At the end of Monty Python’s 1979 classic Life of Brian, in which a Jewish man is mistaken for the Messiah, a potentially upsetting mass crucifixion scene takes an oddly optimistic and light-hearted turn when the sufferers break into song, joyfully encouraging each other to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. This is a prime example of black comedy, or dark comedy – a cinematic genre that takes taboo subjects and views them through a comical lens – and it’s a genre I can’t get enough of.
That isn’t to say the genre is free of controversy, however. Life of Brian’s satirical take on religion caused several protest groups to accuse it of blasphemy, leading to its ban from cinemas across the UK and even entire countries such as Ireland and Norway. Despite the odds, it became the fourth-highest grossing film in the UK that year, and is known today as one of the greatest comedies of all time. So how could a film seemingly overburdened with controversy pull that off?
‘Black Comedy spurs debate and catalyses conversation, leading many to realise that it’s okay to talk about uncomfortable topics, and that doing so is the only way we can progress as a society’
Whilst comedy is inherently subjective, there is something about black comedy that seem to bring people together by encouraging them to find the humour in serious subject matter like violence, religion or race. This light-hearted take spurs debate and catalyses conversation on these matters, leading many to realise that it’s okay to talk about uncomfortable topics, and that doing so is the only way we can progress as a society.
I also find the black comedy genre to be one of the most unique sub-sections of film out there through its ability to point out the ridiculousness of life through satire and exaggeration. The business card scene in American Psycho perfectly encapsulates this through the main character, Patrick Bateman, and his obsession with comparing the quality of his card with his co-workers’ cards (“…oh my god, it even has a watermark,” his inner voice enviously states), heightened by the ominous, swooshing sound of wind whenever someone pulls out a superior card. The scene is a great satirical take on Wall Street vanity and superficiality, and climaxes when Bateman’s feeling of inferiority due to his colleagues’ better quality cards leads him to murder a homeless man and his dog.
Making your protagonist a serial killer whose motives are largely based on pride is a hilarious exaggeration of the stereotypical narcissism of rich investment bankers, and similar exaggeration-based recipes are used by several black comedy films to critique societal standards and norms. The Cabin in the Woods highlights the overuse of classic horror movie tropes and the mechanical nature of their plots, whilst Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove pokes fun at the irrationality of Cold War politics and ineptness of world leaders, released at a time of great tension for fear of a possible nuclear war.
All things considered, black comedy filmmakers and their ability to use such delicate subject matter and craft witty, insightful stories with deep meaning to them is commendable. In a time when censorship and restrictions to free speech in order to be inoffensive seem to be on the rise, the black comedy genre serves as a reminder that the darkest, most controversial parts of life can sometimes be understood better through humour.