black comedy

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 regarded as taboo (such as death, rape, murder, extra marital affair, human annihilation or domestic violence) are treated in a satirical or humorous manner.

Synonyms include dark humor and morbid humor. Although very similar, it is not to be confused with gallows humor and off-color humor.


Black comedy should be contrasted with obscenity, though the two are interrelated. In obscene humor, much of the humorous element comes from shock and revulsion; black comedy usually includes an element of irony, or even fatalism. This particular brand of humor can be exemplified by a scene in the play Waiting for Godot: a man takes off his belt to hang himself, and his trousers fall down.

Writers such as Patrick Hamilton, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Niall Griffiths, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Eric Nicol, Phillip Roth, and Daniel Handler have written and published novels, stories and plays where profound or horrific events were portrayed in a comic manner.


In America, black comedy as a literary genre came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. An anthology edited by Bruce Jay Friedman, titled Black Humor, assembles many examples of the genre. Current writers and directors employing the art of black humor in their work include author Chuck Palahniuk, director Todd Solondz, cartoonist Jhonen Vasquez, and writer/essayist David Foster Wallace.

According to John Truby, when black comedy is used as a basis for a story's plotline, it involves a society in an unhealthy state and a main character wanting something which, for whatever reason, is not a thing that will be beneficial to himself or society. The audience should usually be able to see this for themselves, and often a supporting character within the story also sees the insanity of the situation. The main character rarely ever learns a lesson or undergoes any significant change from the ordeal, but sometimes a relatively sane course of action is offered to them. One such example of this sane course of action being taken is in the comic series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, which ends with the title character voluntarily leaving town and checking himself into a mental institution.

Black comedy in films

The 1964 film Dr. Strangelove presents one of the best-known examples of black comedy. The subject of the film is nuclear warfare and the annihilation of life on Earth. Normally, dramas about nuclear war treat the subject with gravity and seriousness, creating suspense over the efforts to avoid a nuclear war. But Dr. Strangelove 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. Plotwise, Group Captain Mandrake serves as the one sane character in the decayed society, and Major Kong fills the role of the hero striving for a harmful goal.

Black comedy is a popular element of many well-known cult films, such as Harold and Maude, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eating Raoul and Weekend at Bernie's.

See also

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