Black comedy

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"Hopscotch to oblivion", Barcelona, Spain, possibly referring to suicide Hopscotch to oblivion.jpg
"Hopscotch to oblivion", Barcelona, Spain, possibly referring to suicide
A cemetery with a "Dead End" sign, creating a play on words Irony.jpg
A cemetery with a "Dead End" sign, creating a play on words

Black comedy, also known as dark comedy, morbid humor, gallows humor, black humor, or dark humor, is a style of comedy that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss. Writers and comedians often use it as a tool for exploring vulgar issues by provoking discomfort, serious thought, and amusement for their audience. Thus, in fiction, for example, the term black comedy can also refer to a genre in which dark humor is a core component. Cartoonist Charles Addams was famous for such humor, e.g. depicting a boy decorating his bedroom with stolen warning signs including "NO DIVING – POOL EMPTY", "STOP – BRIDGE OUT" and "SPRING CONDEMNED."


Black comedy differs from both blue comedy—which focuses more on crude topics such as nudity, sex, and body fluids—and from straightforward obscenity. Whereas the term black comedy is a relatively broad term covering humour relating to many serious subjects, gallows humor tends to be used more specifically in relation to death, or situations that are reminiscent of dying. Black humour can occasionally be related to the grotesque genre. [1] Literary critics have associated black comedy and black humour with authors as early as the ancient Greeks with Aristophanes. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [ excessive citations ]


The term black humour (from the French humour noir) was coined by the Surrealist theorist André Breton in 1935 while interpreting the writings of Jonathan Swift. [8] [9] Breton's preference was to identify some of Swift's writings as a subgenre of comedy and satire [10] [11] in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, [8] [12] often relying on topics such as death. [13] [14]

Breton coined the term for his 1940 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 (particularly in his pieces Directions to Servants (1731), A Modest Proposal (1729), Meditation Upon a Broomstick (1710), and in a few aphorisms). [9] [12] In his book, Breton also included excerpts from 45 other writers, including 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. In the last cases, the 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 (for instance) Sade.


Among the first American writers who employed black comedy in their works were Nathanael West and Vladimir Nabokov. [15] The concept of black humor first came to nationwide attention after the publication of a 1965 mass-market paperback titled Black Humor, edited by Bruce Jay Friedman. [7] [16] The paperback was one of the first American anthologies devoted to the concept of black humor as a literary genre. With the paperback, Friedman labeled as "black humorists" a variety of authors, such as J. P. Donleavy, Edward Albee, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruce Jay Friedman himself, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. [7] Among the recent writers suggested as black humorists by journalists and literary critics are Roald Dahl, [17] Kurt Vonnegut, [10] Warren Zevon, Christopher Durang, Philip Roth, [10] and Veikko Huovinen. [18] Evelyn Waugh has been called "the first contemporary writer to produce the sustained black comic novel." [19] The motive for applying the label black humorist to 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. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, [11] who since the late 1950s have been labeled as using "sick comedy" by mainstream journalists, have also been labeled with "black comedy".

Nature and functions

An 1825 newspaper used a gallows humor "story" of a criminal whose last wish before being beheaded was to go nine-pin bowling, using his own severed head on his final roll, and taking delight in having achieved a strike. 18251112 Nine-pin bowler execution - gallows humor - Sag Harbor Corrector.jpg
An 1825 newspaper used a gallows humor "story" of a criminal whose last wish before being beheaded was to go nine-pin bowling, using his own severed head on his final roll, and taking delight in having achieved a strike.

Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor), although not mentioning 'black humour' specifically, cites a literal instance of gallows humour before going on to write: "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." [21] Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis warns that this "relieving" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else. [22]

Black comedy has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. [23] [24] According to Wylie Sypher, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them." [25]

Black comedy is a natural human instinct and examples of it can be found in stories from antiquity. Its use was widespread in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States. [6] [ verification needed ] It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor (cynical last words before getting hanged [26] ). The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune (lit. yellow laughing), [27] [28] [29] which also has a Germanic equivalent in the Belgian Dutch expression groen lachen (lit. green laughing). [30] [31] [32] [33]

Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi discussed gallows humour focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses (risata verde or groen lachen), and said that grotesque satire, as opposed to ironic satire, is the one that most often arouses this kind of laughter. [34] [35] [36] In the Weimar era Kabaretts , this genre was particularly common, and according to Luttazzi, Karl Valentin and Karl Kraus were the major masters of it. [36]

Black comedy is common in professions and environments where workers routinely have to deal with dark subject matter. This includes police officers, [37] firefighters, [38] ambulance crews, [39] military personnel, journalists, lawyers, and funeral directors, [40] where it is an acknowledged coping mechanism. It has been encouraged within these professions to make note of the context in which these jokes are told, as outsiders may not react the way that those with mutual knowledge do. [38] [39]

A 2017 study published in the journal Cognitive Processing [41] concludes that people who appreciate dark humor "may have higher IQs, show lower aggression, and resist negative feelings more effectively than people who turn up their noses at it." [42]


Major "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) rides the nuclear bomb to oblivion in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, widely considered one of the best dark comedy films. Dr. Strangelove - Riding the Bomb.png
Major "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) rides the nuclear bomb to oblivion in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, widely considered one of the best dark comedy films.

Black comedy in film

Examples of black comedy in film include:

Black comedy in television

Examples of black comedy in television include:

Gallows speeches

Examples of gallows speeches include:


Military life is full of gallows humor, as those in the services continuously live in the danger of being killed, especially in wartime. For example:

Emergency service workers

Workers in the emergency services are also known for using black comedy:


There are several titles such as It Only Hurts When I Laugh and Only When I Laugh , which allude to the punch line of a joke which exists in numerous versions since at least the 19th century. A typical setup is that someone badly hurt is asked "Does it hurt?" "I am fine; it only hurts when I laugh." [59] [60]

See also

Related Research Articles

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  6. 1 2 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 forty 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.
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    At least, Swift's text is preserved, and so is a prefatory 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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    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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    Des termes parents du Galgenhumor sont: : comédie noire, plaisanterie macabre, rire jaune. (J'en offre un autre: gibêtises).
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    Q: Critiche feroci, interrogazioni parlamentari: momenti duri per la satira.
    A: Satira è far ridere a spese di chi è più ricco e potente di te. Io sono specialista nella risata verde, quella dei cabaret di Berlino degli anni Venti e Trenta. Nasce dalla disperazione. Esempio: l'Italia è un paese dove la commissione di vigilanza parlamentare Rai si comporta come la commissione stragi e viceversa. Oppure: il mistero di Ustica è irrisolto? Sono contento: il sistema funziona.
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    racconto di satira grottesca [...] L'obiettivo del grottesco è far percepire l'orrore di una vicenda. Non è la satira cui siamo abituati in Italia: la si ritrova nel cabaret degli anni '20 e '30, poi è stata cancellata dal carico di sofferenze della guerra. Aggiungo che io avevo spiegato in apertura di serata che ci sarebbero stati momenti di satira molto diversi. Satira ironica, che fa ridere, e satira grottesca, che può far male. Perché porta alla risata della disperazione, dell'impotenza. La risata verde. Era forte, perché coinvolgeva in un colpo solo tutti i cardini satirici: politica, religione, sesso e morte. Quello che ho fatto è stato accentuare l'interazione tra gli elementi. Non era di buon gusto? Rabelais e Swift, che hanno esplorato questi lati oscuri della nostra personalità, non si sono mai posti il problema del buon gusto.
  36. 1 2 Marmo, Emanuela (2004) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi (March 2004) quote:
    Quando la satira poi riesce a far ridere su un argomento talmente drammatico di cui si ride perché non c'è altra soluzione possibile, si ha quella che nei cabaret di Berlino degli Anni '20 veniva chiamata la "risata verde". È opportuno distinguere una satira ironica, che lavora per sottrazione, da una satira grottesca, che lavora per addizione. Questo secondo tipo di satira genera più spesso la risata verde. Ne erano maestri Kraus e Valentin.
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