A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that employs black humour, which, in its most basic definition, is humor that makes light of otherwise serious subject matter. Black humor corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor.
History and etymology
Origin of the term
The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935, to designate a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often relying on topics such as death.
Breton coined the term for his book Anthology of Black Humor (Anthologie de l'humour noir), in which he credited Jonathan Swift as the originator of black humor and gallows humor, and included excerpts from 45 other writers. Breton included both examples in which the wit arises from a victim, with which the audience empathizes, as is more typical in the tradition of gallows humor, and examples in which the comedy is used to mock the victim, whose suffering is trivialized, and leads to sympathizing with the victimizer, as is the case with Sade. Black humor is related to that of the grotesque genre.
Breton identified Swift as the originator of black humor and gallows humor, particularly in his pieces Directions to Servants (1731), A Modest Proposal (1729), A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick (1710), and a few aphorisms.
The terms black comedy or dark comedy have been later derived as alternatives to Breton's term. In black humor, topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo, specifically those related to death, are treated in an unusually humorous or satirical manner while retaining their seriousness; the intent of black comedy, therefore, is often for the audience to experience both laughter and discomfort, sometimes simultaneously.
Adoption in literary criticism
Bruce Jay Friedman, in his anthology entitled Black Humor, imported the concept to the United States, labeling with it very different authors and works, arguing that they shared the same literary genre. The Friedman label came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Early American writers who employed black humor were Nathanael West and Vladimir Nabokov. In 1965 a mass-market paperback, titled Black Humor, was released. Containing work by a myriad of authors, which included J.P. Donleavy, Edward Albee, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruce Jay Friedman, himself, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, this was one of the first American anthologies devoted to the conception of black humor as a literary genre; the publication also sparked nation wide interest in black humor. Among the writers labeled as black humorists by journalists and literary critics are Roald Dahl, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Warren Zevon, John Barth, Joseph Heller, and Philip Roth. The motive for applying the label black humorist to all the writers cited above is that they have written novels, poems, stories, plays and songs in which profound or horrific events were portrayed in a comic manner.
The purpose of black comedy is to make light of serious and often taboo subject matter, and some comedians use it as a tool for exploring vulgar issues, thus provoking discomfort and serious thought as well as amusement in their audience. Popular themes of the genre include murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, paedophilia, insanity, nightmare, disease, racism, homophobia, sexism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime.
Comedians, like Lenny Bruce, that since the late 1950s have been labeled "sick comedy" by mainstream journalists, have also been labeled with "black comedy." After Lenny Bruce, others have been Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Chris Morris, Monty Python team, Louis C.K., Christopher Titus, Daniel Tosh, Eddie Ifft, Doug Stanhope and Anthony Jeselnik.
By contrast, blue comedy focuses more on crude topics, such as nudity, sex and bodily fluids. Although the two are interrelated, black comedy is different from straightforward obscenity in that it is more subtle and does not necessarily have the explicit intention of offending people. In obscene humor, much of the humorous element comes from shock and revulsion, while black comedy might include an element of irony, or even fatalism. For example, the archetypal black-comedy self-mutilation appears in the English novel Tristram Shandy. Tristram, five years old at the time, starts to urinate out of an open window for lack of a chamber pot. The sash falls and circumcises him; his family reacts with both chaotic action and philosophic digression.
Black comedy is commonly used in dramatic or satirical films, retaining its serious tone, working as a tool of many films, television shows and video games. Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove presents one of the best-known mainstream examples of black comedy. The subject of the film is nuclear warfare and the possible annihilation of life on Earth. Normally, dramas about nuclear war treat the subject with gravity and seriousness, creating suspense over the efforts to avoid a nuclear war, but Dr. Strangelove instead plays the subject for laughs. For example, in the film, the fail-safe procedures designed to prevent a nuclear war are precisely the systems that ensure that it will happen. Another example is the closing scene of Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian and others sentenced to death by crucifixion sing and whistle a cheerful tune centering around death not being such a bad thing: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
More modern examples of black comedy in film include Bad Santa, a 2003 Christmas-themed film about a drunken, foul-mouthed professional thief who doubles as a department store Santa, Horrible Bosses, a 2011 film about three men who resolve to murder their respective overbearing bosses, Cheap Thrills, a 2013 film about how far two men would go for monetary gain, and Filth, a 2013 film about a bigoted, corrupt, Machiavellian policeman and his slow descent into insanity. All of these films, though critically and commercially successful, were met with criticism for their politically incorrect subject matter.
Over time, black comedy films have taken on a larger scope. For example, while the aforementioned Dr. Strangelove deals with the events leading up to the annihilation of humanity, the 2013 disaster film This Is the End takes a darkly humorous approach to events after the annihilation of humanity. The film follows a group of actors (all playing satirical versions of themselves) as they encounter demons, monsters and psychotic cannibals after the Biblical Rapture. The film was both a critical and commercial success.
While many black comedy films like This Is the End are high-concept and grandiose in scope, black comedies can also be intimate and character-driven, as evidenced by Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Birdman is the story of an actor, played by Michael Keaton, who is living under the shadow of a former superhero role and attempts to gain back his reputation as a serious actor. This story has been visited many times in both dramatic and comedic films, and while the subject is ripe for drama, Birdman plays it for ironic humor. Much of this humor comes from the "meta" nature of the film, particularly the casting of Keaton, who is well known for playing the title role in Batman. The film also satirizes the egotistical nature of actors, the typecasting nature of Hollywood, and the lengths to which actors will go to bring realism to their performances. The film has been widely acclaimed for its ironic approach to its subject matter, as well as the direction and performances of its stars.
An example of a situation comedy that is also black comedy is M*A*S*H, which, like the film version of M*A*S*H that had inspired it, treated the Korean War as a subject of black comedy; it deliberately kept recorded laughter out of the operating room sequences, and many of the episodes described the absurdity of many combat situations, even in sequences where the characters were weathering hostile fire.
Wilfred (Australian and U.S. versions) is another example of dark comedy. In both versions the protagonist is battling a form of mental illness (presumably schizophrenia). He communicates with a dog that in his mind is a real person dressed in a dog suit. No one else can hear the dog talk.
Seinfeld is one of the most important black comedies of the last 25 years. It has been followed by shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Both shows deal with selfish protagonists who have no interest in anyone but themselves and derive the humour from the manifestation of this behavior in their daily lives as seen in the show.
Louie, an original FX series written, directed, edited by, and starring comedian Louis C.K., has become one of the most critically acclaimed examples of black comedy in television. The show derives much of its humor from awkward situations, such as Louie dealing with emotionally unstable women and malevolent strangers. A particularly dark episode dealt with Louie buying a dog only to have the dog die immediately after arriving at Louie's apartment.
Another example of black comedy is The Wrong Mans, a British drama created by James Corden and Mathew Baynton. In this show, two ordinary office workers are thrown into a deadly criminal conspiracy. The humour in the TV series arises not so much from deliberate jokes, as from the sheer realistic ineptitude of the heroes' attempts to cope with a high-stakes melodrama constantly snowballing further out of their control.
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- Kurt Vonnegut (1971) Running Experiments Off: An Interview, interview by Laurie Clancy, published in Meanjin Quarterly, 30 (Autumn, 1971), pp.46-54, and in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, quote:
The term was part of the language before Freud wrote an essay on it -- 'gallows humor.' This is middle European humor, a response to hopeless situations. It's what a man says faced with a perfectly hopeless situation and he still manages to say something funny. Freud gives examples: A man being led out to be hanged at dawn says, 'Well, the day is certainly starting well.' It's generally called Jewish humor in this country. Actually it's humor from the peasants' revolt, the thirty years' war, and from the Napoleonic wars. It's small people being pushed this way and that way, enormous armies and plagues and so forth, and still hanging on in the face of hopelessness. Jewish jokes are middle European jokes. And the black humorists are gallows humorists, as they try to be funny in the face of situations which they see as just horrible.
- Bloom, Harold (2010) Dark Humor, ch. On dark humor in literature, pp.80-88
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At least, Swift's text is preserved, and so is a prefactory note by the French writer André Breton, which emphasizes Swift's importance as the originator of black humor, of laughter that arises from cynicism and scepticism.
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- André Breton introduction to Swift in Anthology of Black Humor, quote:
When it comes to black humor, everything designates him as the true initiator. In fact, it is impossible to coordinate the fugitive traces of this kind of humor before him, not even in Heraclitus and the Cynics or in the works of Elizabethan dramatic poets. [...] historically justify his being presented as the first black humorist. Contrary to what Voltaire might have said, Swift was in no sense a "perfected Rabelais." He shared to the smallest possible degree Rabelais's taste for innocent, heavy-handed jokes and his constant drunken good humor. [...] a man who grasped things by reason and never by feeling, and who enclosed himself in skepticism; [...] Swift can rightfully be considered the inventor of "savage" or "gallows" humor.
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