Black Comedy



A black comedy is a comic work that employs black humor or gallows humor. The definition of black humor is problematic; it has been argued that it corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor (humor that still manages to be funny in the face of, and in response to, a hopeless situation); and that, as humor has been defined since Freud as a comedic act that anesthetizes an emotion, all humor is ‘black humor.’ 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.

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.

Breton coined the term for his book ‘Anthology of Black Humor,’ 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 the Marquis de Sade. Black humor is related to that of the grotesque genre.

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. 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 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, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime. A related theme is frustrated suicide.

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. Plotwise, Group Captain Mandrake serves as the only sane character in the film, while Major Kong fills the role of the hero striving for a harmful goal.

The most successful television situation comedy also to be a black comedy is ‘M*A*S*H*,’ which, like the film version 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.


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