He may well be right, but I think it’s also black comedy. And you can split that into two categories. Empathic black comedy, in which the character and characters involved treat the situation with some degree of cynicism or awareness, telegraphing the absurdity to the audience. The characters in Endgame, let’s say, the hero of Kafka’s The Castle. Or, incidentally, Rupert Everett’s hero in the fantastic Italian film Dellamore Dellamorte (Cemetery Man, as it was released in the US).
We just don't get zombies like they do.
Then there’s unempathic black comedy, or, if you like, true sociopathic comedy, in which the characters treat the tragic situation as thoroughly tragic, but we’re encouraged to laugh at them all the same. Often, to make the process easier, the characters’ reactions (and, often, distress) are exaggerated to make them seem more comical. The example I used in my discussion was that of the scene in Korean movie The Host, in which an entire family sobs over the supposed death of the youngest member. This probably didn’t help my case re sociopathy, but it’s an interesting example. All of the family members are in their own way, sympathetic, but it’s the crying that’s pushed, and pushed, for over a minute, becoming more and more frantic – until it tips.
What I find curious is how often in literature the butt of this unempathic black comedy is paired with a genuinely tragic ‘double’. Let’s call this butt ‘the Milhouse’, after its ur-example; the bespectacled dweeb in The Simpsons who is constantly made a mockery of, to the point of utter cruelty, for having an unrequited crush on Lisa. The show constantly lets us know that it’s okay to make fun of Milhouse. It shifts this around, too, with other characters; there was a long period in which it was constantly intimated that Moe wanted to commit suicide. This was always played for gags. Compare that to the tragically played scene early on in the series when Homer ties a rock around his waist and attempts to jump off a bridge.
I pick up on Milhouse because it’s remarkable how frequently ‘the Milhouse’ is unlucky in love. Compare to Gunter from the sitcom Friends, who has an undying passion for Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston. I’ve never been certain exactly what’s supposed to be so absurd about Gunter, who’s given silly bleached hair and a daft tie but who isn’t even as cloying as the House himself. At some points during the series, he’s probably less irritating than Ross, the ‘hero’ whose love for Rachel is treated with the utmost seriousness. And yet I don’t ever recall Gunter getting as much as a sympathetic ‘Aaah’ from the show’s monstrous, shrieking studio audience, who are a handy divining rod for our purposes here.
Yes, go on. Laugh at his pain. Laugh, you bastard.
The same goes for Roderigo, hapless suitor of Desdemona in Othello, who is near-habitually played as a fool. Like Othello, he is easily tricked by Iago; like Othello, he is scorned by Brabantio, and like Othello, he is willing to kill with remarkable readiness. There’s very little, in these respects, between the two of them. So why are we willing to laugh at Iago tricking Roderigo, but Iago tricking Othello fills us with horror?
Oddly enough (perhaps scarily enough) it seems to be a manliness thing. Milhouse, with his enormous nose and thick glasses – cough – is considered too pathetic a specimen to mate with Lisa. Gunter is weasellish, rather than “handsome in a ugly sort of way,” like Ross, and Roderigo is pitiable not because he attempts to murder someone, but because he’s afraid to do it. With female characters, it isn’t quite the inverse. The hero still pursues the heroine, but he himself will be pursued by a female butt or ‘femme-Milhouse’ who will be characteristically unladylike in some way. Often, she’ll be overweight. Maybe, like Friends’ Janice, she’ll have an irritating voice. Either way, we’ll be expected to laugh at her.
There’s no remedy for it; we’re bound by the rules of tragic-comedy to laugh at someone. If we try to make our Milhouses into tragic heroes, we’ll be forced to turn someone else into a buffoon. Moe, probably.
And I don’t want to laugh at Moe, readers. I like Moe.