Dark Humour – Article (Courier #22)

8 May

Humour and the dark, black subject areas within cinema – two concepts that shouldn’t mix well but somehow do, creating some truly fantastic films that manage to be dark yet comedic.


Dark, or black, comedy is a mischievous and niche sub-genre that has evolved and grown over time, garnering many fans along the way. It is not a new sub-genre by any means; probably the best-known mainstream black comedy is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), an evocative look at the perils of the Cold War and nuclear armament. The serious and dark subject matter of nuclear war is turned on its head by Peter Sellers and company, injecting hilarious comedy into authentically scary scenarios that could have occurred during the Cold War, which was still raging when the film was made in the 1960s. The sub-genre has expanded and grown considerably since the times of the Cold War though, with many dark comedies releasing every year – including the latest Jack Black vehicle, Bernie (2011), which has released in the past week.

Watching the wicked yet wonderful Heathers (1988) the other week reminded me just how good, and deliciously dark, black comedies can be. Mixing dark and macabre subjects such as death, suicide and other ghastly business with cheerful comedy doesn’t sound initially promising; taking ‘gallows humour’ too far even, at the risk of being distasteful and causing upset. Somehow though, the sub-genre of dark comedy manages to contain films that, while perhaps not entirely tasteful, manage to blend comedy and grim matters into somewhat delightful and memorable pieces of cinema. The balance does have to be just right though; films such as Harold and Maude (1971) manage to be effortlessly charming and hilarious but also poised, perfectly balanced with heavy and emotional views on life and death. At the other end of the scale, films such as Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) get the dark stuff worryingly offbeat, with a miscast John Cusack, and the ‘comedic’ elements are spectacularly unfunny – a real mess of a film ensues. Certain directors seem to have the formula nailed down; the Coen Brothers have a particularly good knack of crafting memorable, and quite brilliant, dark and dramatic comedies. Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), Burn After Reading (2008) and so it goes on – their filmography almost reads like a list of famous dark, comedic films that have popularised the sub-genre no end.

It can be hard to categorise dark comedies, what boxes do films have to check off to enter the sub-genre and not just be labelled as dramas/thrillers with comedic elements, or, alternatively, just comedies with infrequent and mildly dark parts to them? All I know is that when done right, the dark comedy sub-genre can deliver some wonderful and cherished cinematic experiences.


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