What Is Comedy of Menace?

Jamie Nedderman

The phrase “comedy of menace” as a standalone description inspires both positive and negative feelings. Comedy is used during a dangerous situation to cause audiences to draw judgments about a particular character or communication. The words used are the focus of often powerful stories that create conflicting emotions from its audience. The title “Comedy of Menace” immediately brings contradictions to mind, because comedy is generally something that makes people laugh, and the word "menace" implies something threatening. Quite literally, then, this phrase involves laughing at an ominous situation.

Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.
Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.

This phrase is part of the title of a British play called The Lunatic View: a Comedy of Menace, by David Campton. Irving Ward, a critic in the 1950s, emphasized the phrase when writing a review of the plays of Harold Pinter. Ward used "comedy of menace" in a review of several of Pinter's works, although at the time he had seen only one, The Birthday Party.

The phrase "comedy of menace" was used to review many plays by playwright Harold Pinter.
The phrase "comedy of menace" was used to review many plays by playwright Harold Pinter.

Some plays are able to successfully mingle drama with comedy. One specific example from The Birthday Party is a character joking around about being in a menacing situation while cleaning his gun to deal with the threat. The goal of such works is to generate tension around the situation or to alter the views of an audience about a particular character; after all, someone joking while planning to shoot another person is generally not a trustworthy person.

In some cases, clowns may embrace the concept behind comedy of menace as a part of their act.
In some cases, clowns may embrace the concept behind comedy of menace as a part of their act.

Pinter himself has been quoted as saying he’s never been able to write a happy play, and that a situation can be both true and false. Summarizing his plays as comedy plays might be a misunderstanding; most critics described his characters with negative connotations. By creating humor around a very dramatic or tense situation, audiences are left feeling confused at the end, because of the range of emotions experienced.

Pinter’s comedies of menace have a rather simplistic setting; they might focus on one or two powerful images and usually are set in just one room. A powerful force that isn’t specifically defined to the audience threatens characters in the plays. Audiences focus on the communications between the characters and generate the feeling and gist of the play from the conversations.

Comedy of menace involves laughing at an ominous situation.
Comedy of menace involves laughing at an ominous situation.

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Discussion Comments


Irving Ward was the one who labeled Harold Pinter's works as "comedies of menace." But he himself took it back a few years later saying that he used the term too rashly. So are Pinter's works comedies of menace or not?


I saw a film belonging to this genre recently. In the film, the main character, unable to fit knives of varying sizes in his pocket, ends up hiding a fork before meeting a dangerous mafia member. The mafia guy, after beating the main character severely, finds the fork in his pocket and jokes saying "were you planning to kill me with this?" He also finds a banana in the same pocket, eats it and throws the banana peel on the ground. A few moments later, the mafia guy slips on the banana peel, fall and lands with the fork going through his neck, killing him. But the film has a bad ending, the main character also ends up dying.

The film was funny, but it was also tragic and sad.


Combining drama and comedy is not very rare, it is being done more and more often in theater and cinema. In fact, a new term has emerged as a result: "dramedy;" that is drama comedy.

I agree that comedies of menace can be confusing for the audience. I have noticed that films with both elements tend to be rated badly by critics and viewers. People leave the cinema confused and not sure about the overarching theme of the film.

I personally enjoy comedies of menace a lot. I don't know why. I think I like obscurity of it. I also think that when there is comedy and drama in a film, irony is inevitable and I enjoy irony as well. Real life dramatic events can be funnier than other types of comedy such as comedy of errors. Because drama makes us think and it gives us an opportunity to view the bad things in life in a more lighthearted way. At least this is how I feel about this concept.

Does anyone here agree with me?

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