Greek theater classified all plays into two broad categories: comedies and tragedies. In the same vein, the modern storytelling mediums of film and TV typically view projects under these same umbrella terms, only renaming tragedies to dramas, before further breaking them down into subgenres like sitcom, action, and horror. These umbrella terms determine how we divvy out honors at major award ceremonies, but even that has become a murky task with the rise of a relatively new subgenre. TV shows like Orange is the New Black and Shameless and films like The Martian and Silver Linings Playbook are labeled “dramedies.” But what the hell is that?
Well, if we understand how basic words work it’s easy to deduce that on a surface level it’s a story that combines elements of both drama and comedy. You’ll get jokes and cheerfulness with a side of suffering and somberness. That word itself—“dramedy”—dates back to the late ‘80s, when a spate of half-hour comedy-dramas hit the major networks around the same time. Think The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, The Wonder Years, or John Ritter’s Hooperman: half-hour shows aired alongside sitcoms that didn’t necessarily have laugh tracks and dealt with more serious or realistic themes and stories. And the comedy-drama hybrid has a longer television history that includes ‘70s sitcoms like M.A.S.H. and some of Norman Lear’s shows; they might have more closely followed the sitcom format than the ‘80s dramedies, but they also tried to have more meaning than most comedies of their era.
Slapping an official genre tag on that comedy-drama hybrid in the ‘80s is where the confusion of the “dramedy” really begins. It operates outside of our parent genres, creating a third melpomene mask, in the process representing our refusal to broaden our minds on what dramas and comedies can be. Can a comedy not be serious? Can a drama not be funny? Does the creation of the word “dramedy” provoke both questions?
A similar thing happens in stand-up. It’s not uncommon to hear people say they were initially turned off by the medium, assuming the only style allowed was the traditional, observational humor that dominated TV (eg. a white guy in a tacky sports blazer complaining about his wife) until they saw the absurdist and unorthodox styles more welcomed in the alt scenes. They’ll say, “Oh I didn’t know stand-up could be this!” The dramedy label feels just like that, an unwillingness to truly engage with a piece in a critical manner. Shows and films that earn the dramedy badge are just pieces that fuck with the form in ways critics and fans are not used to (or are used by the industry to let two dramas walk away with a trophy at awards time). Big studio releases push a narrative that all comedies are Anchorman and American Pie and all dramas are Schindler’s List and The Godfather. Works that don’t fit into those boxes get regulated to this new box rather than reassessing what qualifies anything for the existing ones.
Nearly all these dramedy-designated works are pretty clearly in one camp or the other; the Greeks narrowed it down to these two for a reason. It seems like we are so used to seeing things on the extreme ends of the spectrum that anything that drifts away melts our brains. More often than not these stories fall in the drama camp and dramedy is just code for a drama where nobody is murdered, or a project that is funny in act one only to become deadly serious the rest of the way home. They’re not Schindler’s List but that doesn’t make it not a drama. Instead, they’re lighthearted dramas, low-stakes dramas, or dramas the average person can relate to. Another term often associated with dramedies are “slice of life” comedies because of their realistic portrayals of common people. And that’s really what seems to be the driving factor in this classification: being grounded in reality. Most other TV dramas, for example, are laden with soap opera levels of conflict and routinely feature long-winded, overly poetic monologues. They’re so over the top that they beat you over the head with their sadness or silliness until anything else feels like a different genre—but often they’re not.
Traditionally, per the Greeks, a comedy is a light story with a happy ending, highlighting the ridiculousness of life while dramas/tragedies are serious stories with a sad ending, highlighting life’s misfortunes. According to the Emmys, comedies are anything under 30 minutes and dramas are anything over. In regards to the Emmys, time is not so much an indicating factor but just a historical pattern, and while the Greek origins are a better measuring guide, they’re not hard and fast rules. Comic heroes can lose and tragic heroes can win. Life is complex and our stories can be too.
Dramas can have funny moments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a comedy. Real life is funny and humor can be found in our darkest moments. It’s actually more realistic for dramas to have these moments of levity as life on average isn’t the endlessly bleak wasteland it’s often depicted to be. On the other side, comedies can deal with serious issues without turning into a “very special episode.”
Identifying tone is key. What is the central motif of this show or movie and how consistent is it? What is the main thing audiences should take away from this story—what is the filmmaker’s goal? Is Lady Bird a dramedy or is it just a comedy that allows its characters to feel deeply and reflect on authentic insecurities and relationships? Is The Farewell a dramedy or is it just a delicate drama that happened to cast a comedian for the leading role?
Subtlety is not a game changer. Instead of looking at some of these works as dramedies, look at it as a different type of comedy: a casual comedy, realism vs. farce, low brow vs. high brow. Look at dramas as low stakes vs high stakes, down-to-earth vs fantastical. Instead of brushing it off as a new invention, find its place within the established parent categories the Greeks gave us just as we did with satires and domestic tragedies. We should evaluate these form-bending projects as a type of comedy or a type of drama instead of some third ambiguous thing. Let’s not overcomplicate this: there’s comedy, and there’s drama, and that’s enough.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.