What Happened To Black Comedy?
Where and when did the idea of black comedy come into being, and what happened to this distinctive literary genre?
Let’s start by defining terminology.
Black comedy involves a work that makes light of serious, disturbing and possibly taboo subjects. It corresponds to the earlier concept of ‘gallows humour’ and is often controversial due to its subject matter.
The term comes from the French humour noir and was coined by André Breton in 1935 as a way of invoking laughter from a cynical or sceptical attitude to life and death.
Breton coined the term for his anthology of black humour, crediting Jonathan Swift as its originator. His book contained excerpts from 45 other writers. He included examples of comedy used to mock victims in which suffering is trivialised and outcomes are often grotesque.
I’ve heard black comedy described as the only appropriate response to the modern world. In our hyper-connected lives, contrasts and juxtapositions now jump out in sharp relief. Here’s an example:
In his documentary on the life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent forty years documenting deprived societies in hidden corners of the world, director Wim Wenders talks about an image of a blind peasant girl that has stood above his desk for many years. Does this mean her suffering has become aesthetically pleasing art?
I recently saw two posters side by side. One was for an exhibition of war reportage and photography. I went to the exhibition and found it unbearably painful, not just for the subject matter (refugees, orphans of war, modern slavery) but because of my uncomfortable reaction to the images. As well as learning about the context of each photograph I couldn’t help but judge them aesthetically. I didn’t want to or mean to.
The second poster I saw was for a London private members’ club advertising a morning aimed at the ‘ladies who lunch’. It was headed ‘Come to our Collagen & Caviar morning.’ Here are the two posters.
What possible response can the writer have to the juxtaposition of these images? It would be wrong to judge the club for advertising an event aimed at its core membership, and wrong to judge to photographer for documenting the pain of these children, but together they create a new response. This is what social anthropologist Adam Curtis calls ‘Oh Dearism’, when the only possible reaction from those outside a tragedy is ‘Oh Dear’. Or as Ben Hecht said through his character in ‘The Front Page’; ‘Remove the earthquake story and replace it with the penguin – it’s human interest.’
So, black comedy confronts the cult of Oh Dearism by shocking you. Bruce Jay Friedman, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pyncheon and Joseph Heller are all masters of the genre. Swiftian satire was always a powerful British response, from ‘That Was The Week That Was’ to ‘Spitting Image’, but has largely vanished now. Why?
Because the cult of personality – the so-called Me Generation – robbed satire of its political edge, and the political correctness of internet etiquette, in which someone screams ‘hater’ or ‘troll’ for voicing an opinion, has blunted violent reactions. The suspension of Ken Livingstone from the Labour Party for his only slightly flawed but poorly timed argument equating Hitler with Zionism is a classic example of overreaction. If the aphorism ‘I have no gun but I can spit’ withdraws the power to even spit, what are we left with?
Meanwhile, regular mainstream comedy became more venal (see elsewhere on this site for comparisons between the warm black comedy of ‘Vacation’ and its spiteful remake.) Black comedy requires the use of cruelty to cauterise and create catharsis, but it has to be carefully controlled. Could the sketch below be made now? I love the last line’s pun.
In Peter Nichols’ black comedy play ‘A Day In The Death of Joe Egg’, the main characters are parents tending to their severely handicapped daughter, treating her with what appears to be astounding cruelty, making fun of her in front of others, but it’s their way of coping, just as the author had to cope with his own daughter’s handicap.
There have been attempts at creating de-politicised black comedy for the Me Generation, but they tend to fail. Michael Haneke realised very clearly what he was doing when he made ‘Funny Games’, an almost unwatchably shocking film in its original European version, somewhat blunted in the inevitable Hollywood remake. This is black comedy at its farthest extreme, and one at least perfectly realised by the US marketing campaign, which cleverly painted a suffering Naomi Watts to look glamorous, thus confronting the aesthetic question posed at the start of this article.
Can we get back to a point where black comedy is once again used as a literary weapon? We’ll have to see if times change again. Certainly the very faint but real prospect of a President Trump or Prime Minister Corbyn will test writers and demand a return to the theatre of cruelty.