Why More Historical Fiction Needs a Sense of Humor

Historical fiction is a genre that often leads to critical darlings. Whether it’s Oscar-nominated movie giants like Alejandro González Iñarrituthe 2015 movie The ghost or critically acclaimed TV series like Tony McNamarathe show Great, respect for historic settings can be found everywhere in the media. Often these takes on history – whether entirely fictional or not – stick to the drama, trying to paint us a stark view of the hard truths of our past. It serves its own purpose, but sometimes a piece of historical fiction will come across as a little less serious. Something that wants to poke fun at history even more than it wants to think about it. And this kind of comic historical fiction is woefully underutilized. But with the recent success of Our flag means death I hope this rarely used genre can get the attention it deserves.

Serious historical dramas certainly have their place. Seeing history come to life on screen is an invaluable tool to help us understand, learn from, and act on our past. But comic historical fiction does something different. His looser approach to his subject allows us to eliminate the realities and get straight to the feelings at the heart of the story. Essentially, comic historical fiction serves to convey a sense of emotion and human connection to the audience rather than worrying about the details of historical accuracy. Just as seeing historical photos restored to color shortens the sense of distance we feel from the past, self-aware historical comedy helps an audience understand the characters’ struggles despite their vastly different circumstances.

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Our flag means death has a lot in common with another piece of comic historical fiction, The story of a knight. While Our flag means death uses real historical figures as the basis of its story, The story of a knight is completely fictional, but they both approach their historical settings in the same way. Both take an extremely loose approach to historical accuracy, leaning into aesthetics and humor with a modern twist. Whether it’s costumes that hint at punk style or jokes that rely on anachronism for the punchline, both of these stories rely on shortening the distance between past and present to tell a story that transcends limits of its frame.

Our flag means death uses its loose approach, historical accuracy and heartfelt comedy to convey a message of love that transcends time. By making so much fun of himself, we focus less on the details of the events that happen and more on the impact those events have on the characters. Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) getting captured by the British Navy and sent to barracks to serve the crown is less about this actual event and more about the resulting emotional crisis, the event forces Stede to control his actions. Comedy allows us to focus more on how the characters feel about what is happening to them rather than what is happening per se. This allows both the audience and the characters to focus on the thematic side of things rather than the historical. We focus on Stede learning about love and self-acceptance rather than a big hacking story. Not only that, but it helps humanize the past differently than historical fiction. This shows us that madness and rejoicing are part of human history just like war or deceit.

The light tone of the show allows us to approach the story from a more familiar point of view. Blackbeard wears impractical leather because it looks cool, Buttons talks to Karl like one would talk to their cat, Frenchie and Oluwande invent pyramid schemes, all of these things are anachronistic but elevate both humor and the relatability of the story. Historicism serves a different purpose in this story than in serious drama, here it serves to accentuate the characters but not to define them. These types of stories offer a different flavor to historical fiction, providing a lens with which to look at the past but not an accurate mirror for it. The comedic side allows us to look at historical times and figures without putting them on a pedestal, instead bringing history and modern audiences to the same level.

The story of a knight works similarly, with William’s rags-to-riches story (health book) taking precedence over the emotional heart of the story in themes of love and self-acceptance. The story is more about this motley group of people who bond as they fight their way to the top. We are not here to learn history, we are here to be entertained. This is not a grand story but a human story.

When the character dances to David Bowie, it imbues a sense of timelessness, but also thematically connects to William as a character. He is not part of this society, he does not know their music or their dances, so he invents something. The music seems out of place because so is William, the modernity of the music and dance reflects a sense of connection between the ordinary people who make up the audience and the ordinary person William is as a character. Or how the whole movie is a retelling of one of the Canterbury Tales and Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the main characters. It creates a sense of dissonance with its own time, but in doing so connects it more strongly to ours. We get to see the hands of the creators a bit more due to the ironic nature of the story and it allows us to look at the show for what it is rather than with reverence.

And, we would be remiss if we forgot it, the crucial use of modern music in both The story of a knight and Our flag means death. The anachronistic use of music is not only fun, but helps to reinforce that sense of connection to the past. It’s another form of storytelling used as a glue between past and present, a reminder that the past is not disconnected to us but rather an echo we hear on repeat. Whether it’s medieval peasants jousting or children headbanging in their carriages, Queen’s use of “We Will Rock You” evokes the same kind of guttural response. Fleetwood Mac’s use of “The Chain” in Our flag means death evokes emotions in the audience as it contrasts with the visuals but complements the mood. Composite uses of anachronistic music help blend past and present. The use of modern music in these stories helps give them a timeless feel despite being rooted in distinct historical contexts.

The comedic approach to comedy humanizes the stories of people living in different times. The goal of historical comedy is not historical accuracy, it is to entertain and enlighten. The story is revered but in truth it was often nonsense. The fact that Our flag means death is based on real events talks about it. Humanity has always been stupid and we use these stories to connect to the past just as much as we use them to try to inform our future. The comedy in Our flag means death or The story of a knight give them a completely different tone than most historical stories and it allows them to take risks and do weird and anachronistic things in the name of storytelling. Ultimately, it creates a story that feels intrinsically tied to the aesthetics of its setting yet timeless in its message. If more stories took this approach, it would not only serve to entertain through a niche genre, but also inform in a different way than traditional historical fiction. It’s a chance for the historical fiction genre to bring history to life in a different yet engaging way that brings out the most human parts of the story and connects audiences to it.


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10 Historical Comedies To Watch After ‘Our Flag Means Death’

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