Black comedy, or dark comedy is a comic style that makes light of subjects that are generally considered serious or taboo. Literary critics have associated black comedy and black humor with authors as early as the ancient Greeks with Aristophanes. Black comedy corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor.
Origin of the term
The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theorist André Breton in 1935 while interpreting the writings of Jonathan Swift. Breton's preference was to identify some of Swift's writings as a subgenre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often relying on topics such as death. Scholars have associated black humor with authors as early as the ancient Greeks with Aristophanes.
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. This victim's suffering is trivialized, which leads to sympathizing with the victimizer, as analogously found in the social commentary and social criticism of the writings of Sade. Black humor is also occasionally 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 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 of black comedy to the United States. He labeled many different authors and works with the idea, 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. It contained work by a variety 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 nationwide 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; 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 violence (murder, abuse, domestic violence, rape, torture, war, genocide, terrorism, corruption), discrimination (chauvinism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia), disease (anxiety, depression, suicide, nightmares, drug abuse, mutilation, disability, terminal illness, insanity), sexuality (sodomy, homosexuality, incest, infidelity, fornication), religion and barbarism. Comedians, like Lenny Bruce, that since the late 1950s have been labeled for using "sick comedy" by mainstream journalists, have also been labeled with "black comedy".
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, but for social criticism or plain humor. 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 and working as a tool of many films, television shows, books, and video games. Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 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, films 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 on death not being such a bad thing: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
Other examples of black comedy in film include:
All of these films, though mostly 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 a nuclear apocalypse, the 2013 disaster comedy 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 comedies are high-concept and grandiose in scope, they can also be character-driven, as evidenced by Alejandro G. Iñárritu's 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which tells 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. The film 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. Birdman was critically acclaimed and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Example of black comedy in television include Two And A Half Men, Nighty Night, Louie, Getting On, Human Remains, Jam, The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, Crayon Shin-chan, South Park, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Futurama, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Invader Zim, Family Guy, Superjail!, Mr. Pickles, BoJack Horseman, Wilfred, Baskets, Eastsiders, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Ti Psyhi Tha Paradoseis Mori? and Big Little Lies among others.