Misuse of “Comic Relief”

By Maeve Maddox

The following passage from a newspaper feature alerted me to confusion between the literary term “comic relief” and the idiom “to throw [something] into relief”:

Inside, the obituary request for humane society donations comes into comic relief. There’s a Jack Russell and a King Charles, a cockatoo Miss Peepers and a cage full of finches. There’s a goldendoodle, an Australian shepherd, a standard poodle, and now Ross’s two Persians and another cat. A second tropical bird is at a Memphis vet.

The journalist is writing about a man whose obituary requested that memorial donations be made to the local humane society. When he visited the family home and saw the multitude of pets, the memorial request took on greater significance. The existence of the orphaned animals caused the request “to come into relief,” but not “into comic relief.”

The noun relief has two usual meanings.

One kind of relief is “ease or alleviation given to or received by a person through the removal or lessening of some cause of distress or anxiety.” For example, “Passengers are breathing a sigh of relief after an Ebola scare at Los Angeles International Airport.”

Another kind of relief is “the projection of a design from a flat surface.” For example, “The alabaster wall panel shows the mounted figure of King Ashurbanipal in relief.”

This latter meaning of relief is used figuratively to mean “vividness, distinctness, or prominence due to contrast.” For example, “At a time when for-profits strategically adopt the stylized selflessness of nonprofit design, nonprofit profit-seeking stands out in ever sharper relief.”

The idiom “to throw into relief” means, “to make something plainly evident or clearly visible by contrast.” For example, “The effect of the comment is to throw into relief the wonder of his conversion and to point to the contrast between his previous way of life and [his] new calling.”

The term “comic relief” has nothing to do with a raised image.

“Comic relief” is the writing technique of relieving serious content with humorous or comic interludes. In this context, relief means, “alleviation of distressful emotions.”

The insertion of comic relief may be in the form of an entire scene, like the much-cited “knocking at the gate” example in Macbeth. Shakespeare provides his audience with the porter’s bawdy monologue before facing them with the harrowing discovery of King Duncan’s mutilated corpse.

The effect of lightening somber content can also be achieved by a line of dialogue or a comical character who appears from time to time and can be relied on to provoke a laugh from the audience or reader. For example, Falstaff relieves the bloody history lessons of Shakespeare’s Henry plays. The sardonic one-liners of Lenny in episodes of Law and Order are intended to lighten the gruesome images of murder.

“Comic relief” is, therefore, the deliberate use of humorous effect in the midst of serious content.

The journalist cited above may have been amused by the Doctor Doolittle-esque collection of animals, but his personal amusement does not justify the use of the term “comic relief” in the context.

I found additional examples of the misuse of “comic relief” on the Web. Here’s one:

The claim [by Italian authorities that France should return the Mona Lisa to Italy] throws into comic relief other more serious recent attempts by source countries to extend their repatriation claims to objects that left their borders years, decades or even (in the latest case) centuries before the 1970 cutoff date agreed to by signatories of the UNESCO Convention.—Arts Journal.

The writer regards Italy’s claim as “wacky” and goes on to refer to other claims for art repatriation by other countries that are not as extremely preposterous, but which are in his view, also ridiculous. The expression that would make sense in this context is “to throw into relief”:

Writers need to think twice before prefacing relief with comic

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