Black comedy is one of the least mined of all film genres. Many audiences want nothing to do with its dark humor, which in most cases, is meant be disturbing if not disruptive. The codified genre makes visceral and intellectual demands that some viewers find themselves unwilling or unable to go along with. Taboo subjects involving all manner of murder and death frequently come into play. While there are exceptions to the rule (see “King of Comedy”), at least one death must occur (see “Dr. Strangelove”) to meet the transgressive demands of the genre. They don’t call it “Black” comedy without reason.
It is a satirical form that arrived relatively late to cinema. Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) is one of the earliest, if not the first, filmic examples of Black Comedy. Robert Hamer’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) followed just two years after Chaplin’s unpopular film. It’s telling that both films involve serial killers plying their trade for wealth, and social status.
More recent examples of Black Comedies include “Heathers” (1988), “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989), and “Starship Troopers” (1997).
This revolutionary genre can be traced back to literary roots laid down by Jonathan Swift, whose scathing 18th century essays (especially “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”) shocked many readers to their core. Many people missed the joke. Swift’s keen sense of gallows humor resonates against the 18th century work of the Marquis de Sade, who took fetishistic glee in putting the reader inside the mind, and body, of victimizers on a mission to defile, humiliate, and ruin their captives (see “The 120 Days of Sodom“). Modern authors, such as Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”), and Kurt Vonegut (“Slaughterhouse-Five”), used the darkly comedic form to stunning literary and popular success.
The surrealist movement of the ‘20s and ‘30s contributed heartily to establishing an artistic perspective whose aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” in a revolutionary, anti-political (anarchistic) form in response to the horrors of World War I.
Andre Breton, the French writer and father of Surrealism (see his Surrealist Manifesto), contextualized black humor in his essential book “anthology of black humor” (originally published in 1940), in which Breton places side-by-side excerpts from such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Lewis Carroll.
Black comedy has an intrinsically secular aspect to it because it contextualizes horrific events or experiences in a comic way. This unconventional point of view necessarily insults all organized religion on fundamental grounds.
A death row prisoner, who discovers Jesus after a lifetime spent as an atheist, is the diametric opposite of one who chooses to adopt the personality of his guard as a way of mocking his doomed fate. Both are using their imaginations, but one is taking a much more active role in the part that he plays. Gallows humor is, if nothing else, the ultimate defense mechanism against all form of physical or psychological abuse.