Gallows humor is humor in the face of or about very unpleasant, serious, or painful circumstances. Any humor that treats serious matters, such as death, war, disease, crime, etc., in a light, silly or satirical fashion is considered gallows humor. Gallows humor has been described as a witticism in the face of – and in response to – a hopeless situation. It arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations, often in circumstances such that death is perceived as impending and unavoidable.
Gallows humor is typically made by or about the victim of such a situation, but not the perpetrator of it.
Nature and functions
Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis warns that this "relieving" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else.
Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them."
Gallows humor is a kind of humor which developed in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States as part of Jewish humor. It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor. The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune, which also has a Germanic equivalent in the Belgian Dutch expression groen lachen.
Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi discussed gallows humour focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses (risata verde or groen lachen), and said that grotesque satire, as opposed to ironic satire, is the one that most often arouses this kind of laughter. In the Weimar era Kabaretts, this genre was particularly common, and according to Luttazzi Karl Valentin and Karl Kraus were the major masters of it.
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There are multiple recorded instances of humorous last words and final statements. For example, author and playwright Oscar Wilde was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what his sentence exactly was, but his reputed last words were, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."
Examples of gallows speeches include:
- One of the first convicts transported in Australia by the British Empire, nicknamed after the pirate Black Caesar, escaped the penal colony in 1789 and lived as a bushranger in the wilderness. He survived by raiding garden patches with a stolen gun. When he was eventually caught, according to colonial governor David Collins he was "so indifferent about meeting death, that he declared in confinement that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing some trick upon the executioner."
- Murderer James French has been attributed with famous last words before his death by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries'." Likewise, when a Jewish mob boss George Appel was electrocuted, his last words were: "Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel."
- As Sir Thomas More climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner: "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."
- At his public execution, the murderer William Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor on the gallows and asked the hangman, "Are you sure it's safe?"
- Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch", he said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." According to many biographers – Raleigh Trevelyan in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2002) for instance – Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"
Military life is full of gallows humor, as those in the services continuously live in the danger of being killed, especially in wartime. For example:
- The Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G4M Isshikirikkou (イッシキリッコウ) "Betty" bomber airplane was called "Hamaki" (葉巻 or はまき, meaning cigar) by the Japanese crews not only because its fuselage was cigar-shaped, but because it had a tendency to ignite on fire and burn violently when it was hit. The American nickname was "flying Zippo" - as the slogan of the cigarette lighter company was: "Guaranteed to light on first strike, every time".
- Similarly the British took to calling the M4 Sherman tank, which burnt out or exploded easily when hit, "Ronson" after the cigarette lighter whose slogan was: "Lights up the first time, every time!".
- When the survivors of HMS Sheffield, sunk in 1982 in the Falklands War, were awaiting rescue, they were reported to have sung the Monty Python song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
- Soviet pilots in WWII joked that the true meaning of the type designation of the LaGG-3 was Lakirovanny Garantirovanny Grob, "varnished guaranteed coffin".
- Overnight, in the Battle of Jutland (31 May - 1 June 1916), the destroyer HMS Tipperary was sunk; only 13 survived out of a crew of 197, in her engagement with heavily armed German dreadnought SMS Westfalen. The survivors were identified in the gloom by Royal Navy rescuers because they were heard in the distance, singing, "It's a long way to Tipperary". Their rescuers said, "We knew it was you".
- In Stephen King's science fiction novel The Tommyknockers (1987), the main character reflects on a joke he "heard once". As a man is about to be executed, the firing squad leader offers the man about to be executed a cigarette. He replies, "No thanks, I'm trying to quit."
- In her ethnography Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday life in Brazil (1993), anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes the use of gallows humour by the inhabitants of an impoverished shantytown in northeastern Brazil.
Romeo: "Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much."
Mercutio: "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man."
- "gal'lows hu"mor". Dictionary.infoplease.com. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
- "gallows humor - definition. American English definition of gallows humor by Macmillan Dictionary". Macmillandictionary.com. Retrieved 2013-03-27.
- Kurt Vonnegut (1971) Running Experiments Off: An Interview, in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut quote:
The term was part of the language before Freud wrote an essay on it -- 'gallows humour.' This is middle European humour, 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 humour in this country. Actually it's humour 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 humourists are gallows humourists, as they try to be funny in the face of situations which they see as just horrible.
- Alan Dundes and Thomas Hauschild (1983) Auschwitz Jokes, in Western Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), pp. 249-260
- Paul Lewis, "Three Jews and a Blindfold: The Politics of Gallows Humor", In: "Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor" (1993), ISBN 0-313-26135-0, p. 49
- Obrdlik, Antonin J. (1942) "Gallows Humor"-A Sociological Phenomenon, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 5 (Mar., 1942), pp. 709-716
- Mariah Snyder, Ruth Lindquist Complementary and alternative therapies in nursing
- Wylie Sypher quoted in ZhouRaymond, Jingqiong Carver's short fiction in the history of black humor p.132
- Redfern, W. D. and Redfern, Walter (2005) Calembours, ou les puns et les autres : traduit de l'intraduisible , p.211 quote:
Des termes parents du Galgenhumor sont: : comédie noire, plaisanterie macabre, rire jaune. (J'en offre un autre: gibêtises).
- Müller, Walter (1961) Französische Idiomatik nach Sinngruppen, p.178 quote:
humour macabre, humeur de désespéré, (action de) rire jaune Galgenhumor propos guilleret etwas freie, gewagte Äußerung
- Dupriez, Bernard Marie (1991) A dictionary of literary devices: gradus, A-Z, p.313 quote:
Walter Redfern, discussing puns about death, remarks: 'Related terms to gallows humour are: black comedy, sick humour, rire jaune. In all, pain and pleasure are mixed, perhaps the definitive recipe for all punning' (Puns, p. 127).
- Brachin, Pierre (1985) The Dutch language: a survey pp.101-2
- Claude et Marcel De Grève, Françoise Wuilmart, TRADUCTION / Translation, section Histoire et théorie de la traduction - Recherches sur les microstructures, in: Grassin, Jean-Marie (ed.), DITL (Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires), [22 Nov 2010]"
- (1950) Zaïre, Volume 4, Part 1, p.138 quote:
En français on dit « rire jaune », en flamand « groen lachen »
- Chédel, André (1965) Description moderne des langues du monde: le latin et le grec inutile? p.171 quote:
Les termes jaune, vert, bleu évoquent en français un certain nombre d'idées qui sont différentes de celles que suscitent les mots holandais correspondants geel, groen, blauw. Nous disons : rire jaune, le Hollandais dit : rire vert ( groen lachen ) ; ce que le Néerlandais appelle un vert (een groentje), c'est ce qu'en français on désigne du nom de bleu (un jeune soldat inexpéribenté)... On voit que des confrontations de ce genre permettent de concevoir une étude de la psychologie des peuples fondée sur les associations d'idées que révèlent les variations de sens (sémantique), les expressions figurées, les proverbes et les dictions.
- Pardo, Denise (2001) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi, in L'Espresso, February 1st, 2001 quote:
Q: Critiche feroci, interrogazioni parlamentari: momenti duri per la satira.
A: Satira è far ridere a spese di chi è più ricco e potente di te. Io sono specialista nella risata verde, quella dei cabaret di Berlino degli anni Venti e Trenta. Nasce dalla disperazione. Esempio: l'Italia è un paese dove la commissione di vigilanza parlamentare Rai si comporta come la commissione stragi e viceversa. Oppure: il mistero di Ustica è irrisolto? Sono contento: il sistema funziona.
- Daniele Luttazzi (2004) Interview, in the Italian edition of Rolling Stone, November 2004. Quote:
racconto di satira grottesca [...] L'obiettivo del grottesco è far percepire l'orrore di una vicenda. Non è la satira cui siamo abituati in Italia: la si ritrova nel cabaret degli anni '20 e '30, poi è stata cancellata dal carico di sofferenze della guerra. Aggiungo che io avevo spiegato in apertura di serata che ci sarebbero stati momenti di satira molto diversi. Satira ironica, che fa ridere, e satira grottesca, che può far male. Perché porta alla risata della disperazione, dell'impotenza. La risata verde. Era forte, perché coinvolgeva in un colpo solo tutti i cardini satirici: politica, religione, sesso e morte. Quello che ho fatto è stato accentuare l'interazione tra gli elementi. Non era di buon gusto? Rabelais e Swift, che hanno esplorato questi lati oscuri della nostra personalità, non si sono mai posti il problema del buon gusto.
- Marmo, Emanuela (2004) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi (March 2004) quote:
Quando la satira poi riesce a far ridere su un argomento talmente drammatico di cui si ride perchè non c'è altra soluzione possibile, si ha quella che nei cabaret di Berlino degli Anni '20 veniva chiamata la “risata verde”. È opportuno distinguere una satira ironica, che lavora per sottrazione, da una satira grottesca, che lavora per addizione. Questo secondo tipo di satira genera più spesso la risata verde. Ne erano maestri Kraus e Valentin.
- Hughes, Robert. "The Fatal Shore." Vintage Books. New York. 1986. Page 196.
- Witticisms Of 9 Condemned Criminals at Canongate Press
- Lipman, Steve (1991) Laughter in hell: the use of humour during the Holocaust, Northvale, N.J:J Aronson Inc.
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