What is the best way to describe in English (expression, idiom) a context that at first sight is funny (most would laugh), but a deep analysis will make it really serious or even dramatic (to cry over)?

Example of such contexts:

  • "fail compilations" on the Internet - most of them are presented as funny, but some scenes include serious accidents (that might be even tragic)

  • discussions between politicians - their lack of knowledge seems funny, but their are actually controlling lots of things

My native language has an expression that literally translates to "it would be to laugh about, if it would not be to cry about".

Question: How to best describe a context that looks funny, but it is actually dramatic?

  • If I didn't laugh, I'd cry – Lawrence Jan 18 '18 at 16:27
  • @Lawrence - that's it. I also found "It would be laughable if it were not so pathetic", but this is the shortest form the conveys the exact message I am looking for. You should put it as an answer. Thanks. – Alexei Jan 18 '18 at 16:54
  • Added as an answer. :) – Lawrence Jan 19 '18 at 1:32

The equivalent phrase in English is

If I didn't laugh, I'd cry. - Anne Dunne, chickensoup.com

(I don't think this phrasing was original to Anne Dunne - that's just an example of its use; the expression is used widely.)

The sense of the expression is that something sad has happened, but there's also a lighter side that the speaker is focusing on. It's also attributed to Abraham Lincoln in the following form:

I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all. - Abraham Lincoln


The idiom in English is: black comedy. Used to describe situations that have elements that make you laugh, but are ultimately sad or tragic. (Like life, in general.)


As well as black comedy, you might also consider "tragicomic", which means having elements of both tragedy and comedy.

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