Bathos is a literary term rooted in a Greek word meaning "depth." It describes a situation where a writer or poet unintentionally descends into trivial and absurd metaphors, descriptions, or ideas while attempting to convey deep emotions or passion.
Distinguishing Bathos from Pathos
It's important to note that bathos is distinct from "pathos." Originally introduced by Alexander Pope, bathos explained inadvertent errors committed by inexperienced writers or poets. However, comedic writers later intentionally employed bathos to create humorous effects, often involving a sequence that transitions from seriousness to silliness.
Examples of Bathos in Various Forms of Entertainment
Example #1: Chuckles the Clown's Funeral - "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
"In one episode of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' the character Chuckles the Clown meets a tragically absurd end, trampled by a rampaging elephant. Despite the macabre nature of the situation, the station's staff humorously jests about it. However, when Mary attends Chuckles' funeral, she inexplicably bursts into uncontrollable laughter, leaving the attendees bewildered."
This instance showcases the unexpected intrusion of bathos into a somber setting, where humor emerges from the most unlikely circumstances.
Example #2: Frank Drebin's Humor - "The Naked Gun"
"Absurdist humor often employs bathos, as seen in the television series 'Police Squad!' and 'The Naked Gun.' In these works, serious scenarios are meticulously built up only to be hilariously undermined by the irreverent remarks of characters like Frank Drebin. For instance, a seemingly solemn situation is introduced but quickly subverted by Frank's comical comments."
Frank Drebin's witty remarks epitomize the deployment of bathos to generate laughter by defying audience expectations.
Example #3: Catherine Morland's Imagination - Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey"
"Jane Austen artfully employs bathos in 'Northanger Abbey' to satirize the extravagant elements of Gothic fiction. Catherine Morland, the protagonist, becomes embroiled in suspense over a mysterious chest in her room. The narrative adopts a gothic tone filled with foreboding words, only to reveal that the chest contains a mere folded bedsheet."
Austen cleverly employs bathos to lampoon the melodramatic aspects of Gothic literature, as Catherine's unfounded fears are humorously juxtaposed with the mundane reality of a bedsheet.
Example #4: Relationship Troubles - "I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again" (BBC Radio Comedy)
"The British radio series 'I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again' features numerous examples of bathos. In one sketch, John Cleese and Jo Kendall portray a couple on the verge of a relationship breakdown. Mary expresses nostalgic sentiments about their past love, to which John humorously replies that she 'spent it all.'"
This exchange exemplifies how bathos can inject humor into interpersonal dynamics, contrasting Mary's romantic idealism with John's blunt and pragmatic response.
Function of Bathos
Bathos serves as a comedic device that can enhance a humorous scene. By creating a stark contrast in tone, it elevates the wit within a situation. Initially, it sets up a serious and emotionally charged atmosphere, which can be challenging to establish in comedy. Therefore, writers must exercise caution when introducing humor into serious scenes to avoid disrupting the narrative flow.