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Vol. 23, No. 1, 2024
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Robert J. Lewis
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comedy in tragedy



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

A short while ago a dear friend and great actress - Frances Sternhagen - passed away at age 93. The last time I saw her in her dressing room after a Broadway play we again took up a discussion of Paddy Chayefsky which had begun when Frances had starred years earlier in his film The Hospital. I had reviewed the film and raved that it had all of the elements of great tragedy (It had garnered an Oscar for Chayefsky, the only screenwriter to win three unshared Academy awards). I had noted that one of its structural hallmarks was the ingenious weaving of comic elements in this tragic satire of modern city hospitals. The film, I felt, had achieved true greatness and taken its place among tragic dramas together with his other Oscar winners Marty and Network.

The list of great tragedies that contain comedy is a long one. It was Thomas De Quincy’s essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” which presciently showed that such elements were vital in order for a play to gain universality and subsequent preeminence. Actually, master dramatists from Aristophanes onwards had long recognized the value of inserting comedy in order to elevate their serious work. Lysistrata, one of history’s outstanding anti-war plays, contains absolutely hysterical scenes of women refusing to give their husband’s any sex until they ended the Peloponnesian war. Shakespeare’s drunken Porter in Macbeth enables us to realize that while murder is being committed in one room of a castle, in another room there is chucklesome drunkenness going on. In Hamlet the protagonist conducts a comic interlude for the production of a play which will help him gain revenge on his murderous uncle.

In serious video and film projects writers have long recognized the need to insert comic relief into dialogue and action sequences and Chayefsky’s best writing achieves greatness, in part, because of his genius in executing comic elements to support the tragedy. In The Hospital he creates a bitter satire of all the bureaucratic, political, medical and social interactions that conspire to produce accidental death in an institution designed to preserve life. Frances Sternhagen plays the part of a hopelessly bureaucratic administrator whose prolixity reflects the endless paperwork that can actually be a cause of further illness and even death in some patients. Corrupt physicians, overworked administrators, bullied nurses and neighbourhood protesters are all presented in bitter satire which is rendered more powerful by Chayefsky’s brilliant comic interludes and the clownish behaviour of some key characters.

In The Americanization of Emily, Chayefsky cleverly satirizes the insidiousness of inter-service rivalry in the American military which, of course, results in more casualties in battle. He attacks the omnipresent egoism of senior officers, the need to glorify all war efforts, and the fatuous sense of pride among people who have lost relatives in combat. He shows how these eternal human flaws are the real causes of all war. Much of the satiric power in the film is achieved by the lead character, a naval officer played by James Garner, who is a master “dog robber.” His job is to provide the best food, amenities and women available for the senior military officers who order men killed in battles that serve only to publicize their ability. The ingenious comic behaviour of the dog robber and his cohorts reinforces the horrific absurdity of war and underscores its inevitability because of everyone’s need to glorify.

The struggle to extract objective truth from media sources has become a major issue everywhere and television news programming is a major target in the controversy. In Network, produced in 1976, one critic wrote that Chayefsky “presaged the advent of reality television by twenty years.” And it is perhaps the viewing of this film by younger audiences unacquainted with Paddy Chayefsky that will stimulate new inquiry into his genius. The principal theme of the film is to show the insane length that TV moguls will go to in order to achieve better ratings. The lead character, played by Faye Dunaway, convinces executives that political violence and other inhuman behaviour should constitute the essence of their programming. Thus, a lead anchorman advertising his own suicide intent, revolutionary racism and absurd fortune telling wind up being the prime time shows on her network. Early TV prestige exemplified by the Walter Cronkites of media journalism is abandoned in favour of gossipy false news, libelous accusations, and the kind of lying and hyperbole that we have become used to in present day programming.

Throughout, Chayefsky inserts his usual sardonic dialogue, replete with comic metaphors and interludes that render the “madness” of the media. That word is used often in the film.

Chayefsky’s writing and directing in early TV drama (his enormous success on the Philco Playhouse is legendary) and motion pictures was constantly met with opposition from producers, film executives and studio heads. Mostly, they opposed the intellectualism of his dialogue and the complexity of the characters and their problems. His aesthetic standards and production values were invariably challenged; and only because of an aggressive and unyielding personality was he able to get his way.

Paddy Chayefsky was an idealistic intellectual, a dedicated opponent of McCarthyism and a staunch supporter of Israel as it attained nationhood. He championed dozens of struggles that screenwriters have always had with the money people in film production. He opposed the Vietnam war, and fought anti-Semitism all his life.

A little known work that Chayefsky created was the film The Goddess based on the life and struggle of Marilyn Monroe. According to his biographer Shaun Considine, Chayefsky “captured her longing and despair” accurately. I became interested in this project because as a teen age jazz musician playing a gig in The Hamptons I had met her when she came up to the bandstand. I found her extremely knowledgeable about the music, hugely supportive of jazz and its struggles, and in other short conversations, modest, and warm. In the tons of literature written about this Hollywood icon, she is constantly portrayed as a fickle, selfish and indolent person. Paddy Chayefsky was the only writer who understood the difficulties caused by depraved producers and image makers who focused on sex and couldn’t care less about her as a studied actress.

Chayefsky’s brilliant talent and combative personality caused him to have a troubled life. He died in 1981 at age 58 and his incomparable film work has not received anywhere near the attention it deserves. All of the films noted above are available on all the streaming sites (Turner Classic Movies shows them quite often) and await long overdue new critical examination.


Stunning, erudite article from a master about a master. Comforting to be in the hands of an expert who knows his classics! And gives a great writer his due. Thank you Professor Catalano; I learned about Chayefsky!



By Nick Catalano:
George Lucas - An Appreciation
Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One
Hell on the High Seas
A Producer Remembers
World War I: Armistice and Artists
The Masters: Standup Comedy pt. II
On Standup Comedy pt. I
My Times with Benny Goodman
Higher Education and the Future of Democracy
Faith, Emotion and Superstition versus Reason, Logic and Science
Thinking: A Lost Art
Alternative Approaches to Learning
Aesthetic History and Chronicled Fact
Terror in China: Cultural Erasure and Computer Genocide
The Roller Coaster of Democracy
And Justice for All
Costly Failures in American Higher Education
Trump and the Dumbing Down of the American Presidency
Language as the Enemy of Truth
Opportunity in Quarantine
French Music: Impressionism & Beyond
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. II
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. I
Kenneth Branagh & Shakespeare
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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