Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Mad Magazine proposed a similar definition when it said (paraphrasing from memory): Humor is something funny that happens to someone that if it happened to you it wouldn’t be funny. Likewise, Erma Bombeck offered this explanation: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
Here’s playwright Nicky Silver speaking about the connection between pain and humor:
Like most couples [referring to his parents] they certainly weren’t always happy, but somehow I saw the violence of their pain and their humor simultaneously. There is a moment in Raised in Captivity [one of his plays] that really exemplifies this. The play opens at Bernadette’s mother’s funeral, and she is distraught to the point of near-hysteria. At one point she wails ‘I never said goodbye! I never told her I loved her!’ Her husband tries to calm her. “Yes you did, I heard you.” She replies: “But I never meant it!!”
Every night the audience would howl at this line. But to me it’s really slice-of-life stuff. I mean the character is simply being honest. Her pain is so oversized that it erupts in this grand explosion of sadness and rage all mixed up together. It feels theatrical to some people. It feels like home movies to me.
From “On Comedy,” Nicky Silver, The Dramatist Magazine