According to the "comedic ladder," a list of the four types of comedy from the lowest to the highest, the "comedy of ideas" is the highest form of comedic drama. The comedy of ideas pits pure concepts against each other. The other types include "low comedy," which depends on slapstick; "farce," which is based on coincidence and mistaken identity; and "comedy of manners," which is a witty satire of social behavior. With the comedy of ideas, the characters essentially are archetypes representing particular ideas or worldviews.
Ideas as Characters
The comedy of ideas wrestles with serious questions in life through the medium of comedy. Characters represent particular ideas or attitudes to the issues in question. The conflict between the characters represents the clash of opposing philosophies. Foolish ideas can be satirized through the behavior of the characters. The theme of a comedy of ideas could be any of the great questions, such as issues of war and peace, religion or politics.
Although comedies can be divided into four distinct types according to the comedic ladder, specific comedies are not always pure examples of one type. A comedy can be primarily a low comedy or a farce, but also contain elements of the comedy of manners or the comedy of ideas. The four categories are a convenient starting point for the discussion of comedy, but they are not strict barriers.
In the theater of the Soviet Union, the comedy of ideas took on a somewhat different interpretation. Because the ideals of Communism emphasized masses of human beings rather than individuals, comedies tended to portray characters as representatives of mass tendencies or class interests. Material plenty was emphasized as an ideal to be achieved by the Socialist society, despite the material poverty in which people of that society actually lived. God was portrayed as a concept to be resisted, even though Communism denied the existence of God. The result was a comedy in which the individual character faded away by comparison with the idea, even though the idea did not always represent anything found in the real world.
Examples of the Comedy of Ideas
The comedies of George Bernard Shaw often are cited as examples of the comedy of ideas, to the extent that the philosophical debate in his plays sometimes takes center stage to the detriment of the drama itself.
However, the term is not limited to the study of theater. A television show or a movie such as "M.A.S.H." or "Monty Python" also can be a comedy of ideas.