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!
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.