Peter John McLean

What is Black Comedy (Black Humor)

Black comedy, also known as black humor or dark comedy, is a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually treated seriously (death, mass murder, regular amounts of murder, suicide, domestic violence, disease, insanity, fear, child abuse, drug abuse, rape, castration, war, terrorism, line-cutting) are treated in a satirical manner while still being portrayed as the tragedies they are.

That is from TV Tropes. And not a terrible definition, though if you take a cursory glance at their list of black comedies you will see that the majority don’t live up to their own definition. This is because most would-be black comedies fail at the last part, while still being portrayed as the tragedies they are.

I’ve written about this before. TV Tropes foolishly lists Four Lions as a black comedy after doing such a great job of defining the genre. But it is not a black comedy because it doesn’t portray anything as tragic. The Jihadist suicide bombers are purely comical and not to be taken seriously at all. It’s sad and violent and would be tragic if you cared, but this isn’t Kurt Vonnegut. It’s comically displayed Sunis trying to blow something up. Fargo is a black comedy because you can easily relate to the characters and understand how complicated their situation really is. Four Lions misses that point completely. The Big Lebowski is a black comedy too because it’s hilarious but the tragedy is still there, it’s easy to relate and understand the frustration of the characters while also having no choice but to laugh. Four Lions, however, isn’t relatable at all and is just silly.

Let’s see what David Foster Wallace has to say about black humor.

For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny … Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication-theorists sometimes call “exformation,” which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It’s not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as “a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called “compression”-for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure’s increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released.

This is from his excellent Remark titled, Laughing with Kafka. Which everyone should read.

You see how Wallace mentions pressure? That’s because Kafka was an absolute master of pushing the reader beyond what was comfortable and then relieving that pressure – in an unexpected way. It is the unexpected part that makes it humor. We laugh when things go wrong.

Again, back to Four Lions. Jihadist bombers failing to blow up anything other than themselves isn’t funny because we expect them to fail. We need them to fail. If they succeeded people would leave theaters shaking their heads and saying “not funny”. For what it’s worth, people telling you something is “not funny” is frequently a sign that what you’re writing is black humor.

What would have made Four Lions truly black was if they had succeeded despite themselves. Four would-be Jihadist bombers can’t even figure out how to fire an assault rifle yet somehow succeed in devastating a town center. A happy ending for them, and a certain discontent with the audience. That’s what Dr. Strangelove did. That’s what Humbert Humbert did when he raped Lolita.

Think about it.

It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get – the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke – that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

I like that last line. Black humor is about that endless and impossible journey that, sooner or later, is discovered to be all there really is. Fargo has an endless and impossible journey. So does Lolita, and everything Vonnegut wrote, and everything else that’s black. There is no real winning in black humor. Watch The Life of Brian’s crucifixion scene and wait for the punch line at around 5:20. It’s funny because it is utterly pointless.

Black comedy is a comedy derived from things that should never happen. Its humor is in them happening because it is unexpected. Gregor Samsa waking up as a beetle is black comedy because no one should ever wake up and be a beetle. Kafka continuously riffs on the humor of this by playing out Samsa as frustrated and annoyed instead of scared shitless. Failing to recognize any absurdity and continuing on his “endless and impossible journey toward home” gives the reader the opportunity to see both tragedy and comedy at the same time.