Black comedy, also known as black humor, dark humor, dark comedy, morbid humor, or gallows 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. Popular themes of the genre include death, 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 Laurence Sterne's 1759 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 humour (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 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). 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, edited by 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 recent writers suggested as black humorists by journalists and literary critics are Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, Warren Zevon, Christopher Durang, Philip Roth, and Veikko Huovinen. 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, who 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 has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them."
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 (cynical last words before getting hanged ). 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.
A 2017 study published in the journal Cognitive Processing 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."
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- As Saint 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."
- 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 the gallows, 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!”
- 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!"
- 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?"
- Murderer James French has been attributed with famous last words before his death by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries'." Similar words were spoken days preceding his execution, and were not his actual last words (see § Execution and last words).
- John Amery, hanged for treason in 1945, said to the executioner Albert Pierrepoint "I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Pierrepoint, though not of course under these circumstances!"
- Neville Heath was hanged for murder in 1946. A few minutes prior to his execution, as was the custom, Heath was offered a glass of whisky to steady his nerves by the prison governor. He replied, "While you're about it, sir, you might make that a double".
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".
- At the Battle of Chemin des Dames, French Chief of Staff Robert Nivelle ordered his men to attack enemy lines repeatedly despite disastrous losses. French soldiers eventually went into battle baaing like sheep.
- 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."
- The Black Bean Episode of 1843 was an aftermath of the Mier expedition, during which soldiers from the Republic of Texas had invaded Mexico and been captured by Mexican troops. After they escaped and were recaptured, it was ordered that one-tenth of the Texan soldiers would be put to death. The victims were chosen by lottery. A bean was placed in a jar for each of the Texans; most beans were white, but one in ten was black. Soldiers who drew a black bean were subsequently shot. The first Texan to do so, James Decatur Cocke, held up his black bean, smiled, and said, "Boys, I told you so; I never failed in my life to draw a prize."
- The Israeli tank Magach was at service within the IDF until early 2000s. A popular joke said that the name "Magach" (מג"ח) stands for "Movil Gufot Charukhot" (מוביל גופות חרוכות) — "charred bodies carrier", probably referring to the Yom Kippur War losses and particularly to the aforementioned flammable hydraulic fluid problem of the tank.
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."
Ronald Reagan, after being shot by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, 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."
- Merhi, Vanessa M. (2006) Distortion as identity from the grotesque to l'humour noir
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- 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.
- Bloom, Harold (2010) Dark Humor, ch. On dark humor in literature, pp.80–88
- Freud (1927) Humor
- Real, Hermann Josef (2005) The reception of Jonathan Swift in Europe, p.90 quote:
At least, Swift's text is preserved, and so is a prefactory 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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- André Breton introduction to Swift in Anthology of Black Humor, quote:
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.
- Thomas Leclair (1975) Death and Black Humor in Critique, Vol. 17, 1975
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- Merriam-Webster, Inc (1995) Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia of literature, entry black humor, p.144
- O'Neill, Patrick (2010). "The Comedy of Entropy: The Contexts of Black Humor". In Harold Bloom; Blake Hobby (eds.). Dark Humor. Bloom's Literary Themes. New York, New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 82. ISBN 9781438131023. Retrieved March 25, 2017.
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- Paul Lewis, "Three Jews and a Blindfold: The Politics of Gallows Humor", In: "Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor" (1993), ISBN 0-313-26135-0, p. 49
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- Wylie Sypher quoted in ZhouRaymond, Jingqiong Carver's short fiction in the history of black humor p.132
- Kurt Vonnegut (1971) Running Experiments Off: An Interview, in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut quote:
The term was part of the language before Freud wrote an essay on it – 'gallows humour.' This is middle European humour, 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 humour in this country. Actually it's humour from the peasants' revolt, the thirty 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 humourists are gallows humourists, as they try to be funny in the face of situations which they see as just horrible.
- Lynch, Mark A witch, before being burned at the stake: Typical man! I can never get him to cook anything at home (cartoon)
- Redfern, W. D. and Redfern, Walter (2005) Calembours, ou les puns et les autres : traduit de l'intraduisible , p.211 quote:
Des termes parents du Galgenhumor sont: : comédie noire, plaisanterie macabre, rire jaune. (J'en offre un autre: gibêtises).
- Müller, Walter (1961) Französische Idiomatik nach Sinngruppen, p.178 quote:
humour macabre, humeur de désespéré, (action de) rire jaune Galgenhumor propos guilleret etwas freie, gewagte Äußerung
- Dupriez, Bernard Marie (1991) A dictionary of literary devices: gradus, A-Z, p.313 quote:
Walter Redfern, discussing puns about death, remarks: 'Related terms to gallows humour are: black comedy, sick humour, rire jaune. In all, pain and pleasure are mixed, perhaps the definitive recipe for all punning' (Puns, p. 127).
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- (1950) Zaïre, Volume 4, Part 1, p.138 quote:
En français on dit « rire jaune », en flamand « groen lachen »
- Chédel, André (1965) Description moderne des langues du monde: le latin et le grec inutile? p.171 quote:
Les termes jaune, vert, bleu évoquent en français un certain nombre d'idées qui sont différentes de celles que suscitent les mots holandais correspondants geel, groen, blauw. Nous disons : rire jaune, le Hollandais dit : rire vert ( groen lachen ) ; ce que le Néerlandais appelle un vert (een groentje), c'est ce qu'en français on désigne du nom de bleu (un jeune soldat inexpéribenté)... On voit que des confrontations de ce genre permettent de concevoir une étude de la psychologie des peuples fondée sur les associations d'idées que révèlent les variations de sens (sémantique), les expressions figurées, les proverbes et les dictions.
- Pardo, Denise (2001) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi, in L'Espresso, February 1st, 2001 quote:
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.
- Daniele Luttazzi (2004) Interview, in the Italian edition of Rolling Stone, November 2004. Quote:
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.
- 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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