A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that employs black humor, 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, 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.
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.
- Merriam-Webster, Inc (1995) Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia of literature, entry black humor, p.144
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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 [Black Humor] 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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- Real, Hermann Josef (2005) The reception of Jonathan Swift in Europe, p.90 quote:
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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- Bloom, Harold (2010) Dark Humor, ch. On dark humor in literature, pp.82
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