“It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equal comedy,” Notaro told a stunned crowd. “I am just at tragedy right now.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence Steve Allen was the first person to represent the relationship between tragedy and comedy using this formula. Several other artists have employed the adage in the years since 1957. Carol Burnett credited her mother who died in 1958. So it is possible that the adage was in circulation before Allen expressed it in Cosmopolitan. Alternatively, Burnett’s mother read it Cosmopolitan near the end of her life and shared it with her daughter.

(Thanks to David Haglund, editor of Slate’s culture blog, whose query caused QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Many thanks to the participants in the ADS discussion of this phrase in 2011 including Jon Lighter, Ben Zimmer, Victor Steinbok, Bill Mullins, Fred Shapiro, Laurence Horn and others. Thanks to Barry Popik who also examined this saying and wrote an entry here. Thanks to the librarians at the Browne Popular Culture Library of Bowling Green State University. Lastly, thanks to the very helpful librarian at the University of Florida, Gainesville.)

Notes:

  1. 1957 February, Cosmopolitan, Volume 142, Steve Allen’s Almanac by Steve Allen, (This column was part of a series published between 1956 and 1957), Start Page 12, Hearst Corp., New York. (Verified with scans from the Browne Popular Culture Library of Bowling Green State University; great thanks to the librarians at BGSU who provided a digital image of a document in the “Steve Allen Collection”)
  2. 1980 August 5, Chicago Tribune, “Column 1: Judge Crater case slips into history Police file is closed on ‘missingest’ person” by Janet Cawley, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1966 September 12, Springfield Union, New York Scene: A Rash of Graffiti by Norton Mockridge, Quote Page 6, Column 8, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1958 June 7, The New Yorker, Volume 34, “The Air: What Humor Means, with Samples” by John Lardner, Start Page 78, Quote Page 78, F-R Pub. Corp., New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1958 July 21, Bakersfield Californian, It’s Simpler Writing Gags by Formulas by Fred Danzig, (United Press International), Quote Page 21, Column 1, Bakersfield, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1958 July 23, Lawton Constitution, It’s Simpler Writing Gags With Formula by Fred Danzig, (United Press International), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Lawton, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1962 November 21, Corpus Christi Times, Humorist Disproves Romanticists’ Idea by Bob Thomas (Associated Press), Quote Page 8, Column 4, Corpus Christi, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1963 February, Show: The Magazine of the Arts, Volume 3, Variety Show of the Month: An Evening with Carol Burnett, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Hartford Publications, New York. (Verified with scans from the library system of the University of Florida, Gainesville; great thanks to the librarian at UF)
  9. 1967, The Essential Lenny Bruce, Compiled and Edited by John Cohen, Section: Performing and the Art of Comedy, Start Page 101, Quote Page 116, Ballantine Books, New York. (First U.S. Printing: December 1967. Text verified in Tenth U.S. Printing: October 1974)
  10. 1972 July 1, TV Guide, Volume 20, “Carol & Joe & Fred & Marge” by Dwight Whitney, (Title in table of contents: “Carol Burnett and Her Silent Partners”), Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, Triangle Publications, Radnor, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm)
  11. 1987 (Copyright 1986), One More Time: A Memoir by Carol Burnett, Quote Page 52, Avon, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1987, How To Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You by Steve Allen with Jane Wollman, Quote Page 29, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. YouTube video, Title: if_it_breaks.avi, Uploaded on: Dec 5, 2008, Uploaded by: Stephen Crane, (Quotation starts at 40 seconds of 1 minute), (This video excerpt is from the 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors), (Accessed on youtube.com on June 25, 2013) link
  14. 2012 October 14, Erie Times-News, Comic’s unique opening leaves impression, (Associated Press), Page number not listed, Erie, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)