Dark Humour – A Joining of Comedy and Tragedy
Black humour is finding the funny in the macabre or tragic. What’s funny about death and tragedy I hear you ask – a lot actually. When I look at the short stories I’ve written it’s a little disturbing to discover how many of them involve dark, and quite frankly morbid, subjects.
Below is an extract from a story I wrote called, The Untimely Death of Jim the Pig. It’s about a farmer’s wife, Joan, who has just killed her gambler husband in the pig pen. Her friend, Peggy, has popped in for a visit.
...Jim’s mammoth body was lying in the thick sludge with his throat cut and a puddle of blood oozing from his wound. A curious pig was snuffling around his head. Peggy turned to Joan, who had a look of calm acquiescence.
“I thought you said he hit his head?”
“But his throat’s been slashed.”
“Yes, well, the head wound didn’t kill him, he started to come round so I cut his throat.”
Part of what I love about this type of humour is the socially unacceptable giggling it produces. It adds that extra thrill when it feels wrong to laugh.
The other part of this comedy style that makes it successful when writing is when the character who has the funny lines doesn’t even know they’re being funny. Think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.
The extracts below are from a monologue I wrote called Sorry Brian The main character is obviously a sociopath with no idea how her lack of empathy affects others. She’s in a mental institution writing a cathartic letter to her boyfriend, who she murdered.
…I am looking out my window to the garden below; it’s what you would call a smashing day. The sun’s beams are bouncing off the barbed wire above the wall. Glistening steel is really quite beautiful.
… I’m sorry I failed to notice the signs. Although I do recall asking you if you were happy; we were standing at the summit of the ‘Death Valley’ black run in Switzerland at the time and you said yes — I’m sure you did.
....Mother Theresa says: ‘I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.’ Well, that isn’t quite true, is it? As I’m sure I loved you until it hurt but let’s face it, it must have been somewhat painful when I stabbed you in the head with that kitchen knife – It looked painful.
Writing dark humour is difficult if you don’t find it funny yourself. It’s one of those Marmite things; you either love it or hate it.
The two extracts above show dark comedy in different ways; in The Untimely Death of Jim the Pig, the comedy derives mainly from the situation: Jim has been murdered and put in with the pigs. The two women then go on to discuss, quite calmly, whether or not the pigs would eat him.
The second example from Sorry Brian, it is the main character that provides the humour.
One of my favourite Dark comedies is Hot Fuzz; watch the trailer if you haven’t seen it.
The storyline is about multiple murders in a sleepy English village and newly appointed Police officer, Nicholas Angel’s, clueless colleagues. This is one of the funniest macabre comedies I have ever seen.
Try taking one of the situations below and write a 500-word story adding humour. You can use the situation itself as the catalyst or add humour through your characters.
1 – Two teenage boys find a body in the snow.
2 – A girl breaking up with her boyfriend because his he’s intellectually dull or has terrible dress sense.
Feel free to send your stories and I’ll post them on my blog. Have Fun!
Here’s a great one from Art Burns:
Comment: As promised, here is a little snippet of an attempt at the macabre. I will certainly spend more time with this and see where it leads me. Thanks so much for suggesting this exercise. It was a hoot!
I trudged uphill until I saw something sticking out of the snow. Red and black, and sticking out of the snow about five inches. I could clearly see it was a piece of ski jacket material. Was it a bag? Maybe a set of skis or something?
I was over the material when my toe hit something hard. Whatever this thing was, it was pretty big.
I reached down and grasped the nylon. I could feel something behind it. Felt like a baseball bat. As I pulled it was clear that whatever it was would not budge.
‘Hey! Come here!’ I yelled. ‘I need help diging this thing out.’
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know!’
While Jim struggled through the snow, I dropped to my knees and dug around the spot my toe kicked something. With both hands, I scooped the powdery snow like I was a human snow shovel.
My hand hit another piece of nylon. I pulled it. It was a glove.
I brushed a little more snow away and saw a human hand.
Jim walked up just as I saw it.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Jim screamed.
‘Is that a body?’ Jim screeched.
‘I think so.’
I shook the glove upside down and a thumb dropped out and fell silently in the snow.
‘Most of one, at least.’
‘What the fuck?’ Jim moaned.
‘I think I broke it when I kicked it.’
‘It was an accident.’ I said as I started digging again. ‘Help me dig it out.’
‘Ooooh.’ Jim whined.
We had the whole body dug out in about 20 minutes. It was a man. Not much bigger than us. He was dressed in jeans and a ski jacket. He was frozen solid.
‘What do you think happened to him?’ Jim asked.
‘Hard to say.’ I said, looking around. ‘I guess he somehow got hurt and froze.’
‘Think he was murdered?’
I looked around again. No tracks or footprints anywhere.
‘Maybe he fell out of a plane.’ I said.
Jim looked up at the sky.
‘Like yesterday.’ I said.
I looked at the body. It was bent backward at about a 45 degree angle at his waist and his arms were bent at the elbows and back behind him like chicken wings. I looked at Jim.
‘Dude.’ I said. ‘If we turn him over, he would make a perfect sled. Look.’
Jim looked at the body and then back at me.
‘We have to.’ I said.
Jim’s mouth hung open and he shook his head slowly.
‘Come on, Dude!’ I said. ‘When will we get another chance like this? Help me dig it out!’
I also love observational humour which is especially useful when writing in situations like a short story or novel.
notes: again it depends on whether you want your readers to smile or you want snot to come out of there nose whilst reading it on their daily commute.
I like stupid jokes like the ones above and although I’m no nun, I rarely find humour in dirty jokes. Unless they’re the BBC-friendly naughty jokes told by those British comedians like Frankie Howerd or Bob Monkhouse.
No dark comedy list is complete without a little Stephen King. Though film adaptations of his work often don’t show it, King is especially skilled at black humor, and his books are almost always funny in an eerie way. Misery is one of the adaptations that captures that humor. Kathy Bates is terrifyingly funny as Annie Wilkes, a demented, obsessive fan who kidnaps her favorite author. It’s one of the best King adaptations ever, and it’s a particularly scary dark comedy.