Josh Richards: The Necessity of Comedy in Time Travel Tales

Guest Professor Josh Richards of Florida and St. Andrews —

Rather than poetry, I come to you today to discuss a modest proposal: if a story features time travel, it should probably be a comedy.  There are three reasons why I believe this to be true.

First, Time Travel is ripe for comedy. Half of Hollywood’s comedic output in the 1980’s featured the concept: Time Bandits, Encino Man, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you name it. Because Time Travel presents such opportunities for comedy that a writer would have to be as humorless as Virginia Woolf or as self-disciplined as a saint to write one without venturing into humor.

Second, A serious Time Travel story, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, for instance, presents the author with an almost irresistible opportunity for moralizing, and nobody likes it when they get on their soapbox, so these are best avoided.

Third, The problems of causality represent a philosophical/theological hurdle that most authors will shipwreck on. Unless an author is an incredibly learned and deep thinker, there are only two options in time travel story:

a) Every special action will result in unforeseen consequences that may be disastrous.

b) The time travel act itself is already integrated into the current causality and so no action can be special as nothing will change by it.

In either case, the force of narrative is lost as either way the only sensible response is not to move, which is itself a special action. The Blessed G. K. Chesterton summarizes this scenario best in Orthodoxy:

“Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless—one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite’s will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is—well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.”

It is actually a variant on the problem of Divine Foreknowledge and free will—And should the author be capable of answering this dichotomy, then they will lose the reader and the story in the philosophizing (a great example is the film Primer). Comedy masks this problem as the plot is normally not the driving force behind the reader’s engagement.

For these reasons, I am always wary when a serious story about time travel is presented to me, and I think it best to relegate tales involving time travel to the delightful arena of comedy.


  1. David DePerro says

    I wonder what the good professor thinks of “Deja Vu” with Denzel. In this film, the moralizing is put in the mouth of the bad guy.

  2. Josh Richards says

    Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the film in question. However, I don’t think it matters where the moralizing comes from so much as its existence, though I could be wrong. A work that is preachy is bothersome no matter what is being preached–whether feminism as in The Handmaiden’s Tale, the dangers of totalitarianism in 1984, or whatever–or even the merits of what is being preached.

    Didactic works tend to irk contemporary readers–this is a matter of taste that may change in time. A good work of literary art should navigate between nihilistic relativism (a tautology in that relativism is always, ultimately nihilistic) and sermonizing.

    Time travel merely offers up an opportunity to use the standards of the present to critique the past that few can resist, despite being the most cheap of all critiques.

Speak Your Mind