What is Gallows Humor?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
A terminally ill patient who asks his or her doctor for an extension on medical bills is engaging in gallows humor.
A terminally ill patient who asks his or her doctor for an extension on medical bills is engaging in gallows humor.

During times of national crisis, such as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, some people use a grim form of humor as a coping mechanism. These offensive or sick jokes used to defuse a grim situation are examples of gallows humor. This type of humor can be very self-deprecating in nature, as when a terminally ill patient jokingly asks his doctor for a second opinion or an extension on his bill. While gallows humor may sound too dark or offensive to outsiders, those in on the joke may find it somewhat comforting.

Police may engage in gallows humor with other policemen as a way of coping with the stresses of the job.
Police may engage in gallows humor with other policemen as a way of coping with the stresses of the job.

Other forms of gallows humor are intended to find a more universal audience. When tragic events such as the assassination of a world leader, a celebrity murder trial or a natural disaster occur, it is not unusual to encounter a spate of questionable or tasteless jokes on morning radio programs or Internet discussion groups. By sharing these jokes among close friends or co-workers, some people find it easier to cope with the overwhelming emotions attached to the actual event.

Gallows humor became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches.
Gallows humor became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches.

Many people who work in stressful occupations find that a little gallows humor can help put their grim or distasteful tasks in a more manageable light. Police officers and medical professionals often use gallows humor when discussing their work with other professionals. This may sound offensive or unprofessional to outsiders, but it can be a way to put some distance between themselves and the grim realities of their jobs.

Individuals working in a particularly stressful occupation sometimes find gallows humor to lighten the mood.
Individuals working in a particularly stressful occupation sometimes find gallows humor to lighten the mood.

As the name implies, gallows humor actually did start with the execution device used for public hangings. It was not unusual for condemned prisoners to use their final words as a sounding board for grim self-deprecating jokes, often directed towards distraught friends and family members. This practice of making jokes during a time of grief or tragedy soon became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches or survivors of a natural disaster.

Gallows humor is often employed by some people during a time of grief.
Gallows humor is often employed by some people during a time of grief.

Many of us can recall at least one joke which grew out of a tragic set of circumstances, although many of those jokes had a very short shelf life. Taken out of context, many forms of gallows humor would sound exceptionally cruel or insensitive, but they did once serve to fill a void during the uncertain days following a national tragedy.

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.

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.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments

anon981890

What do Yoko Ono and Ethiopians have in common? They're all living off dead beetles. Where did the Challenger crew spend their vacations? All over Florida.

anon297548

Well, aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

anon276423

Convicted murderer William Palmer stood over the trap door of his gallows, looked to the hangman, and said 'Are you sure this is safe?'

StormyKnight

Sir Thomas More, who was to be executed, climbed the rickety scaffold. He said to his executioner: “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”

CarrotIsland

There was once a convicted murderer by the name of James French. He was sentenced to death by electric chair. It is said that his final words were “How’s this for a headline? French Fries”.

calabama71

Does anyone have some examples of gallows humor jokes?

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • A terminally ill patient who asks his or her doctor for an extension on medical bills is engaging in gallows humor.
      A terminally ill patient who asks his or her doctor for an extension on medical bills is engaging in gallows humor.
    • Police may engage in gallows humor with other policemen as a way of coping with the stresses of the job.
      Police may engage in gallows humor with other policemen as a way of coping with the stresses of the job.
    • Gallows humor became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches.
      Gallows humor became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches.
    • Individuals working in a particularly stressful occupation sometimes find gallows humor to lighten the mood.
      Individuals working in a particularly stressful occupation sometimes find gallows humor to lighten the mood.
    • Gallows humor is often employed by some people during a time of grief.
      Gallows humor is often employed by some people during a time of grief.