The very best of the very darkest comedies make audiences laugh at the very sickest and very twistedest stuff. (Yes, of course twistedest is a word. Twist, twister and twistedest.)
In the movie Fargo, Peter Stormare’s character killed Steve Buscemi’s character. Stormare destroyed the evidence by feeding the body into a woodchipper, which spewed bloody meat onto the white snow. Yes, that’s twistedest stuff, and to an oh-no-he-didn’t-do-that audience, it’s wildly funny.
Exactly what is dark comedy? Also known as black comedy or gallows humor, Nofilmschool.com defines a style that pokes fun at subjects that polite society considers too serious, too painful, or too taboo to discuss.
Have you ever laughed at a funeral? You’d have a sick puppy to enjoy Death at a Funeral, which is about Peter Dinklage exposing a dark secret regarding his – ahem – loving relationship to the recently deceased patriarch of a dysfunctional British family.
Where does dark comedy come from? A Modest Proposal humorously proposed ending starvation by eating babies, so in the 1930s, theorist Andre Brenton coined the term in his book, Anthology of Black Humor. Breton credited Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) as the originator of black humor and gallows humor.
But black comedy actually comes from – well, farther back than William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who often mixed with comedy and tragedy: All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure For Measure, Troilus And Cressida.
If it ain’t taboo, it ain’t dark comedy. No subject is off limits, Nofilmschool.com pointed out. Three modern examples:
Mavis Gary is back in town to get a man to cheat on his wife in Young Adult.
Everyone is a sociopath in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Jack Nicholson tosses a dog down a trash chute in As Good As It Gets.
Despicable stuff, but audiences laugh. The writer can get away with despicable behavior as long as the character is credited with clear motivations and relatable traits. Even if the hero of the dark (not humorous) story is Tony Soprano, mob boss of North Jersey.
By now, you’re probably asking, could I write dark humor? The answer is yes. First, learn how to write funny.
Humor, Leigh Anne Jasheway wrote in a 2016 Writer’s Digest column, hooks readers. “No matter the subject.” After all, readers are motivated by an inherent desire to laugh. That’s why we share shticky YouTube videos, retweet LOL messages, and post ironic skits from Fallon, Colbert, and The Onion. Jasheway shared the basics:
1. K RULE
Strange but true: the funniest sounds start with “K” (Cadillac is funnier than Ford) and “G” (getting smacked between the eyes with a dish of guacamole is funnier than being struck with any other fruit). K and G sounds explain why Jerry Seinfeld and Carl Reiner relied on Yiddish humor, and how Matt Groening named Krusty the Clown in The Simpsons.
2. RULE OF THREE
This rule requires a pattern: 1. the setup, 2. misdirects the reader, 3. to the punch line. “Losing weight is simple: eat less, exercise more, and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.”
3. COMPARISON JOKE
Three is also the basis of the comparison joke: Jasheway cites the late Robert Schimmel’s memoir Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included): “This stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps right back up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”
How to craft a comparison joke?
Jasheway: Brainstorm metaphors. Choose the funniest one that also makes the point well. For example, to convey that quitting smoking is difficult, list difficult actions: reading without your glasses, flossing a cat’s teeth, getting a teenager to tell you about his day. Then choose the comparison that makes you laugh: getting a teenaged cat to tell you about its day while flossing its teeth.
4. CLICHÉ JOKE
Misdirect with a phrase readers already know: “How to succeed in business …” The reader assumes the phrase will finish with “… without really trying.”
Now take the cliché somewhere surprising: Lyla Blake Ward’s book titled How to Succeed at Aging Without Really Dying.
5. FUNNY ANECDOTES
Readers laugh at everyday happenings: Your Money or Your Life authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin told of a girl who watched Mother prepare a ham for the oven. Mother cut off both ends of the ham. Why, the daughter asked. Mother replied that her mother had always done it that way. But why, the daughter insisted? Mother finally called Grandma. “Because her pan was too small.”
Google dark comedy films, and you’ll find Fargo, American Psycho, Fight Club and Pulp Fiction. The Godfather of Darkness is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb.
TV shows with gallows humor? After Life, Dead to Me, Barry. Two recent classics: Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
Search Amazon for dark comedy novels. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl, a thrilling mix of dark writing, satire and horror.
Black comedy is an art any writer can master. Well, any writer with a pre-existing sense of humor. And it helps if that alleged sense of humor is preternaturally dark, twisted, and teeters toward ridiculous.
To get started, understand the structure of a black comedy, said Luke Edley, a humor fiction writer and poet who is fond of satire and comic novels. His rules:
1. Pick an unsettling topic
“Death is one of the most enduring, of course, given how it looms large over much of society’s deeper fears about their own mortality.”
Dying – which might not be forever – invokes nervous laughter. Think Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland. Shawn of the Dead.
Any violent subject is deliciously ripe for dark-comedy treatment:
Murder (Throw Mama from the Train), terrorism (Four Lions), physical abuse (I, Tonya), suicide (M.A.S.H.), drug use (any Cheech and Chong movie). Even racism (Get Out). Even crucifixion (The Life of Brian).
“But what unites each topic,” Edley wrote, “is this sense that they should make the reader nervous or anxious in some way.”
Think about what worries you most. Peeing your pants in church? You – yes, you too – have trivialized a lovely starting point for a comedic novel.
2. Play with morality
“Much humour can be found in how people do the wrong thing for the right reasons,” Edley wrote. Or the wrong reasons.
Characters are humanly imperfect, and therefore incapable of a proper sense of propriety. So propose what would happen if you made fun of prison rape (Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy), or facing Ted Danson at the pearly gates (The Good Place). Then watch your characters wrestle with darkly amusing moral dilemmas. The deeper the writer stoops, the more humor naturally arises among the characters.
3. Revel in failure
Black humor should play out like a tragic comedy, Edley wrote. That seems to be a Coen brothers recipe. What if three prisoners escaped from their chain gang, but recorded a hit record? Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? What if a carpet was stolen from a dope-smoking Dude who shares his name with a millionaire? The Big Lebowski.
And dark but not so comic – what if a man finds two million dollars in a drug deal gone bad, but the drug cartel hires a remorseless ghoul to bring back the money – and kill everyone in his path? No Country for Old Men. Every character is a little pathetic, and that’s part of the tone set by the Coen brothers.
Writers, Edley suggested, should giddily heap misery on their characters. “Make your characters fail big, fail hard, and fail often. Life beats them down, but always gives them a slither of hope.” So they can try again. There’s something despairingly funny about fruitlessly trying again and again. Ask Wile E. Coyote.
4. Toy with futility
Black comedies flirt with pointlessness and futility. Sergio Leone nailed gallows humor with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood would capture the bad guy, collect a $2,000 reward, and the county sheriff would place a noose around Eli Wallach’s neck. The Good – who was never a good guy – would ride out of town and shoot the rope from a distance, pick up the Bad, and they’d run the same scam on the next sheriff. Except that the Man with No Name would occasionally play an infuriating prank – he’d miss, and Eli Wallach would actually hang for a few seconds. Ain’t nihilism wonderful?
5. Embrace fatalism
Characters have no control over events. They’re feckless. They used to have feck, but they lost it. That’s Nick Dunn in Gone Girl. His wife thought Nick didn’t love her quite enough, so Amy Dunn maliciously staged an abduction scene in her living room so that Nick would become the principal suspect. She watched TV news coverage from afar. Nick squirmed until this mischievous brat came back and rescued him. Now he would pay more attention to her. Now he would love her more. Now he would willingly become her pet monkey. And that, my friends, is dark comedy: when your wife or your husband watches you squirm until you get arrested for murder.
What if single people morphed into animals?
The darkest script in recent memory is The Lobster. In the dystopian world of the future, being single is actually criminal – which is not much different than today, right. A romantic breakup would thrust ex-wives and ex-husbands into the outer darkness of society. Single people would have 45 days to get married, or they’re turned into an animal.
Danny Binder video blogged about The Lobster: “The opening scene sets the entire tone of the film.” A woman with a revolver steps into a pasture and shoots a donkey. It falls over. The donkey had been her cheating husband.
No words are spoken, but the audience knows this is a darkly humorous situation. The tone is consistently morbidly funny and tragic. “It’s making me uncomfortable, and I like it,” Binder said.
In the next scene, a woman in a white dress jumps to her death. However, since her hotel room is just one story high, she isn’t dead, just hideously disabled.
The wide shot of an outdoor dining area next door shows two sets of couples. They notice the wailing woman, but are unaffected and remain in their own bubble.
Colin Farrell’s character and a seated woman can hear the injured woman. David’s facial expression appears disturbed, but his voice is indifferent. David tries to impress her by saying awful things about the crying woman.
DAVID: What happened?
SEATED WOMAN: A woman tried to jump from Room 180. There’s blood and biscuits everywhere. I hope she suffers quite a bit before she dies. Her pathetic screams could be heard from my room.
DAVID: I was playing golf, and I’m quite tired. The last thing I need is a woman dying, slowly and loudly. I can’t hear you, with all the screaming. We’ll talk some other time, when it’s quieter.
“Blood and biscuits everywhere.” See the humorous effect of mixing tragic with trivial? Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou use the same technique in another scene: Three waiters punish John C. Reilly’s character by sticking his hand into a toaster. His skin glows red. Reilly screams in pain.
It’s slapstick. That’s why people laughed at the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.
“It’s inhuman, it’s mean, yet it’s quirky,” Binder said. “Which is weird, dark and – at least to me – funny.”
To pull off an unaffected tone, the movie needed emotionless, deadpan actors who can still be funny. Not so hard to demonstrate in a movie, but harder on the pages of a novel where readers can’t see the actor’s faces.
Like the characters, the location itself is an emotionless character. It is drab. It is damp. It is not a place to vacation. Wide shots show an empty landscape, and how alone and sad the characters are.
In a fourth scene, David is introduced to a tween girl, who is told to kiss him on the cheek. David says, “The last thing I want now is a kiss from a silly little girl.” Her face shows sadness from his rejection. Then David kicks her. The preteen doubles over in pain Horrible, but inexplicably funny.