Gallows Humor

life of brian

Gallows humor is a type of humor that still manages to be funny 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. The genre developed in Central Europe, and then moved to the US as part of Jewish humor. Gallows humor is offered by the person affected by the dramatic situation, an aspect that is missing in the derivative called black comedy. It is rendered with the German expression ‘Galgenhumor,’ and is comparable to the French ‘rire jaune’ (‘sickly smile’), and the Belgian Dutch ‘groen lachen’ (‘laugh desperately’). Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi discussed gallows humor focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses, 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; Karl Valentin and Karl Kraus were the major masters of it. 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.’ Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. ‘To be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.’

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