Black comedy: characteristics, how it was born and 22 films to watch

Table of Contents

Black comedy is a subgenre of comedy that downplays topics that are usually viewed as taboo, especially topics that are generally considered difficult or painful to deal with. Writers, directors and comedians generally use it as a tool to talk about loathsome problems causing discomfort, reflection and amusement. Some of best movies in the history of cinema belong to the genre of black comedy.

In fiction the term black comedy can also describe a category in which dark humor is a fundamental component. The popular themes of the style consist of death, crime, hardship, self-destruction, war, violence, terrorism, discrimination, racism, sexism and sexuality.

The term black humor (from the French humor noir) was coined by the theorist of surrealism André Breton in 1935 while analyzing the works of Jonathan Swift. Breton’s choice was to determine many of Swift’s works as a sub-genre of comedy and also satire in which laughter develops from cynicism and uncertainty, usually on topics such as death.

Breton created the term for his 1940 publication Anthology of Black Humor (Anthologie de l’humour noir), in which he attributed Jonathan Swift as the pioneer of black humor. In his publication, Breton also included excerpts from 45 other writers. In some situations the victim’s suffering is trivialized, which leads to sympathizing with the executioner, as is similarly found in Sade’s writings.


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History of Black Comedy

Black-comedy-nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov

Among the early American authors who used black comedy in their works were Nathanael West and Vladimir Nabokov. At the time, the category was not well known in the United States. The concept of black humor was initially popularized with the 1965 magazine titled Black Humor. The paperback was only one of the earliest American collections committed to the concept of black humor as a literary genre. Author Friedman has identified a selection of writers as “black humorists”, such as JP Donleavy, Edward Albee, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruce Jay Friedman himself, and even Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Among the current authors recommended as black humorists by journalists and literary critics are Roald Dahl, Kurt Vonnegut, Warren Zevon, Christopher Durang, Philip Roth, Veikko Huovinen. They have written books, poems, stories, plays and songs in which horrific events have been comically portrayed.


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The psychology of black comedy

Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 essay Humor (Der Humor), presents the following theory of black comedy: “Vanity refuses to be distressed by the provocations of truth, to allow itself to be forced to bear it. It cannot being influenced by the wounds of the outside world; it reveals, in fact, that such traumas are nothing more than occasions to procure pleasure. ” 

Black comedy has the social impact of strengthening the spirits of the oppressed and also undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, “being able to laugh at evil and error suggests that we have actually overcome them.” Black comedy is a natural human impulse and examples of it can be found in the histories of the classical era. 

A 2017 research published in the journal Cognitive Processing concludes that individuals who appreciate black humor “may have higher IQs, reveal lower aggression, and even resist unfavorable feelings better than people who turn up their noses.”

The best black comedies to watch

Here is a small selection of the best black comedies to see that we have tracked down in the great sea of ​​cinema history.

Arsenic and old lace – (1944)

The classic of black humor. Fun Hollywood movie of the golden age full of wickedness, in which some old women practice murder with the same calm and calmness with which they prepare a cup of tea. Non-violent but equally merciless murders, discovered by a great Cary Grant.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

In his film shot when he was fired for being a communist Charlie Chaplin stages the story of Bluebeard, using his comedy with unprecedented resentment and an interest in unknown fate in his films. It is precisely the contrast between Chaplin’s comic tones and also the merciless activities of the main characters that provide the play with a shocking and unusual action.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

In England it’s a timeless film. It is the story of a boy from an honorable family who is disinherited and eliminates all his relatives in revenge. There will be a trial and some grotesque rescue attempts. In reality it’s all a pretext to satire as well as attack the British elites, with British wit, British actors (there is Alec Guinness in 8 different roles). The typical British black humor way of laughing at crime as if it were something normal.



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Doctor Strangelove (1964)

The phone call between the presidents would certainly be enough to certify this comedy by Stanley Kubrick as one of the darkest and funniest films ever, peaking humor between the uncomfortable and the essential. Some scenes, such as the war sequence, remain among the craziest ever seen.

Roma bene (1971)

The classic scene of the bourgeois class in Rome: a duchess, her industrial husband and many apparently polite characters. In reality the Baron is a jewel thief, among others there are social climbers, devious nobles who have staged fake kidnappings and extortion attempts, as well as a murderous wife. The fate of these individuals will be the same: death at sea, but their transgressions will surely continue to be unsolved.

The most beautiful evening of my life (1972)

Alfredo Rossi, an Italian tax evader, goes to Switzerland to deposit 100 million lire, but does not arrive in time, the banks have closed. He notices a lady dressed in black on a bicycle. He starts following her through the hill roads until her car breaks down unexpectedly. In search of help, he goes to a nearby castle where he is welcomed by the owner, the Comte de La Brunetière. The count, a lawyer, welcomes Rossi and invites him to dinner and to a game with three of his friends, all retired lawyers. The match in question is a fictitious trial in which Rossi will play the role of the accused. Rossi hesitates to accept the invitation but then sees Simonetta, a beautiful waitress, and chooses to stay.

Ugly, dirty and bad (1976)

It is among the most extreme experiments that Italian cinema has attempted in the field of black comedy. Making a film about misfits, about an almost paradoxical poverty, without making discounts or sweetening the characters, with a cynical gaze and a black heart. Since the title they have tried to beat the same comic ground, but that of Ettore Scola has remained a sensational and unique episode of its kind.

Network (1976)

Nowadays it may seem almost a docudrama, but in the days of Fifth Power it was a ferocious satire of the worst American media trends, with the hottest tricks for lure the public into a world that is a deception. Even poor Howard Beale (posthumous Oscar winner Peter Finch) is elevated to a prophet of the new era and at the same time a victim of the machinations of his superiors, who turn his anger into advertising slogans. An unparalleled exploit, full of small homages, funny, by the great director Sidney Lumet.

Mortacci (1989)

In a cemetery the dead meet every night. They are destined not to enter the next stage of immortality, until the death of the last living human being who remembers them. The different personalities are presented with the memory of their lives: Alma, a film actress (Carol Alt) who witnesses every night the futile attempt of her former lover (Malcolm McDowell) to commit suicide on his grave; Angelo, a womanizer (Andy Luotto) who died of embarrassment; Felice and Giggetto, two beggars (Eraldo Turra and Luciano Manzalini) who quickly leave the group as the last woman (Mariangela Melato) who remembers them dies while visiting their tomb. The narrative is interrupted by the arrival of Lucillo (Sergio Rubini), a soldier who has been presumed dead in Lebanon and who is also forced by his fellow villagers to pretend that this is true, as they have built a monument on him, who has become a popular hero. . The cemetery guardian Domenico (Vittorio Gassman) is unaware of everything that happens.

Dearest Relatives (1992)

In the film by Mario Monicelli an elderly couple welcomes all their grandchildren and children to their home in Sulmona, Abruzzo, to celebrate the Christmas holidays. After a day spent in church and playing bingo at home, the grandmother asks her daughters which of them will go with their husbands to live with them, as they are getting old. At first the children are happy to hear that their parents want to see them more, however no one wants to take the responsibility of having them transferred directly to their home … Italian comedy.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Best detective comedies of Quentin Tarantino. In the undergrowth of the city, a series of incidents connects the lives of 2 Los Angeles mobsters, the wife of a gangster, a boxer and two bad guys. The film follows a non-linear story and gets the audience to put the pieces together. 

Tarantino won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction also won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Pulp Fiction remains among the highest-grossing films: it earned more than $ 200 million compared to a $ 8 million spending plan.

Fargo (1996)

A car salesman pays 2 men to have his wife kidnapped to get a ransom from his wealthy father. However, events do not go as planned, which results in some murders, which attract the attention of a pregnant policewoman. The Coen brothers’ film won two Oscars for Best Actress (for McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay in 1997. Fargo also spawned a television series in 2014 after the film. The American Film Institute named Fargo as one of 100 best movies ever.

Happiness (1998)

Todd Solondz cinema’s has never been for the faint of heart, and the best-known demonstration is certainly Happiness, a choral work that bares the soul black of various characters and paradoxically uses the concept of happiness. Still very strong nowadays, is the story dedicated to pedophile Bill Maplewood, such a daunting role, as even the film highlights the character’s qualities, that many actors have turned down the role, fearing it would destroy theirs. career. Also significant is the follow-up Forgive and neglect, launched in 2009 with a totally different cast.

La Comunidad (2000)

How do a small group of people in an apartment building ready to make money behave? What if it turns out that there is a missing man on the top floor hiding millions in his empty apartment? And also what, above all, can happen to those who make the decision to keep everything to themselves? The way in which De La Iglesia in this film causes everything to grow and overemphasize to extreme consequences may have been the condemnation of the film, but also the success of its grotesque tone and its ability to produce characters with a joke or a dress.

In Bruges (2008)

Two Irish hit men, Ken and Ray, are sent to Bruges, Belgium, after their goal fails. Things get complicated when their enraged employer orders Ken to kill Ray. 

Writer and also director Martin McDonagh is a master of black comedy, and this film shows that further. Aside from the somewhat stereotypical script, Colin Farrel, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson are top notch. The film was chosen for the Golden for Best Picture. Martin McDonagh garnered nominations for his screenplay at the Oscars and won the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. He would later win the award again for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDonagh also won Best Screenplay at the British Independent Film Awards. The National Board of Review has named In Bruges one of the top 10 independent films of 2008.

Burn After Reading (2008)

A film is dark and comical at the same time in which even the untimely death of a person could make you laugh. 2 employees of a health club meet a CIA employee with sensitive information on a CD. They try to blackmail him and try to sell the CD to the Russians. A series of misadventures ensues as they try to take advantage of what they have actually discovered. Like most of their films, this work by the Coen brothers Burn After Reading is a wild and funny film in which Brad Pitt offers a splendid comic interpretation.

This is the End (2013)

The film shows a group of Hollywood boys wedged in the middle of an armageddon and looking for a means to survive. The film also has a storyline that tells the relationship between Seth and Jay, which is collapsing. When on stage, Danny McBride never fails to make the audience laugh. The film is a party of wild laughter without interruptions and with memorable characters. The film is based on the short film Seth and also on Jay Versus the Apocalypse. This Is The End has received nominations at numerous festivals.

Filth (2013)

A corrupt cop wants no trouble as he investigates the murder of a Japanese intern. He chooses to get rid of the competitors by killing his associates. The police officer also abuses drugs and experiences disturbing hallucinations. He is forced to challenge and fight his inner demons. James McAvoy offers a great take on a despicable cop who wants absolutely no obstacles in his way while at the same time struggling with his psychological problems. He takes part in violent actions and also appreciates the bullying of his colleagues.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

This film innovated mockumentary and vampire films. The story is about a group of vampires living together in an apartment in Wellington. Vampires are hundreds of years old and have a hard time adjusting to the modern world and changing times. Vampire roommates try to cope with the complexities and difficulties of modern life and show a hipster many of the benefits of being undead. The right movie if you love the vampire genre and are looking for something different. A television adaptation of the film also followed, focusing on vampires living in the United States. 

Birdman (2014)

A star once famous for playing a popular superhero realizes she is falling into oblivion. He plans to revive his career with a Broadway play. During rehearsal sessions, one of his co-stars is injured, which forces him to work with a new actor. There are, however, several problems behind the scenes.

Birdman was actually shot in an original way, and the whole film appears as a continuous shot with no cutouts. Birdman has won 4 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone received Oscar nominations. Michael Keaton also won his first Golden Globe for Best Actor.

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster is among the most unusual and most unconventional stories of all time. The film is about a boy who was told to find a woman and have her become a partner within 45 days. He will be transformed into an animal if he fails. An exceptionally funny dark comedy. The Lobster earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.


The Favorite (2018)

Two cousins ​​fight to become Queen Anne’s favorite. Queen Anne of England falls ill and her assistant Sarah Churchill takes care of the country’s problems. Quickly, things take a horrible turn when Sarah’s cousin Abigail enters the scene. The film is a historical drama with elements of comedy. Olivia Coleman won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film. Rachel Weisz won the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress and earned an Oscar nomination in the same category.

Ready or Not (2018)

After the wedding celebration, a bride agrees to play hide and seek with her in-laws. She discovers the family’s dark past and also realizes that they are trying to kill her. The film is clever and darkly funny too. The film was shortlisted for Best Horror Film at the Saturn Awards.

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