What is black comedy? Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and wondered how the characters could joke about violence, disease, or war? That’s what we refer to as black comedy.
It goes by many names. Dark humor. Gallows humor. Dark comedy. It all means the same thing. And in this blog, you’ll learn the history of black humor and see some examples, so you can see if you want to incorporate these kinds of jokes into your next project. Let’s dive in.
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Black Comedy Meaning
An overview of black comedy
Dark humor has been around since there have been stories to tell. However, an official black humor definition has only been around for less than a century. Before we dive deep into some examples from the Pythons and Stanley Kubrick, let's quickly define black comedy.
BLACK COMEDY DEFINITION
What is Black Comedy?
Black comedy is a comedic style that makes fun out of ordinarily taboo subjects. It is also referred to as dark comedy or dark humor. No matter what you call it, the goal is to amuse by presenting something shocking and unexpected. While it is typically used for mere shock value, it can also be used to provoke serious thought and discussion about subjects people may not want to talk about otherwise.
What are the common topics for black comedy?
- Murder, violence, death
- Political corruption
- Human sexuality
- Poverty, disease, famine
- Racial or sexual stereotypes
- War and terrorism
Black comedy takes humanity’s worst impulses and throws a pie right in their faces. Some pieces of art use gallows humor as a way to shine a light on an important topic while others are merely trying to get you to laugh at an absurd situation. Take this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where a group of crucifixion victims sings, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
From ancient Greece to the modern-day, we’ll look at some black humor examples so that you can see how the greats used dark comedy well, such as this scene from Jojo Rabbit where the salute of “Heil Hitler” becomes inexplicably hilarious.
Dark Humor Origins
The history of black comedy
What is a black comedy, and how did it start? The term didn’t technically originate until 1935 when Surrealist theorist André Breton was interpreting the works of Jonathan Swift. Swift is perhaps best known for his essay, A Modest Proposal, which satirically suggests that the Irish could solve their economic problems by selling their children to the wealthy as food.
The general public wasn’t fully exposed to a dark humor definition until 1965 when a book called Black Humor entered the marketplace. It was an anthology novel with short pieces written by the likes of Edward Albee, Thomas Pynchon, and J. P. Donleavy. It was the first anthology devoted entirely to the genre of black comedy.
While dark humor in the film can be traced back practically to its advent, it’s been immensely popular within the last 20 years, culminating in Parasite, a dark comedy thriller, winning Best Picture at the Oscars.
Dark Comedy Examples
Black comedy in Parasite
For an answer to “What is black comedy?” look no further than the best film of 2019: Parasite. The film is a parable on class struggle and the entrapments of capitalism. And for the first half of the film, it plays like a straight black comedy. Then the genre shifts into a dark thriller, as we dissect in this video essay.
To see how Parasite expertly utilizes black humor, let’s look at the peach montage. The Kim family exploits the housekeeper’s peach allergy so that they can oust her from her role and install the mother as the Parks’ new maid.
The montage has humorous undertones, but all the while, you can’t overlook that their goal is to ruin this woman’s life completely. But they treat it like any other job, complete with Ki-Woo coaching his father on how to play his part. You can read this section below, and make sure to peruse StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to write your own black comedy scripts like Parasite.
It’s more than just a funny moment. It shows how insensitive the Kims are to this woman, who comes from the same economic background as them. The joke exemplifies the movie’s themes of how the lower classes will tear each other apart to get a few crumbs.
Their success in this endeavor has dark implications for Mun-Kwang, as the Kims will find out later in the film.
Super(hero) Dark Comedy
Black comedy in Deadpool
Gallows humor can do more than emphasize the theme of a movie. It can also subvert expectations to get a laugh from the audience. Look at the climactic scene from Deadpool.
Colossus gives Deadpool a typical superhero movie speech about what it means to be a hero. The sweeping orchestral score drives home the point that this should be a significant turning point in Wade’s character arc. But of course, it isn’t. Even just looking at the script alone, the build-up leads to the perfect payoff.
Deadpool just shoots Ajax in the head, completely undermining Colossus’ speech. The entire movie has subverted our expectations by pointing out what superhero movies usually do and then doing the opposite. This moment is no different.
Typically, a hero would (try) to save the villain, but Deadpool isn’t like that. Not only is it a funny joke, complemented perfectly by Colossus vomiting immediately afterward, but it also stays true to Deadpool’s character and the overall irreverent tone throughout the film.
Black Humor Examples
Black comedy in Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb set the standard for what black comedy could accomplish. It’s a film that satirized the Cold War that came out directly in the middle of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film is based on a serious book, but the screenwriters found humor within all the drama.
The ending of Dr. Strangelove encapsulates everything the film wants to say about the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove suggests that these men could simply live underground with “highly stimulating” women. It's a humorous outlook on a dire situation — this is black comedy defined.
Political corruption, nuclear war, and the madness inherent in those topics comes full circle in the film. The government isn’t concerned with saving average citizens. As the world burns around them, they’re only concerned for themselves, as seen in the screenplay segment below.
The ending of this film is analyzed relentlessly. A montage of bombs exploding to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” combines chilling images with a lighthearted song.
While there are many ways to interpret the ending, it might be a way to make severe topics of warfare and nuclear annihilation more palatable to audiences. The Cold War was a paranoid time for many people, and this film got viewers to laugh at it all. The government doesn’t know what it’s doing. We’re all going to die so let’s dance to a Vera Lynn song.
If there ever was a definition of gallows humor, this would be it.
What is Black Comedy Worth Watching?
More Black Humor Examples
Are you interested in watching more films that abide by the classic black comedy definition? We ranked a lengthy list of the best black comedy movies and TV shows you can check out. However, some other movies not found on that list are still worth seeing.
For instance, the entire plot of Weekend at Bernie’s is about two youngsters trying to make people believe a dead man is still alive. It’s a morbid topic, but the film plays it as wacky.
Team America: World Police pretty much takes anything sacred and completely flushes it down the toilet. In a single sequence, the protagonist gets a lecture featuring some colorful language and then there's an extended scene of vomiting for pretty much a minute straight.
Sometimes the darkness is underplayed while ridiculousness is ramped up. Take this scene from the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, where the assassin runs over an older woman’s dog, flattening it on the road. The dog’s dead, which is sad, but the cartoonish effects lighten the load a bit.
Black comedy may not be for the faint of heart. But it’s an effective way to give your film a distinct tone. See how other filmmakers have handled the genre, so you know how to balance darkness and humor adequately.
The best dark comedies
Do you like laughing at taboo topics? Do you want to learn how to incorporate such a comedic tone into your own films? Then you’ll want to watch the greatest black comedy films and shows of all time. These movies touch on every sensitive topic under the sun, so test your limits and see what makes you laugh.