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First Law of Tragicomedies

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In any work that has both drama and comedy, the drama rises proportionally with the level of tension in the story. The comedy does the reverse.
A tragicomedy (also known as a dramedy) is a mix of lighter and darker material that uses humor to lighten the tension and drama as a way to show the audience that something serious is going on. This is a difficult balancing act to carry out, and only a few shows have ever done it successfully.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_1'); })In the worst cases, however, over the course of a series of books, films, television episodes, or other media, the subject might start out mainly comedy, switch to dramedy at about the halfway point, then continue to become darker and less comedic until beloved characters start getting wiped out with frightening regularity. Fans are then more justified in complaining that the series Jumped the Shark with a Genre Shift.
To prevent this, a show might intentionally keep all the high-tension drama for climaxes and action scenes, while saving all the comedy for the filler moments when nothing too important is actually going on. Other times, outright comedy will be added to an otherwise work of straight tragedy.
If it does this by pushing comedic characters Out of Focus or having them Put on a Bus, that's Shoo Out the Clowns. If the work frequently shifts between tragedy and comedy without warning, that's Mood Whiplash. If the actual plot has jumped the tracks and gone in a completely different direction, it's Halfway Plot Switch — the trope on this page only implies a tone change.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_2'); })Titles that have undergone Cerebus Syndrome fall under this trope, Cerebus Rollercoaster even more so.
Examples:
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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A lot of light-hearted operas (e.g. La Bohème, Don Giovanni, Carmen, La Traviata or pretty much any opera in the "fallen woman" genre, etc.) take a dive toward the dramatic in the final act. Mozart himself said that any good comic opera needs at least one seria (read: dramatic opera) character or arc.
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Subverted in Adventure Time on the "Holly Jolly Secrets" episode. We're learning the big secret revealing a recurring antagonist, the Ice King, as a Tragic Villain. Literally right after this, Jake tries to humorously say, "drama booomb~!" but the comedy is just not there, not for the audience or any other characters. The rest of the episode following that has at least one other joke, and it's mixed in with what is supposed to be an odd mix of tragedy and heartwarming.
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Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog does this, complete with downer ending, though YMMV.
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Samurai Jack swings erratically between the Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness, but it's relatively rare for an episode to have significant amounts of comedy and drama. The laughs tend to be fairly separated.
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Bone starts out with characters right out of a cartoon short before they get caught up in epic fantasy. There's elements of both at all points of the story, but notably more silliness in the beginning and more of the epic stuff at the end.
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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Sluggy Freelance tends to be especially obvious with this trope.
Subverted in this strip when Riff makes a wisecrack while fighting K'Z'K, a demon who has possessed his ex-girlfriend Gwynn.
Also note that K'Z'K was at least once defeated by puns.
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
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Notably averted in Justice League International, the classic Giffen-DeMatteis run, with the story arc "Breakdowns." As the name might suggest, "Breakdowns" was one of the darkest times in the entire history of the Justice League, in any of its incarnations. It was also hysterically funny.
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In Bruges, although the tragic elements are there from the beginning, and there is still a bit of Black Comedy left towards the end.
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Into the Woods. The first half is set up as a mix of traditional fairy tales, with plenty of humour, although some of it is Black Comedy due to not going with a Disneyfied version of all of the tales (the fate of Cinderella's stepsisters in particular stand out). The second act shows the fallout of everything that happened to achieve the "happily ever after" of the first act. Despite starting with some very funny scenes, it quickly takes a turn for the worse and character start dropping like flies. There's even a reprise of a very funny song, Agony, a duet for the two Princes talking about wanting unreachable women, which is still hilarious but has a darker undertone due to the fact that they are now cheating on the wives they spent the first act trying to get.
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Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann veers sharply into drama after episode sixteen, presses that throttle down, and then abruptly releases it for the last three episodes... only to slam it back down for its ending. Viewers were sharply divided.
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Fullmetal Alchemist averts this by having silly moments amongst the dramatic ones; impressive in that the story of it is possibly darker than the 2003 anime version, which played it straight with the last batch of episodes dropping the humor altogether.
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The musical 1776 follows a similar arc. It begins comedically, then darkens; and while it has a happy ending, it has to travel through some very dark territory to get there.
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This is the course taken by the increasingly dark Harry Potter series. Also, each individual volume internally features this: if Harry's alone, facing his destiny, it'll be deadly serious. If he's with his friends, someone will crack a joke at some point.
This eventually reached the point where the trailers of Harry Potter movies strikingly resemble a preview of a horror film.
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Trigun notably was very light hearted in the first half, and barring some of the really deeper moments such as episode six's ending never really loses its humor. Things took a deeper turn when the main plot kicked in during the second half but still threw in an occasional gag, usually in the first half of the episode. Then during the final 5-6 episodes the comedy was all but dropped. In the case of the manga it was mostly averted: while the main, more dramatic story kicked in much earlier, the humor, while a little more sparse, never completely disappeared even as things got even more serious. For an example: take the following events after Wolfwood's death. In the anime, the episode after we see Vash breaking down at the beginning of the episode and it goes downhill from there for him. In the manga, the chapter after Wolfwood's death has Vash connecting with his new ally Livio and there's a humorous breakfast scene with the two eating to get their strength back up.
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Everyday Heroes also plays this trope straight. The first few chapters showed a superhero treating crime-fighting like a regular 9-to-5 job, and his super-powered daughter trying to be a normal high school student. Then we get a flashback into Jane's past, and all of a sudden her boss is pure evil and her best friend gets Stuffed into the Fridge. More recent chapters have lightened up and brought back the comedy.
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The first twenty or so minutes of any Scrubs episode will be hilarious; the rest will be depressing.
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Third Star is hilarious throughout, despite having very dark subject matter but in the last half hour everything starts to go horribly wrong.
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Red vs. Blue more often that not. During the earlier seasons, it tries to keep the zany comedy on top by splitting more serious stuff onto miniseries. But then Cerebus Syndrome kicks in, making a deeper plot take precedence - though that means a world and characters that try to take themselves seriously have to welcome the previously established cast of bickering/weird/clueless idiots, a contrast that makes them even funnier.
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You know you're watching Supernatural when, apart from the one or two Breather Episodes they do a season, the episodes have about ten minutes worth of cracky fun and the other thirty is laced with a deep depression. And then of course, one of those Breather Episodes will be something like "Mystery Spot," where the cracky fun/depression ratio is reversed: "Hilarious, hilarious... Oh my god!"
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Cowboy Bebop had Ed and Ein do a quick fade any time the plot took a dark turn — their presence equaled comedy. They left the show two episodes before the Bittersweet Ending.
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Salome, especially in its operatic adaptation which composer Richard Strauss once described as "ein Scherzo mit tödlichem Ausgang" (a scherzo with a fatal conclusion).
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Homestuck plays around with this. At the beginning, it's a zany story about a somewhat dimwitted nerdy kid running around his house doing random things with his quirky clown-obsessed father while his friend manipulated his house through a computer game, to his dismay. Then it turns out the game is an Artifact of Doom bringing about the apocalypse, but the comic still stays funny. Fast-forward a few Acts, and the Comedic Sociopath Punch-Clock Villain with a distaste for the silly costumes his superiors make him wear has become a monster who massacres countless Redshirts. That's pretty dark, but there are still plenty of jokes to be heard. Eventually, though, major characters start dropping like flies, and there's often very little humor for long stretches. However, even when things are extremely serious, the comic often delights in treating them like jokes, and its moments of genuine lightheartedness never go away completely, coming back especially in force at the beginning of Act 6. (Not that this puts a damper on the seriousness at all)
This has given rise to the meme of "MS Pain Adventures", an edited image deliberately ramping up the grimdark by putting the main characters on a battlefield drenched with blood, as well another of the words "Kids and Fun!" pasted over scenes of death and destruction.
The climax, [S]: Collide, shows the heroes facing against all of the major villains... alongside Karkat's battle against the Invincible Minor Minion Clover.
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The majority of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is played for comedy, but it becomes dramatic towards the end with the whale hunters and the return to the future. The beginning of the film when the probe reaches Earth and the crew heads back in time is also played mostly seriously.
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The Order of the Stick mostly averts this and manages to have a joke (or five) in almost every strip, no matter how plot critical. Somehow it does this without undermining either the comedy or the drama.
Even comics with deaths of major characters (such as the deaths of Roy and Miko) contain at least one humorous line.
The single darkest strip in the entirety of the comic is also not without humor.
The trope is played straight in this strip, where the first page, however grim, contains some amounts of humor (actually more than the ones mentioned before), but by the second page it shifts to a complete Tear Jerker with no comedy at all.
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The Invisible Man starts out as a lighthearted comedy but takes a darker turn halfway through.
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While Conker's Bad Fur Day is mostly a very funny game there are some grim moments breaking through the facade. While before this is mostly cruelty against minor characters, this falls back on Conker himself in the ending. After all the time Conker was searching for his girlfriend, he finally finds her only to lose her, perhaps even twice: Not only does she seem quite aloof and not very happy to see him, she also dies at the end. Afterwards, he gets a chance to wish her back to life, but just momentarily forgets about her. In the end he is "King of all the lands", but ultimately without any of the happiness that his wealth could otherwise afford him. He gives an epic monologue on materialism ending with "The grass is always greener, and you don't really know what it is you have until it's gone...gone...gone...". At the end we see him in the Tavern again, alone and drinking, afterwards waggling off in an uncertain future It's only slightly better than the original planned ending where Conker shoots himself.
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This eventually reached the point where the trailers of Harry Potter movies strikingly resemble a preview of a horror film.
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The soundtrack for Edward Scissorhands is divided into two "acts" precisely because of this trope - it starts out rather sunnily, but begins to move down a darker path as Edward falls in love with Kim (and rejects Joyce's advances). Once Edward participates in the house robbery, the comedy gradually drains from the film altogether.
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Do the Right Thing: While not a total comedy, the film features many slice of life comedic moments peppered between racial tensions... before a giant riot occurs over the death of a local black youth. Trash can flying ensues.
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Almost totally averted by The Venture Bros.. The jokes almost never stop, no matter how serious things get. Word of God claims it actually ruined an intended Moral Event Horizon - The Monarch once put a hooker through a death course, making references to shows like Lost. The creators intended this to be his big creepy Moral Event Horizon, but people just found it hilarious. Otherwise, it's done very well.
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Stargate SG-1:
The episode "Window of Opportunity" is very funny in almost every scene — with the exception of the very dramatic climax.
"Urgo" is pretty much the same way (and when the climax ends, the humor comes back).
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Tropic Thunder, of all movies, has all three lead characters be crippled by questions of identity and self-worth while the climax is going down. It doesn't last too long, but it's very strange for a wacked-out Ben Stiller farce which earlier on had the lead character wearing a panda's head like a hat.
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starts out fairly comedic with the rebellious antics of McMurphy and the other patients, but culminates in the tragic suicide of Billy Bibbit and the lobotomization (and subsequent Mercy Kill) of McMurphy.
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The musical Camelot with Richard Harris does this amazingly well. The movie starts out as a light-hearted comedy, then very gradually gets darker leading to an inevitable, heart-wrenching conclusion. The high point is Burton/Arthur's reprisal of the lighthearted title song from the beginning, now sung dramatically, and his agony at the line, "For one brief shining moment!"
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From Chapter 5 on, every page of Gunnerkrigg Court featured commentary (usually quite wry) by the author below the comic. In Chapter 16, just before the plot's excursion into Psychological Horror territory, the comments abruptly stopped. When several fans complained about the missing commentary, Tom replied,
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Chrono Crusade starts out as a fun action-adventure show with supernatural elements. Although there's hints of a darker tone from the start (the main characters are fighting demons, after all), the ending takes a stark turn for the dramatic after a climatic battle at a festival midway through the series. The manga keeps enough comedic moments in the series that it might be closer to Mood Whiplash, but the anime heads full throttle into deep, dark tragedy until it heads straight into an infamous Tear Jerker ending. In both versions, The Hero Dies at the end of the series.
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Frozen plays this pretty straight, with the funnier moments and musical numbers concentrated more in the first half while the harder drama comes into play more in the second half. Ironically, Plucky Comic Relief character Olaf doesn't show up until the halfway point, which explains why his comedy is more limited than the trailers would have you believe. He does help counteract the increased seriousness of the main characters at that point, however. Even some of his comedy is actually Black Comedy.
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Up until Act III, and aside from the opening, Romeo and Juliet is essentially a Romantic Comedy.
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In The Muppet Christmas Carol, Gonzo and Rizzo (the comic relief Narrator and the comic relief Greek Chorus, respectively) disappear after the arrival of The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come... but not before a little Lampshade Hanging:
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The World's End somehow maintains equal parts hilarious comedy and serious drama all the way to the end when it adds tear-jerker pathos to the mix. You're horrified by Gary King's antics even while you are laughing helplessly at them.
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M*A*S*H is the ultimate example of this trope in American pop culture. Its reputation shifted from being among the zaniest of zany sitcoms (by the standards of the time) to Tear Jerker-a-minute episodes.
One great example, and probably a turning point for the series in this regard, was the episode with Henry Blake's departure, which is filled with corny in-jokes about the guy and his history on the show right up until the abrupt, heart-rending, soul-crushing last-minute surprise.
That said, there was plenty of serious stuff early on — take "Sometimes You Hear The Bullet." The main difference is in the (dis)integration of the elements rather than the amount of either: in the early days comedy and tragedy often happened back-to-back in the same situation, whereas in later years episodes would often feature distinct "funny" and "serious" plotlines.
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Stranger Than Fiction. The trailer lied.
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street starts off as a Black Comedy, though the end is not very funny.
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Radiata Stories starts out very goofy and remains so for most of its running time, with serious moments scattered around. However, as both paths near their end, the comedy dies out and the story gets very serious, and the game ends with either a Bittersweet Ending or Downer Ending, with the ending where Ganz kills himself and humanity is implied to be destroyed being the Bittersweet Ending!
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Mahou Sensei Negima! does a good job with this once the Cerebus Syndrome kicks in, with the heavily dramatic moments more or less balanced out by comedic moments.
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The 1994 Scottish 6-Part miniseries, Takin' Over the Asylum follows this trope. The first 3 episodes are a quirky Dramedy whereas the last 3 episodes are much darker, starting with the death of a major character at the end of Episode 4.
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The Cable Guy: the comedy begins zany and gets progressively darker, until the film becomes something of a psychological thriller with jokes. Audiences at the time were famously unprepared for such a dark turn from Jim Carrey.
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Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches has a notably more serious feel during Rika's arc which both leads up to and portrays the Darkest Hour in Yamada's life when his friends have forgotten everything about him and rejected him. Here, the series has a clear dramedy feel while it's more of a traditional comedy in the Slice of Life chapters.
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Bicentennial Man: The film starts with the comedic antics of a (Literal-Minded) Robot Butler and explores the potential character depth available to said robot. However, a Halfway Plot Switch to Romantic Comedy turns the primary conflict into making Portia happy. Because the World Congress determines if Andrew is human enough to marry Portia, whenever they appear on-screen the comedic elements disappear entirely.
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Little Shop of Horrors fits this law, though the film adaptation does not.
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Underground gets less comedic and more tragic as it goes on, though it has both throughout.
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Catch-22, despite being hilarious as a whole, becomes increasingly dark as the story progresses, eventually throwing out all comedy in one of the final chapters. Subverted in some ways, considering that before it gets truly horrific, many of the moments of comedy could, if observed objectively, be taken for equally horrifying. This suggests that the increasingly serious tone and likewise decrease in jokes is more an intentional device of the writer and not a direct consequence of the trope.
Since the novel continually re-visits previous events, it contains a lot of things that are initially humorous, then tragic as they are explained. A good example would be the dead man in Yossarian's tent.
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Click, an Adam Sandler movie, fits this trope to a T. It starts out as a film with a guy who uses a magical remote to see a jogger's boobs jiggle in slow-mo, and begins a little more dramatic when he accidentally jumps one year ahead, but still had plenty of comedy. When he jumps ahead, he's there corporeally, but not mentally, he's basically zoned out, on "auto-pilot", so his social life falls apart, but for some reason he's a great architect. Then he jumps ten years into the future, where his wife left him, and he's severely overweight. It just goes straight into drama, leaving comedy in the dust when he jumps past his father's death, and then comes into his own. But then say hello to comedy after the climax it was All Just a Dream, or it was time traveled away, take your pick.
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The Room actually follows this pretty rigidly. The first half is mostly baffling moments of comedy and meandering subplots, while the second half cuts away all the subplots in favour of the main infidelity storyline, before the protagonist is Driven to Suicide. (Though it's so badly acted that even the dramatic parts are unintentionally funny.)
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Carousel begins as a period-flavored romantic comedy, but gradually develops into a tragic romance.
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Jojo Rabbit: The film gets ever-so-gradually less farcical until the death of Rosie shoves the movie into something more like a straightforward war drama with some jokes.
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Ginger Snaps starts off as an amusing dark comedy about two sisters obsessed with death and their curt reactions to the world around them, with Ginger's first period driving a number of comedic bits (their mother's celebratory strawberry cake, the over enthusiastic nurse, etc.). Once the Body Horror gets going, though, and bodies start piling up, the comedy slowly fades away, and by the end absolutely no one's laughing.
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Shaun of the Dead does this to good effect.
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The theatrical version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame becomes one of these. Most of the play follows the movie's plot with comedy sprinkled around (although the comedic gargoyles are removed.) Then, unlike the movie, Esmeralda dies. Then Quasimodo throws Frollo to his death. Then (depending on the production), Quasimodo takes Esmeralda's body into Notre Dame's crypt to die alone with her. So its a tad bit more depressing to say the least.
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Present in Bittersweet Candy Bowl; David is seldom around when things get bad.
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The Saga of Tuck also follows this to a T: when Tuck is beaten and left near death Stuffed into a Locker, all the cracking wise grinds to a halt until he's out of the hospital. This annoyed a few fans who accused it of Cerebus Syndrome.
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Inverted by Being There, which begins with serious scenes of a developmentally delayed man being evicted from his home when his employer dies, but it quickly turns to comedy once the main character is on his own.
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The Walkyverse usually follows this law to a T. Also subverted/lampshaded by the author, David Willis, by stating that "before we can proceed [with the excessive drama], this strip needs an EMERGENCY BATMAN INFUSION!"
Also noticeably spoofed with - well, you know those little plastic tabs on battery-operated toys? Where the battery won't work until you pull it? Robin pulls a tag marked "Drama".
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In a two-part arc on Barney Miller, department policy and the stringpulling of Inspector Luger cause the 12th precinct to be converted into a homicide division. At first it's the occasion for slightly darker than usual gags about murder. Then a gruff shopkeeper is killed after Barney had had to turn him away before because his case didn't involve homicide. That largely stops the comedy until The Denouement in which the squad is reassigned to a lighter felony.
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Elfen Lied is one of the darker tragicomedies. It does have its silly moments, such as when Nyu is awake early on in the manga, but then becomes even darker after the point where the anime cuts off, where Kakuzawa initiates the final part of his plan to take over the world by infecting the population with the Diclonius virus. Appropriately enough, the comedy portion of the manga is left in the omakes, which is not canon.
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Defied on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Petty or comedic situations happen along side the dire ones. Managing the two in tandem ties into the show's themes surrounding mental health and relationship boundaries.
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Good Morning, Vietnam
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The following is a list of statements referring to the current page from other pages.

 First Law of Tragicomedies
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Shadows Of The Past (Machinima)
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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 Everything Is Illuminated
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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First Law of Tragicomedies
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