Black Comedy Primer: 1

Reading & Writing, The Arts

I’ve always loved black comedies. The plays of Joe Orton and Peter Nichols, TV shows like the dark ‘Brittas Empire’ and the blacker-than-hell ‘Nighty Night’, and books like the ones above all work for me. There’s a fine line to getting it exactly right – ‘Lolita’ treads it perfectly – but when it’s good, it feels like an entirely appropriate antidote to the bleakness of the world.

Let’s start with Bob Klane.
His books kicked black comedy back into style with a mix of brash taboo-busting farce and very broad Jewish schtick. Born 1941, Klane has been described as ‘Max Schulman spiked heavily with the Marquis de Sade’, but also incited comparisons to Joseph Heller and J D Salinger. In his first novel, ‘The Horse Is Dead’, published in 1968, the hero Nemiroff works as a counselor at Camp Winituck, which looks ‘like a poorly run concentration camp’.

Nemiroff’s bullied childhood leaves him with a hatred of all children, and he soon declares war on his charges. By the time Parents’ Day and the titular dead horse arrive, most barriers of good taste have fallen. Klane’s prose is as blunt as a chucked brick. He has no time for niceties, and recognizes that the best dark comedy, like life, is painful, mean and short.

‘Where’s Poppa?’ (1970) may be the ultimate Jewish mother novel. Trapped at home with a senile parent, a dominated and sleep-deprived lawyer continually loses his cases and his girlfriends. His attempts to frighten his ancient mother to death must be nightly defeated by his guilt-laden brother, who runs a gauntlet of Central Park muggers in order to prevent matricide, and to halt the receipt of said mother into his own home. The film version, made with George Segal and Ruth Gordon, suffered a failure of nerve in the final furlong and avoided the novel’s brilliantly ghastly Oedipal outcome.

Klane’s third novel, ‘Fire Sale’, in which the owner of a failing department store plans to have it torched for the insurance by hiring an arson-prone mental patient to do the job, was filmed with Alan Arkin and Sid Caesar. The books are oddly endearing because they capture the sheer unfairness of life, particularly as it was lived in the early 1970s. Like great farceurs before him, Klane tackled sex, family, madness and death, roughly in that order.

Klane eventually made the switch into film and television, writing several episodes of ‘M*A*S*H’, an unproduced sequel to ‘Grease’ entitled ‘Greasier’, and making ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’, two mildly amusing films which, like Hitchcock’s ‘Trouble With Harry’ featured a deceased leading character. His books are now all out of print, but are worth picking up if you stumble across them.

We’ll look at more black humour later.

6 comments on “Black Comedy Primer: 1”

  1. The Brittas Empire, a black comedy? I hadn’t thought of it that way, even though, yes, Gordon Brittas’s indomitable spirit, cheery manners and insensitive blundering keep making everybody’s life miserable around him. But black… hmm. Gotta mull that one over.

  2. admin says:

    He drowns a bunch of born-again Christians in the swimming pool by electrocuting them, for Heaven’s sake!

  3. Helen Smith says:

    Thanks for the tip about Bob Klane’s books – I’ll look out for them.

    Nighty Night is one of my favourite TV shows. I loved The Brittas Empire, too – but I have never found anyone (except my daughter) who shared my enthusiam for it. Mind you, I have kept pretty quiet about it as I always thought of it as a sitcom.’Black comedy’ sounds much classier.

  4. There are some bits of black humour in TBE, no debate on that (my favourite occurs at the end of season 1, when Brittas is in the hospital and his manager convinces his wife that, in spite of everything, he’s basically a chap who means well. His wife sighs and plugs the life-support machine back in). I’m just wondering how many of these incidents, which happen sporadically, it really takes to make a comedy a black comedy.

    Yeah, yeah, I’m quibbling.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Isn’t black comedy the kind that makes you say ‘I shouldn’t laugh’ while you’re rolling on the floor with laughter? I don’t think it matters, though, because if it’s funny, it’s funny. We don’t label other types of comedy do we? (Oh, well, farce, I guess.)

  6. J. Folgard says:

    Thanks for all those titles & writers, I didn’t know half of them!

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