The idea that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand has been around for ages. Some of the best comedy, it has often been said, comes from that tragedy. And so it would make sense that a popular sub genre of comedy would be the dark comedy, in which the most twisted things imaginable were made possible to be laughed at when dealt with in the proper hands.
The term black comedy stems from French surrealist novelist André Breton, who coined it for his book Anthology of Black Humor. In it, he regards Irish writer Jonathan Swift as the originator of dark comedy back in the 1700’s.
Dark comedy, which can best be described as a form of satire, eventually made its way onto the big screen with films such as Frank Capra’s Arscenic and Old Lace, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, or Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It later seemed to hit its stride in the 70’s and 80’s with such films as Network, Harold and Maude, Mel Brook’s The Twelve Chairs, The King of Comedy, After Hours, Heathers, Ruthless People, Where’s Poppa?, Throw Momma from the Train, and Repo Man.
By the 1990’s, these movies were still somewhat common place. We got movies like Election, Happiness, Quick Change, American Psycho, Trainspotting, Ed Wood, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo. But these movies, while great, seemed to be somewhat broader and more commercialized than what we had gotten in the past. Something was off, as good as the movies themselves surely are.
The 2000’s and 2010’s brought us the critically revered Bad Santa, Horrible Bosses, Death at a Funeral, Burn after Reading, Death to Smoochy, Coffee and Cigarettes, World’s Greatest Dad, and God Bless America. Most of these were done on a much lower budget scale, with very little additional support given by the studio, with the occasional exception. They were mostly all sleeper hits that caught people by surprise. But also they had become much fewer and farther between. And now we are lucky to get one truly great dark comedy every five years.
A common trope of dark comedies deal with taboos such as death, race, sex, and drugs. All the things that you shouldn’t laugh at in most situations are fair game in a dark comedy.
One thing that might have contributed is the barrier factor. Perhaps the idea of dark comedies had a life expentency. So long as there were boundaries and barriers to be pushed, it could thrive. Problem is, once a barrier is broken, its already been done. You can’t break the wall down twice once it’s already on the ground. And with so many barriers having been broken over time, what more is there possibly left to explore?
Furthermore, there was a time when certain things were funny because they were so unbelievable that they couldn’t possibly be true. Take, for instance, a film like Vacation. At a certain point, the corpse of the character Aunt Edna finds herself tied to the roof when they’re out of all other options. A funny bit? Definitely. And at the time you could laugh because you couldn’t imagine it actually happening. But in this day and age? If I were to tell you that yesterday in Louisville, Kentucky a corpse was tied to the roof of a station wagon, you’d have no trouble believing me. So the humor in the situation is completely drained out once the impossible suddenly becomes increasingly possible.
Another case could be made that some things are too sensitive for this day and age, that it may be harder to distinguish where the comedy ends and the tragedy begins. That used to be part of the “intrigue” of these films and what made them interesting, but now it just seems to make people increasingly more uncomfortable. Like, for instance, the idea of Heathers, which is described as a teen suicide movie, or a teacher character in Election being fired for having sex with a high school student would be much harder to get made today, let alone trying to market to the masses.
The dark comedy it seems has been replaced by the quirky comedy. Instead of the left turn being a more sinister place, it seems to now be home to something more weird than it is dark. You laugh at the absurdity and ridiculousness of the situation rather than at what is going on. It’s a weird hybrid world of fantasy and meta humor.
Over time, it becomes harder to make a dark comedy that pops and perhaps studios and investors aren’t so willing to put their money at stake on something that isn’t as beneficial an investment as it once was. Studios need to make sure that an audience is going to turn out to what they’re putting all their effort and money into, and without that guarantee, the risk has become far too large to gamble with.
Dark comedies are not completely as dead as they might seem. The upcoming Jojo Rabbit seems like a welcome contender for a return to the world of comedic darkness. Films from the Coen Brothers and even more-surprisingly people like Bobcat Goldthwait may also be an exception to this, as they somehow manage to still find little patches and areas uncharted that they can tread in. And television, particularly something like Barry, still finds room to roll around in. But the once refreshing world of cinematic dark comedy, which allowed you to laugh at things that almost made you feel bad, seems to be diminishing by the second.
So If you ever find yourself wanting to laugh at life right in the face after a particularly bad situation, the best outlet is to explore some of the best dark comedies cinema has to offer.