A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that employs farce and morbid humor, which, in its simplest form, is humor that makes light of subject matter usually considered taboo. Black humor corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor. Black comedy is often controversial due to its subject matter.
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 subgenre 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. This victim's suffering is trivialized, which 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 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 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 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 murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, religion, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, rape, pedophilia, child sexual abuse, insanity, nightmares, disease, racism, homophobia, sexism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, terrorism, genocide, political corruption, torture, and crime.
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 and working as a tool of many films, television shows, books, 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. 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".
Modern examples of black comedy in film include: Bad Santa, a 2003 Christmas-themed film about a drunken, foul-mouthed professional thief who doubles as a department store Santa; Heathers, a 1988 high school movie about a couple of teens who decide to kill the popular kids at their school and make it look like suicide; Pulp Fiction, a 1994 crime noir film of three intertwining gangster stories; Observe and Report, a 2009 film about a violent, bigoted, delusional mall cop with bipolar disorder; Horrible Bosses, a 2011 film about three men who resolve to murder their respective overbearing bosses; Cheap Thrills, a 2013 film about how far two men would go for monetary gain; and Filth, a 2013 film about a bigoted, corrupt, Machiavellian policeman and his slow descent into insanity. 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 film 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 González 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.
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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 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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