A black comedy, or dark comedy, is a comic work that employs black humor that makes light of the otherwise solemn subject matter, or gallows humor. The definition of black humor is problematic; it has been argued that it corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor. Black comedy is a form of drama that displays a marked disillusionment and cynicism. It shows human beings without convictions and with little hope, regulated by fate or fortune or incomprehensible powers. In fact, human beings in an ‘absurd’ predicament. At its darkest such comedy is pervaded by a kind of sour despair: we can’t do anything so we may as well laugh. The wit is mordant and the humor sardonic.
The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935, to designate a sub genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often relying on topics such as death.
Breton coined the term for his book Anthology of Black Humor (Anthologie de l’humour noir) which is concerned with the humorous treatment of the shocking, horrific and macabre, in which he credited Jonathan Swift as the originator of black humor and gallows humor, and included excerpts from 45 other writers. Breton included both examples in which the wit arises from a victim, with which the audience empathizes, as is more typical in the tradition of gallows humor and examples in which the comedy is used to mock the victim, whose suffering is trivialized, and leads to sympathizing with the victimizer, as is the case with Sade. Black humor is related to that of the grotesque genre.
Breton identified Swift as the originator of black humor and gallows humor, particularly in his pieces Directions to Servants (1731), A Modest Proposal (1729), A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick (1710), and a few aphorisms.
This form of drama has no easily perceptible ancestry unless it be tragi-comedy (q.v.) and the so-called dark comedies of Shakespeare
(for instance, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale). However, some of the earlier works of Jean Anouilh (the pièces noires) are blackly comic: for example, Voyageur sans bagage (1936) and La Sauvage (1938). Later he wrote what he described as pièces grinçantes (grinding, abrasive), of which two notable examples are La Valse des toreadors (1952) and Pauvre Bitos (1956). Both these plays could be classified as black comedy. So might two early dramatic works by Jean Genet: Les Bonnes (1947) and Les Nègres (1959). Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965) and Joe Orton’s Loot (1965) are other examples of this kind of play.
Bruce Jay Friedman, in his anthology entitled Black Humor, imported the concept to the United States, labeling with it very different authors and works, arguing that they shared the same literary genre. The Friedman label came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Early American writers who employed black humor were Nathanael West and Vladimir Nabokov. In 1965 a mass-market paperback, titled Black Humor, was released. Containing work by a myriad of authors, which included J.P. Donleavy, Edward Albee, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruce Jay Friedman, himself, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, this was one of the first American anthologies devoted to the conception of black humor as a literary genre; the publication also sparked nation wide interest in black humor. The motive for applying the label black humorist to all the writers cited above is that they have written novels, poems, stories, plays, and songs in which profound or horrific events were portrayed in a comic manner.
The purpose of black comedy is to make light of the serious and often taboo subject matter, and some comedians use it as a tool for exploring vulgar issues, thus provoking discomfort and serious thought as well as amusement in their audience. Popular themes of the genre include murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, pedophilia, insanity, nightmare, disease, racism, homophobia, sexism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime. Black comedy might include an element of irony or even fatalism. For example, the archetypal black-comedy self- mutilation appears in the English novel Tristram Shandy. Tristram, five years old at the time, starts to urinate out of an open window for lack of a chamber pot. The sash falls and circumcises him; his family reacts with both chaotic action and philosophic digression.
In other forms of literature, ‘black comedy’ and ‘black humour (e.g. the ‘sick joke) have become more and more noticeable in the 20th c.
It has been remarked that such comedy is particularly prominent in the so-called ‘literature of the absurd’. Literary historians have found
intimations of a new vision of man’s role and position in the universe in, for instance, Kafka’s stories (e.g. The Trial, The Castle, Metamorphosis), in surrealistic art and poetry, and, later, in the philosophy of existentialism. Camus’s vision of man as an “irremediable exile’, Ionesco’s concept of life as a ‘tragic farce’, and Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comic characters in his novels are other instances of a particular Weltanschauung.
One might also mention some less famous books of unusual merit which are darkly comic. For example, Serge Godefroy’s Les Loques (1964), Thomas Pynchon’s V (1963) and his The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), D. D. Bell’s Dicky, or The Midnight Ride of Dicky Vere (1970) and Mordecai Richler’s St Urbain’s Horseman (1966).