What’s black comedy? Definition and examples

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What’s black comedy? Oxford Languages defines the genre as “a type of comedy in which tragic or distressing subject matter is dealt with in a humorous way.” Black comedy is also referred to as gallows humor, dark humor, and morbid humor. 

While black comedy deals with taboo subjects, it differs from blue comedy, a comedic style that focuses on topics such as sex, bodies, and nudity. Black comedy is more likely to focus on topics like death, violence, and trauma.

What are the origins of black comedy?

Black comedy has been around for a very long time; ancient Greek playwright and poet Aristophanes, sometimes referred to as “the father of comedy” incorporated this style of humor in his work. In 1935, French writer and surrealist theorist André Breton used the term “black humor” while discussing of Jonathon Swift. In 1940, Breton published Anthologie de l’humour noir, or Anthology of Black Humor, and he attributed the creation of black comedy to Swift, though he quoted 45 other writers in the anthology.

You are likely familiar with black comedy if you ever use jokes as a coping mechanism. Humor can be used to take some stress out of tough situations, even situations that cause a great deal of pain. Have you ever cracked a joke about something traumatic, such as a divorce, loss of a loved one, a serious illness, or something else that isn’t inherently humorful? That’s black comedy in real life.

Black comedy can be used to shock, relieve tension, or cast serious subjects in a new light. It can lighten the mood, or spark a discussion about taboo topics like death.

What are some examples of black comedy?

Black comedy transcends genre. A film or book can be a straight black comedy, or it can tilt in the direction of horror, thriller, or surrealism. An example of this is Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 masterpiece Parasite, which begins as a dark comedy and then shifts into a thriller in the second half of the film. Remember when the protagonists are slowly infiltrating the wealthy household, even going so far as to poison the housekeeper with a known allergen? It’s humorous, but incredibly dark when you understand that they are ruining other people’s lives for their own benefit. 

What about Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 film The Lobster? I, for one, walked into that movie expecting a fun indie comedy and walked away scarred for life (in a good way.) That’s not to say I didn’t laugh, because I did. A lot. But the humor was so bleak, the stakes so high, that this film is solidly a black comedy.

When my partner wanted me to watch Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film In Bruges, I wasn’t totally sold on the pitch. Hitmen accidentally kill a kid and have to deal with the fallout, potentially paying with their lives? It just doesn’t sound funny! But it really, really is. I laughed a lot harder during the movie than I expected to. 

Other classic examples include American Psycho, Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, Hot Fuzz, Thank You For Smoking, Life of Brian… the list goes on. It may make some people uncomfortable, but black comedy has been around for a long, long time, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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