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What is dark comedy?

By BBC Maestro

Dark humour is a genre of comedy that finds something funny in surprising places. It may be called dark, but its role is to find the brighter side of difficult subjects. Death, war, violence, politics, sex… no subject is out of bounds in this challenging type of comedy.

Crafting comedy material from tragedy takes very specific skills, and arguably a very specific audience. Dark comedy, also known as black comedy, can be edgy, satirical or simply gross; however, the ability to “laugh in the face of fear and tweak the nose of terror”, as Blackadder once put it, can be a valuable outlet for many people.

In this article, we take a closer look at black humour, along with what dark comedy is used for. Dark comedy isn’t for everyone; but if you like your humour with a dose of the macabre and more than a touch of the taboo, read on.

Common topics for black comedy

With black comedy, no topic is off-limits. This subversive genre deals with subjects considered too challenging, or tasteless, for mainstream comedy. Black humour can include jokes about:

● Death or dying, often known as “gallows humour”

● War and terrorism 

● Sex and sexual deviancy

● Politics and political corruption, where it often crosses over with satire

● Stereotypes (race, gender, sexuality), which again, is often satirical

● Social issues such as poverty and crime

The prevalence of satire on this list shows how black humour is used to spotlight difficult issues. It’s a regular feature of ‘punching up’ humour, where the subject attacked is in a more powerful position than the comedian and audience.

However, the fact that a lot of dark humour deals with death and illness shows how the genre fulfils a simple human need: to laugh at things that scare us.

Dark comedy as a coping mechanism

“I have Parkinson’s Disease. I wish he’d fucking kept it.”

Sir Billy Connolly doesn’t mince his words when it comes to talking about his illness during a set. However, in a more reflective mood off-stage, he speaks about how humour has helped him.

“I now suffer from Parkinson’s disease and comedy has helped me deal with it. It’s given me a very light look at it.”

Laughter makes us feel more in control of our situation. We can’t defeat death, but we can make it look a bit silly. Possibly the most famous example of gallows humour is the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its ridiculously catchy musical number. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” actually spells this out: “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.”

Black comedy is common among people who deal with death every day. The emergency services have their own in-jokes and morale-boosting humour. For an insight, try the BBC comedy drama This is Going to Hurt, written by comedian and former NHS doctor Adam Kay (watch doctors react to it in this short BBC YouTube film), or the classic US comedy MASH, which is set in a military hospital.

Taboo in comedy

Dark comedy also deals with taboos, which Sir Billy terms “crossing the line”. Everyone’s line is different, which is why it takes a very confident comedian to use black humour.

Taboo is a fast-changing area, as what society deems acceptable or not moves quickly. Billy reflects on how swearing was a taboo when he started out, and talking about sex was shocking. His advice?

“Rules are made by invisible people. Don’t abide by them. Pay attention to them and put them to the side.”

“Too soon?”

Mark Twain (may have) said, “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Distance, temporal rather than physical, is essential if you want your black humour to land without seeming disrespectful or even cruel.

Crack a joke about a death or disaster immediately after the event, and even your most morbidly minded friend will wince. If your comedy material is both topical and dark, remember to apply the ‘too soon?’ test.

Dark comedy examples

If you’re thinking of writing or performing dark comedy, where do you go for inspiration? Here are some examples of dark humour in television, films and live comedy.

Famous dark TV shows

Can sitcoms be dark? Oh yes, and there’s a whole collection of gothic and macabre sitcoms to binge on. The League of Gentleman’s cast of grotesque characters knew no boundaries (cannibalism, incest, religion are all merrily covered in most episodes), and some of the team went darker still with Psychoville and Inside Number 9.

What We Do in the Shadows follows the daily gruesome lives of flat-sharing vampires (here they’re hosting a dinner party), but even these bloodsuckers can’t hold a gothic candelabra to the horrific Jill in Nighty Night. To thoroughly unsettle yourself, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is an example of a dystopian comedy drama.

However, don’t conflate black humour with gothic comedy, even though there’s a clear crossover. There’s a lot of dark humour to be found in comedies such as Peep Show, Fleabag and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Daisy May Cooper’s Rain Dogs is extraordinarily dark and gritty: maybe try her sitcom Am I Being Unreasonable? first. Warning: it’s still dark, just less so.

The tension between mundanity and horror is covered wonderfully in BBC’s recent Greg Davies sitcom, The Cleaner. Watch this dryly dark clip where his latest crime scene cleaning job threatens Wicky’s planned curry night. The juxtaposition between the everyday (curry night) and the violent (a murder scene) creates the humour.

Black humour in the movies

There’s also plenty of black humour in films. Cold War satire Dr Strangelove is often cited as a master of cinematic dark humour, followed by famous movies as diverse as HeathersThe Cable Guy and Pulp Fiction. These all subvert classic genres by taking violent subjects and applying grim humour – another juxtaposition that leads to comedy.

British director Edgar Wright injects plenty of dark humour into his parody movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, often combined with gruesome slapstick action. Find out more about Edgar’s work and influences in his BBC Maestro Filmmaking course, which covers subjects such as writing, film genres and history.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movies also use a lot of physical humour, while demonstrating just how uncomfortable dark humour can be to watch. Withnail & I from 1987 is a much-memed cult classic that’s difficult to watch in a different way – bleak and squalid.

If you want to see black humour used more charmingly, the 1990s’ Addams Family movies build on Charles Addams’ tradition of gently subverting family values. The recent Netflix offshoot Wednesday by Tim Burton is a stylish comedy horror series that uses another effective tool of black humour: deadpan delivery.

Black comedy in stand-up

Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Doug Stanhope, Ricky Gervais: these are all stand-up comedians who are known for their use of dark materials, and who have all, famously, crossed that line at some point. Why use controversial humour in an area as risky as stand-up comedy? Billy Connolly explains:

“There’s great value in shocking people. It makes them be quiet for a start. It puts them in a funny position and makes the atmosphere really weird. It makes you the boss. When you say shocking things, people are taken aback and they go quiet. That’s the time and come in and say what you meant. It’s a dodgy issue but it’s very worthwhile.”

Black humour or taboo subjects are tools that comedians can use to provoke thought. By creating that space, difficult topics can be drawn out into the open, and arguably, this can be a good thing for both the audience and society.

For a more in-depth look at taboos in comedy, check out Sir Billy Connolly’s BBC Maestro comedy course. Sir Billy has been a stand-up comedian for over 50 years, and shares his experiences, techniques and tips in this insightful comedy course.

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