Black Humour Is A Sign Of Intelligence

The Arts



That’s what a new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has found; intelligence plays a key role in the appreciation of black humour. A team of Viennese researchers discovered that a group with the highest sick humour appreciation and comprehension scored top marks in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests. They were better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood.

Which might tell us something about Mary Whitehouse. Older readers may recall that she was a schoolteacher who began an unlikely second career in the mid-1960s as a self-appointed, and much derided, guardian of British morals, endlessly campaigning against anything with a streak of black humour.

She tried to censor Dr Who, and sued the editor of Gay News for publishing a poem by bringing a private prosecution for the obscure law of blasphemous libel, the first in living memory. She’d have had a heart attack if she’d lived to see shows like ‘Skins’.

Black humour often has a psychological complexity absent in other forms of comedy, because it relies on a scepticism of received attitudes and a recognition of human foibles. André Breton’s anthology ‘Black Humour’ is a good starting place for readers seeking dark laughter, along with US films like  ‘Where’s Poppa?’ and ‘The Producers’.  Much British black comedy, like the show ‘Nighty Night’, was based at a personal, non-political level.

However, Europe has had a long history of political satire and dark humour.

Magazines like France’s venerable Le Canard Enchainé was founded in 1915 and is still going, although long past its heyday. The title, ‘A chained duck’, is a pun because a canard is also a newspaper. France has a long history of dark satire used as a weapon to defuse stupidity, cruelty and hatred. Its other magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has been the target of two terrorist attacks, in 2011 and 2015. In these cases, black humour is used as a tool to fight ignorance and lately, extremism.


The American magazine National Lampoon took a generally softer approach but still used black humour, sometimes to good effect. It ran out of steam when it was taken over by a Republican in the 1980s. Sadly, British Punch was killed off by Mohamed Al-Fayed, and we are left only with the rather dreary Private Eye. One of the problems in the UK is that black humour has so many other outlets that no magazine would be unique enough to survive in the current climate. Even the homeless magazine, The Big Issue, managed this recent cover, parodying the film poster for ‘They Live’.


What we need is the return of ‘Spitting Image’, an expensive TV show which was hugely popular in the 1980s, and managed to offend just about everyone. Yet it also made quite complex political arguments accessible to ordinary viewers, in the way that political cartoons in newspapers had done for centuries. And it had some catchy songs. Unfortunately this became controversial after somebody did kill an estate agent, Suzi Lamplugh, although the murder wasn’t associated with the show.

The appointment of Donald Trump suggests that after just one rollercoaster week of his presidency grassroots satire and black humour will return, as younger voters lose their obsession with self-image and engage in realpolitik for the first time. ‘I have no gun but I can spit’ said WH Auden – let’s hope for a return to engaged debate. But in the newly over-sensitised world of the Snowflake, is it possible?


5 comments on “Black Humour Is A Sign Of Intelligence”

  1. Roger says:

    “That’s what a new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has found; intelligence plays a key role in the appreciation of black humour.”
    …But is this an example of black humour?

  2. Ian Mason says:

    If a faculty for black humour is a marker for intelligence then the British police are much smarter than they’re given credit for.

    I think the death of Punch was more of a mercy killing; it had reached a nadir that I strongly suspect it could not climb back from.

  3. John Griffin says:

    Bizarrely, some months ago a sudden liking for slapstick humour was listed as an early sign of dementia, so a sense of humour going from Nighty Night to Bean may be a sign of intelligence heading for a disaster?

  4. admin says:

    Yes, a shame about Punch; I found the cartoons from the late 19th century to the 1920s really funny!


    After working for the police for ten years, I strongly suspect that dark humor is a survival mechanism. Intelligence may play a role, but the level of intelligence doesn’t have to be above average.

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