Black comedy, also known as black humor, dark comedy or gallows humor, is a comic style 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 and serious thought as well as amusement in their audience. Popular themes of the genre include death and violence, discrimination, disease, and human sexuality.
Black comedy differs from both blue comedy—which focuses more on crude topics such as nudity, sex, and bodily fluids—and from straightforward obscenity. An archetypal example of black comedy in the form of self-mutilation appears in the English novel Tristram Shandy; Tristram, five years old at the time, starts to urinate out of an open window for lack of a chamber pot. The sash falls and circumcises him; his family reacts with both hysteria and philosophical acceptance.
Whereas the term black comedy is a relatively broad term covering humor 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 humor can occasionally be related to the grotesque genre. Literary critics have associated black comedy and black humor with authors as early as the ancient Greeks with Aristophanes.
History and etymology
Origin of the term
The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the Surrealist theorist André Breton in 1935 while interpreting the writings of Jonathan Swift. Breton's preference was to identify some of Swift's writings as 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 (particularly in his pieces Directions to Servants (1731), A Modest Proposal (1729), Meditation Upon a Broomstick (1710), and in a few aphorisms). 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.
Adoption in American literary criticism
Among the first American writers who employed black comedy in their works were Nathanael West and Vladimir Nabokov, although at the time the genre was not widely known in the US. The concept of black humor first came to nationwide attention after the publication of a 1965 mass-market paperback titled Black Humor, of which the editor was Bruce Jay Friedman. 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. Among the writers labeled as black humorists by journalists and literary critics are today also Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, Warren Zevon, Christopher Durang, and Philip Roth. The motive for applying the label black humorist to all 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, that since the late 1950s have been labeled for using "sick comedy" by mainstream journalists, have also been labeled with "black comedy".
Nature and functions
Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor), puts forth the following theory of black comedy: "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." 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.
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. It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor. The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune (lit. yellow laughing), which also has a Germanic equivalent in the Belgian Dutch expression groen lachen (lit. green laughing).
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. 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.
Black comedy is common in professions and environments where workers routinely have to deal with dark subject matter. This includes police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews, military personnel and funeral directors, where it is an acknowledged coping mechanism. Outsiders can often react negatively to discovering this humor; as a result, there is an understanding within these professions that these jokes should not be shared with the wider public.
There are multiple recorded instances of humorous last words and final statements. For example, author and playwright Oscar Wilde was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what his exact words were, but his reputed last words were, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."
Examples of gallows speeches include:
In Edo period Japan, condemned criminals were occasionally executed by expert swordsmen, who used living bodies to test the quality of their blade (Tameshigiri). There is an apocryphal story of one who, after being told he was to be executed by a sword tester, calmly joked that if he had known that was going to happen, he would have swallowed large stones to damage the blade.
Murderer James French has been attributed with famous last words before his death by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries'."
Robert-François Damiens, a French man who attempted to assassinate king Louis XV, was sentenced on 26 March 1757 to be executed in a gruesome and painstakingly detailed manner, by being led to a gallow, holding a torch with 2 lbs of burning wax, then having his skin ripped with pliers at the breast, arms and legs, then his right arm, holding the knife he had used for his crime, being burned with sulfur, then the aforementioned areas with ripped skin being poured with molten lead, boiling oil, burning pitch, wax and sulfur, then his body dismembered by four horses, then his members and trunk consumed in fire, down to ashes, and ashes spread in the wind – after hearing the sentence, Damiens is reported to have replied: “Well, it's going to be a tough day.”
During the French Revolution, Georges-Jacques Danton, who had facial scars from smallpox, when he was about to be beheaded with a guillotine on 5 April 1794, is reported to have said to the executioner: “Don't forget to show my head to the people, it's well worth it!”
As Sir Thomas More climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner: "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."
At his public execution, the murderer William Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor on the gallows and asked the hangman, "Are you sure it's safe?"
Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch", he said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." According to many biographers – Raleigh Trevelyan in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2002) for instance – Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"
Ronald Reagan, after being shot by John Hinckley Jr., is reported to have made multiple quips on his way to and inside the emergency room, including "Honey, I forgot to duck" to his wife, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" in a note written to his nurse, and perhaps most famously to his doctors, "Please tell me you're Republicans."
The Prefect of Rome executed Saint Lawrence in a great gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it. He had Lawrence placed on it, hence St Lawrence's association with the gridiron. After the martyr had suffered pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he cheerfully declared: "I'm well done. Turn me over!" From this derives his patronage of cooks, chefs, and comedians.
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:
The Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G4M Isshikirikkou (イッシキリッコウ) "Betty" bomber airplane was called "Hamaki" (葉巻 or はまき, meaning cigar) by the Japanese crews not only because its fuselage was cigar-shaped, but because it had a tendency to ignite on fire and burn violently when it was hit. The American nickname was "flying Zippo".
When the survivors of HMS Sheffield, sunk in 1982 in the Falklands War, were awaiting rescue, they were reported to have sung the Monty Python song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
Soviet pilots in World War II joked that the true meaning of the type designation of the LaGG-3 was Lakirovanny Garantirovanny Grob, "varnished guaranteed coffin".
Soviet military vehicle BMP-1 was called Bratskaya Mogila Pekhoty ("mass grave of infantry") by soldiers, as penetrative hits would fragment inside the vehicle, killing all crew members inside.
In the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), the destroyer HMS Tipperary was sunk in an overnight engagement with the heavily armed German dreadnought SMS Westfalen. Only 13 survived out of a crew of 197. The survivors were identified in the darkness by the crew of HMS Sparrowhawk because they were heard in the distance, singing, "It's a long way to Tipperary".
During the Winter War the Soviet Union bombed Helsinki, and after Soviets claimed they were air-dropping food to the "starving people of Helsinki" the Finnish people dubbed the Soviet bombs "Molotov bread baskets", and in return called their firebombs Molotov cocktails, as "a drink to go with the food."
During World War II, the Soviet soldiers dubbed the 45 mm anti-tank gun M1937 (53-K) "Good bye, Motherland!", as its penetration was proving to be inadequate for the task of destroying German tanks, meaning a crew operating one was practically defenseless against the enemy tanks.
During World War II, United States ships in the escort carrier category were given the ship prefix "CVE". Crews joked that this stood for "Combustible, Vulnerable, Expendable" due to the ship's complete lack of armor and high numbers of ships constructed.
During World War II, British and American soldiers referred to the Landing Ship, Tank, abbreviated LST, as 'Long Slow Target' or 'Large Slow Target' when facing German forces. It was 382 feet (116 m) long, but some could only manage 10–12 knots (19–22 km/h; 12–14 mph) fully laden.
After the Finnish coastal defence ship Ilmarinen went down with 271 fatalities after hitting a mine on 13 September 1941 the 132 survivors were nicknamed "Ilmarisen uimaseura", "Ilmarinen's swimming club."
Emergency service workers
Workers in the emergency services are also known for using black comedy:
Graham Wettone, a retired police officer who wrote a book How To Be A Police Officer, noted the presence of black comedy in the police force. He described it as "often not the type of humour that can be understood outside policing or the other emergency services." For example, an officer who attended four cases of suicide by hanging in six months was nicknamed "Albert" (after the hangman Albert Pierrepoint) and encountered comments like "You hanging around the canteen today?"
In 2018, a Massachusetts firefighter was reprimanded for a response to a call about a cat stuck in a tree. The firefighter told the caller that the cat would probably make its own way down, and that he had never seen a cat skeleton in a tree before. An opinion article in Fire Chief magazine said that these kind of jokes were common in the fire service, but would be inappropriate to share with a concerned member of the public.
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 (e.g., a Wild West rancher with an arrow in his chest, a Jew crucified by the Romans, etc.) is asked "Does it hurt?" — "I am fine; it only hurts when I laugh."
In popular culture
Mercutio is stabbed in a swordfight by Tybalt, Juliet's cousin: Romeo: "Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much." Mercutio: "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man."