The term black comedy was created by a surrealist theorist called Andre Breton in 1935 to label a sub-genre of comedy in which laughter arises from controversial topics.
Black comedy is a style that concentrates on the darker side of humanity, finding humour in the serious, often censored subjects such as: torture, rape, mental illness, drug abuse, war, racism, death and a whole range of other controversial topics and moral taboos. Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgment (1790) states that, “Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.“ (Reference 2)
We see an example of what Immanuel Kant is saying in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove. This particular film is one of the best-known examples of black comedy. The movie explores nuclear warfare and the possible annihilation of life on earth. The subject matter was particularly sensitive at the time as the film was produced during the height of the cold war when tensions between the east and west were high and the possibility of nuclear warfare was very real. Normally films about nuclear warfare treat the subject with seriousness because of the possible consequences creating suspense over the efforts governments are going to in order to avoid nuclear war. Instead Dr Strangelove looks at the irony and humour in its very seriousness and uses the fail-safe procedures designed to prevent nuclear war as the measures that will ensure that a nuclear war does happen.
The very basis of comedy is context. This is extremely important in all humour, but especially in black comedy. Without the correct context it is just going to be offensive to everyone. Why dark comedy works as a sub genre can explain why we as an audience are drawn to it. Black or dark comedy it is believed helps us make sense of occurrences that would be otherwise painful and upsetting. The reasons for our laughter help us cope with the enormity of the issue, and it is this that I believe is the draw card for filmgoer’s enjoyment of black comedy. Dark comedy is like any other Comedy, it is an art form requiring precision and rhythm for it to connect with an audience. It is only the subject matter of the humour that makes it different.
Dark comedy can run the scale from gore/silly to high stakes and heightened reality, to serious situations with eccentric characters. Visual jokes are a big part of it too. A lot of humour comes from how unnaturally characters react (or don’t react) to dark/absurd situations.
A huge amount of black comedy films have been produced, and they contain a whole range of topics. To get a better understanding dark comedy it would be worthwhile watching the following movies:
– In Brugs.
– Inglorious bastards.
– Pulp fiction.
– Dr. Strangelove.
– Being John Malkovich.