While screening a clip from A History of Violence in a college classroom, myself and the other students were all laughing at William Hurt as he beat up a man for botching a murder. My teacher stopped the film and simply asked us why we were laughing. Though he was doing his own research for a thesis he was writing, that question has always stayed with me. I’m reminded of it every time I laugh when someone falls, gets hit in the head, or overreacts to a petty situation.
Dark humor, a sub-genre of comedy, makes light out of the worst and most taboo of circumstances. And much like the befuddled class when that question was dropped, it’s hard to completely understand why. When these circumstances come up in our own lives, we aren’t laughing so much. I’m always asking myself that same question of, ‘Why am I laughing?’ when listening to dark stand-up.
Comedians go to dark places, finding humor and taking us there with them. Comedians have been revolving their routines around dark humor since the great George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks paved the way for black humor within mainstream pop culture. Now comedians often get recognition and even praise for being labeled controversial, cynical, or skeptical. Comedians like David Cross, Greg Giraldo, and Mike Birbiglia are (or were) known for making light out of dark situations we experience. Situations like drug use, alcoholism, divorce, or rejection. More mainstream comedians such as Russell Brand, Louis C.K., or Patton Oswalt have transcended their routines into darkly comedic characters in their body of work. Russell Brand’s drug addict in Get Him to the Greek, C.K.’s hopeless, unattractive single father in Louie, or Oswalt’s hate crime surviving side kick in Young Adult.
The popularity of dark humor comes from how it hits the audience: a little too close to home and a little too close for comfort. Like Nick Swardson’s bits about suicide or Christopher Titus’s jokes about his emotionally abusive father. What makes it work is the comedian’s ability to have the audience confront them through their own shared experiences. Even when discussing a controversy in the news or the realization that a bad situation is going to keep getting worse, a comedian’s joke brings together the audience through laughter, creating recognition that we are in this together, and that sometimes all you can do is laugh about it.
The ability to get an audience laughing at these topics comes from a comedians profound understanding and comfort with their own pain. I have an answer for my teacher, that in the midst of an intense psychologically draining film we had invested two hours of our lives into, a situation that was expertly made lighter and more bearable happened. Much like how dark humor affects our everyday lives.
In the end, the use of dark humor in stand-up can make a rough situation or a bad day a little more bearable.
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About the Author: Currently working on my B.A in Film Studies at CSU Sacramento full time, working part time, and playing the rest of the time. Began my love of comedy with Gene Wilder, and haven't looked back. Tweet me @steviewho