Black Humour: The Comedy Tool That’s Too Hot To Use

The Arts


US comic Kathy Griffin got herself into hot water after holding up the severed head of Trump in a video post.  CNN fired her and she broke down in tears. The Daily Mail, that fine source of good taste, squealed like a stuck pig about her ‘offensiveness’, and Griffin promptly apologised for her appalling lack of taste in making fun of a president who makes jokes about women’s periods, ‘pussy grabbing’ and handicapped people.

So where did Kathy go wrong? Timing, clearly, and a problem with context. The shot was taken by a shock-jock photographer who photographs women chainsawing handbags and so on, and it’s clear that he did not root the idea in a specific vein of humour. As Steve Martin said; ‘Try to have a point.’ It gets the tone wrong; those black-red blood streaks and the imitation of a Jihadist pose give out signals that are merely unpleasant. Black humour and bad taste rely heavily on wit and tone to carry the day, and there’s nothing actual witty about the image.

National Lampoon’s notorious ‘Buy this magazine or we shoot the dog’ cover was a classic. Its follow-up the next month, the dog in a bin bag, was not funny. Tone and context count (the shot wasn’t retouched; the dog happened to look around).


Finding the right political tone is tougher still. In the film ‘Brazil’, a woman’s husband is taken away by jobsworth government employees to be tortured and killed. The scene is heartbreaking and hilarious, but director Terry Gilliam had managed to practice it much earlier in a Monty Python scene called ‘The Gas Cooker Sketch’, in which jobsworth gas board men casually cause a death. Gilliam was able to perfect the tone first.

‘House of Cards’ is struggling to find a way of reflecting the Trump regime because it assumes the normal rules of engagement are still governing politics, but of course they’re not. There is no precedent for this president, who just today took credit for isolating Qatar, while forgetting that the country harbours a strategic US base and finances many of its colleges.

TV STILL -- DO NOT PURGE -- House of Cards - Season 3 Key Art, Netflix

Is it just a matter of getting the tone right? If we go back to the 18th century we find astounding scatalogical humour about politicians; Vic Gatrell wrote about it in the superb ‘City of Laughter’, pointing out that Horace Walpole lamented about the jokers: ‘When they attempt humour, it is by making a drunkard vomit.  They take evacuations for jokes, and when they make us sick, they think they make us laugh.’

But black humour, scatology, satire and bad taste do make us laugh, of course. The  context must set an idea in the reader/viewer’s head because without it they won’t know what to think. Is it okay to laugh? The presidential satire ‘First Family’ was a brilliantly offensive film and very funny, but it arrived at exactly the wrong moment in history, and flopped.

Clearly we have allowed religious humour to become a no-go zone. Another Lampoon cover, its SF issue from the 1970s, passed largely unnoticed, but would now have trouble being printed.


With hindsight we can now see that the West’s unthinking acceptance of Islamic extremists and apologists was disastrous. In my neighbourhood, hate preacher Abu Hamza (seen here with the world’s most sinister sidekicks) was holding public court and for a long time the press regarded him as merely eccentric. This year the government took the unusual step of removing his eldest son’s British passport, since it is hard to take Sufiyan Mustafa’s claim that he is fighting with rebels at face value.


The subject of radicalism has become a no-go zone for virtually everyone since the bombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices, the idea being that lives could be endangered by treating a subject lightly. During WWII it’s notable that most fascism parodies were made by those in overseas countries. However, the ever-edgy Chris Morris managed to make fun of terrorism with the film ‘Four Lions’.

As the taken-no-prisoners British humour of the last two centuries altered, the satire boom peaked and burst and the list of no-go subjects grew, turning modern comedy into a minefield that only left open a path of sexual and scatalogical humour on inward-turned subjects like careers and relationships. It’s notable that to date there have been surprisingly few populist attacks on Trump in the UK. Complicating the issue is the Milennial effect; an over-sensitivity to language that prevents a host of hot-button topics from being mentioned and accurately named.

There’s also a general sense that life is rapidly descending into a level ‘beyond parody’ – which makes me wonder how there can be any risk-taking comedy left that extends beyond an SNL skit. It’s generally considered that the ‘too soon’ rule applies to comedy, which must only make fun of past events. Again, the Lampoon once shocked by breaking this rule repeatedly, running Vietnam satires at the time that events were still unfolding.

Perhaps we’ll have to wait a few years for a true overview of these strange times. The fun has only just begun.


4 comments on “Black Humour: The Comedy Tool That’s Too Hot To Use”

  1. Crprod says:

    I have seen complaints that images of Trump and Clinton as Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa are widely reproduced and available for sale. The one that I saw online made Trump Peseus appear to have a broken neck. Nothing much has been said about this. The GOP reaction to Kathy Griffin confirms the opinion that they can dish out lots and take nothing, which make be added as a corollary to Cleeck’s Law.

  2. Ian Mason says:

    Don’t forget M*A*S*H that, although it was strictly speaking a satire on the Korean War, ran during the last few years of the Vietnam war and, certainly as far as I thought at the time, was more satire on the Vietnam war than on the Korean.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Didn’t Dario Fo say something along the lines of ‘to suppress satire is to kill a society’.

  4. keith page says:

    Bad taste humour? see my blog post

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