A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that makes light of serious, disturbing and/or taboo subject matter. Black comedy corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor. Black comedy is often controversial due to its subject matter.
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”.
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 disastercomedy 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 Nighty Night, Getting On, Human Remains, Jam and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, and Wilfred among others.
The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theorist André Breton in 1935 to label 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.