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Black Humour

By Edited Jul 2, 2016 1 5

Cynical and Dark

Black humour, can be morbid, dark and pessimistic. It is likely to elicit a mirthless laugh and treat taboo and terrifying subjects in a humourous manner. Black humour,  attempts to laugh at the dark side of life, instead of cry and may ridicule beliefs, values and institutions. Black humour, can be a healthy response and defence to life's seamy corruption, tragedies and disappointments.

You've Got To Laugh!

Black Humour

People, who work in confronting and difficult occupations dealing with death, disaster and disease, often use black humour to relieve stress. A PhD student studying black humour in paramedics, found that the more experienced paramedics became, the blacker their humour. The juxtaposition of  humour, with dark or cynical subject matter, can allow the expression of feelings, albeit in an uneasy way, that the world is not safe, sensible or meaningful; it's absurd!

Andre Breton, a French writer and poet and the noted founder of Surrealism, first coined the term black humour. Breton, in his book Anthology of Black Humor credited Jonathan Swift as the creator of the black humour genre . Swift, like others who used black humour, used flippancy in the face of horrors and discomforts. While it is evident that Swift exhibited excellent gallows humour, surely the Greek Cynic Diogenes must take some credit for the birth of black humour. For example, when Diogenes saw a man being arrested by temple officials for stealing a temple bowl, his reply was 'the big thieves are arresting the little thief' and when he was captured and put for sale and  asked what were his abilities, he said 'rule over men'. An ironic, dark response was it not?

 A Powerful Tool


The outstanding novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, uses black humour and satire to make a very effective anti-war statement. Heller, made war and the political machinations of the army so ludicrous, that the reader is literally squirming with discomfort, but the point of the novel  is shot home like an arrow to the bull's eye. Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five uses juxtaposition and black comedy to explore ideas of free will and the craziness of humanity, through his protagonist Billy Pilgram and he also conveys an anti war message. 

Black humour, often employs very confrontational or taboo subjects, to explore ideas and provoke a response. Such disturbing topics as: racism, mental illness and depression, have become subjects of the black comedian. Those who have personally suffered the insidious effects of such conditions, also often laugh dryly in the face of such trials, as a survival mechanism. Black comedy, can bring something taboo or disturbing into the open and it can be seen for what it is.

Film Noir, which developed after World War II, has many of the elements of black comedy. It is generally considered, a reaction to the horror of the holocaust and 'mans inhumanity to man'. The world of Noir is often anxious, pessimistic and disordered. The film, Pulp Fiction  by Quentin Tarantino, has some great black comedic parts and conveys a world of chaos, where no one is in charge. Monty Python, films on the other hand, often used a very funny black humour and social commentary to reveal much of life's absurdity. Other films, like American Beauty, seek to expose the hollowness of the suburban  life with a razor-sharp acid wit.

Alan Pratt, in 'Black Humour-Critical Essays', makes the point that black humour is cathartic, in that it transforms fear into laughter. While such humour provides no solution or escape, it allows us to live and coexist in our 'absurd, pessimistic, unpredictable and tragic' world.

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The Dark World of Comedy



Apr 12, 2012 2:47am
Great article about black humour. Thumbs up! I am Danish, and we are notorious for using black humour, satire, irony, and sarcasm.
That the Danish use black humour isn't anything new, even the Vikings did it. Another (almost 200 years old) example is Soren Kierkegaard; his Doctors Degree even had the tittle: "On the Concept of Irony. With Due Respect to Socrates"
Apr 12, 2012 3:22am
Thanks for responding, I thought this article might be a bit renegade for some.
I am familiar with Kierkegaard but I wasn't aware of his black humour. I was always too busy trying to work out 'either/or'. I will have a look at the document you mention, it sounds interesting.
One day I am determined to visit Denmark (I hope).
Apr 12, 2012 3:38am
The document I mention above isn't so interesting as several other of his works. Long ago I wrote an InfoBarrel article about Kierkegard "The Philosophy of Life Found in Soren Kierkegaard Quotes" - you might find that interesting.
PS: I don't find your article renegade at all.
Apr 12, 2012 5:01am
interesting article - yet again!!!...you include some good books as examples...the bit "Black humour, often employs very confrontational or taboo subjects, to explore ideas and provoke a response. Such disturbing topics as: racism, mental illness and depression, have become subjects of the black comedian."...that reminds me of how lennie bruce stood up on stage and repeated the work ni**er over and over again up to the point where it seemed to have lost its meaning, or certainly any impact....his point was, that's its just a work and it's us to up how we use it or thing about it...this, i think, started to make more ordinary people realize how powerful language is and that we do have a choice to make certain words that have traditionally been used against people to ultimately mean very little any more....no, it's not uncommon for black guys to use the term nowadays between themselves as a kinda term of endearment...so, by reclaiming words and redefining them, it gets to the point where they can no longer hurt us...probably more effective than silly govt. run ideas on using politically correct terms....any we see being abused, we can redefine ourselves....sounds good to me....this is a great article (as always) on an interesting topic...your articles always get me thinking :-)
Apr 12, 2012 7:11am
You are exactly right about how certain subcultures can take back ownership of words and give them a different connotation. The subgroup needs a certain level of freedom from suppression to do so though.Thanks for commenting, always appreciated.
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  1. By R. Bracht Branham, Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. .: University of California Press,, 2000.
  2. Stephen Connard The Comedic Basis of Black Comedy. .: University of New South Wales, 2005.

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