The proximity of great comedy to tragedy

The other day I saw “Galaxy Quest” again. I had not seen it since it first came out in theaters, fifteen years ago. To say that it holds up over time would be an understatement.

I think there really are only a handful of movies that I consider perfect, in that they set out to accomplish something worth striving for, and they achieve it with spectacular precision and effectiveness. “Casablanca” is one, as is “The Seven Samurai”. I would definitely put “Galaxy Quest” into that rarefied category.

Watching it this time, I already knew everything that would happen, and therefore I could focus on structure, timing, variations in dramatic tension, and how these all worked together to produce a perfect cinematic result.

And I realized something I hadn’t seen the first time around: Much of the comedy in “Galaxy Quest” comes from the proximity of tragedy. The characters you care about are essentially all tragic figures, lost and bitter souls who have missed their chance at happiness in life. They don’t start out liking themselves very much.

In their hero’s journey to redeem themselves — essentially to win back their lost souls — they encounter many terrible dangers. The potential for unspeakable horror lurks just around the corner, sometimes even showing up rather explicitly on screen.

It is the very fact that the stakes are so high, the characters are so believably drawn, so real to us, the possibility of tragic outcome so palpable, that makes the comedy so funny. Through the beautiful alchemy of storytelling, we transmute into laughter the tension of seeing people as flawed as we are — people who could very well be us — going through hell and coming out the other side.

I think Chekhov was on to something. *†

* “Galaxy Quest” also, by the way, adheres impressively to the principle of “Chekhov’s gun”.

No, not that Chekov. The other one.

One Response to “The proximity of great comedy to tragedy”

  1. We are great fans of GQ as well. Thanks for the reminder about the film and the insightful analysis of its nuances.

Leave a Reply