What is a Black Comedy?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A movie which takes on controversial or taboo subject matter in a deliberately humorous way is often referred to as a black comedy. This type of movie tends to use sarcastic or sardonic dialogue in order to remove some of the audience's preconceived notions about the proper treatment of a taboo subject. There are certain subjects or themes which many people would consider too taboo or morbid to become the basis of a traditional comedic film. The realities of warfare, for example, generally lend themselves to documentaries or serious dramatic films. Director Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H* both treat the subject of war with unmistakably dark humor, however. The lead character of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, for example, spends much of the movie muttering sarcastic observations while the horrors of war unfold around him.

A black comedy presents dark subject matter in a comedic or satirical way.
A black comedy presents dark subject matter in a comedic or satirical way.

A black comedy doesn't always have a heavy or morbid tone. Sometimes the humor comes from essentially straightforward characters who happen to be placed in traditionally bleak or controversial circumstances. The characters may have little idea that their occupations or lifestyles are morally or ethically questionable to outsiders such as the audience. One example, Sunshine Cleaners, features two women who start their own crime scene cleaning service, which juxtaposes the gruesome imagery of crime scenes with the upbeat pursuit of the American dream. A black comedy does not generally shy away from its darker subject matter, but rather presents certain aspects of it in a comedic or satirical way.

Johnny Depp often appears in films laced with black comedy.
Johnny Depp often appears in films laced with black comedy.

Morbid or dark humor can be a very subjective form of comedy, so producers and directors of these types of comedies must decide if a particular scene crosses the line of acceptability. The target audience of a typical black comedy is typically not mainstream, so the creators can and often do push the envelope when it comes to shocking or controversial sequences. A black comedy about the Korean War, for instance, could feature graphic battlefield or operating room scenes, but the filmmakers must decide if the comedic elements are strong enough to balance out the more dramatic or controversial sequences. A successful black comedy should still be viewed by audiences as a comedy, not a drama with a few instances of dark humor.

Stanley Kubrick also created another film which many film critics believe to be one of the best black comedies ever produced. In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a mentally unbalanced military officer refuses to recall a squadron of American bombers mistakenly ordered to drop atomic bombs on Russia. The efforts of various diplomats and military officers to prevent total global annihilation becomes the basis for dark comedy sequences. While the subject matter itself, the dangers of nuclear warfare, would not ordinarily lend itself to comedy, Kubrick and actor Peter Sellers manage to maintain the film's darkly comedic tone through brilliant dialogue and over-the-top character roles. This balance between comedy and pathos is what distinguishes a black comedy from more traditional comedies.

Black comedy may have morbid elements to it.
Black comedy may have morbid elements to it.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Is Pulp Fiction a black comedy? Or satire?


Sling Blade had some good black comedic elements.


Is "Weekend at Bernie's" a black comedy? I'm not sure but there ended up being more in the series. Hauling around a dead guy and dropping him seems more funny than it sounds.


I am not sure if the movie actually qualifies as a black comedy, but I think it would have relative to the time it was produced. One of my favorite old comedies is the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. The movie centers around a bushman from Africa who is on a journey to the end of the Earth to cast an evil object back to the devil. The object was actually a coke bottle thrown from a small plane, but it caused untold drama in a small village of indigenous tribesman who had never seen the things of modern civilization. The writers did a great job of turning a story of tragedy and clash of cultures into a hilarious and well-written comedy. Definitely a classic...at least for my generation.


@ Highlighter- I was a fan of the film Juno. Babies, adoption, abortion, and the likes are usually off limits in comedies, especially a teen comedy about a pregnant high school girl madly in love with the boy (Pauly Bleaker). I thought I would hate the movie at first...my girlfriend forced me to watch it...but I was presently surprised after the first few minutes. Sometimes I find that black comedies are just not that funny because the director doesn't take the jokes far enough, but Juno was an example of a black comedy gem. I look forward to more movies like this one.


I thought that Sunshine Cleaners and Little Miss Sunshine were some of the best recent black comedies. I loved the scenes surrounding the death of the grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine, especially when the father was pulled over by police officers in the Nevada desert while his dead father was wrapped up in a sheet in the back. The scene was one of the funniest bits of morbid humor in recent memory.

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