“I used to think it was clever to confuse comedy with tragedy. Now I wish I could distinguish them.” – John le Carré, author
Comedy in most of our minds translates to, “the story has a happy ending.” And usually that’s exactly the case. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to imagine Elf ending with Buddy getting banished from New York, never settling down with his one true love Jovie, and finding out his best pal Michael is a terrorist. (Do you like how I just cleverly disguised all the spoilers for the movie I’m writing about?)
Sometimes, though, comedy is a tool for helping us get through the more gritty experiences in life; this idea forms the premise for Good Morning, Vietnam. Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is a radio personality that is sent to war-torn Vietnam to give soldiers something to smile about when they listen to the radio. The audience is given a clue as to the previous state of the airwaves at the beginning of the movie as a monotone voice reads the news. The decibel needle is barely bouncing. Contrast this to when Adrian is sitting in the control seat…dead airtime is left behind in the dust. The decibel needle lunges into the red zone constantly. Since I used to be the creative director at a radio station tasked with keeping a keen eye on decibel levels, I cringe to think about what Adrian’s antics must sound like on the other side of the radio. Sometimes he is literally screaming into the microphone. But the soldiers love him – and we love him – because he somehow manages to squeeze comedy out of an incredibly depressing landscape.
Perhaps the best example of the juxtaposition between comedy and tragedy in this movie is when Adrian Cronauer plays the song, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong. The filmmakers decided to edit footage of the Vietnam War into a montage while the song plays. When we hear, “And I think to myself…what a wonderful world,” we see an explosion and a bloodied sandal in the middle of the street. When we hear, “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do,” we see protesters holding picket signs. Should viewers smile because of the thought that the world can still be wonderful during chaos? Or should we cry because of the horrible things we are watching unfold onscreen? The screenwriter seems to suggest both. This is the paradox of Good Morning, Vietnam.
This story does not end like Elf. Adrian’s love interest, a Vietnamese woman named Trinh, says to him before they part ways, “Thank you for being so kind. So many things not happen the way you wanted.” He keeps his sense humor until the very end: “I say tomato, you say xioh phoung.” They shake hands. (Not even a hug?! Gee, cultural barriers are so confusing.)
At the end of the day, I’m afraid many of us will have aspects of life that did not turn out the way we wanted. When that happens, we can take a page out of Adrian Cronauer’s book and keep comedy closer to tragedy than our culture is sometimes comfortable with.