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The Art of Dark Comedy


Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma” – Robin Williams

TV comedy has recently taken a dark turn. Out of IMDb’s top rated TV comedies of the 21st Century at least five of the top fifteen can be considered dark. Shameless (12), Big Mouth (11), What We Do in the Shadows (5), The Office U.S. (3), and Ted Lasso (1).

The Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso sits atop the leader board, and shows like Fleabag and BoJack Horseman are two of the few shows to hold a Rotten Tomatoes (one of the most popular TV and Movie rating sites) rating of 100%, it is clear that Dark Comedy is one of the most popular genres on TV right now.

So, what is Dark Comedy?

Dark Comedy, or Black Humour as it is also referred to, can be defined as – a performance having elements of both comedy and tragedy, often involving morbid satire of a personal or social nature.

This type of comedy is not a recent creation however, its roots can be traced back to the amphitheatres of ancient Greece. It rose to prominence in the eighteenth century with the “gallows humour” of Jonathan Swift and continued through to today.

Image: Fleabag / Amazon

Throughout its history, Dark Comedy has been seen and used as a way of making laughter and humour more human. The merging of comedy and personal issues such as grief, depression, debt, and physical illness has continued to allow people to realise that there is a light in any tunnel and if we find it, we can learn to bear life just a little better.

So, why now?

There is not a definite answer to this question. Some could put it down to the gradual increase in liberal attitudes and thus, the autonomy to create more freely. Others might put it down to the social and cultural climate of the present moment, never before has the average person been more in the dark about threats and dangers whilst being helpless to change them than in the twenty-first century.

This is exemplified by climate change, tech companies and multi-national corporations, natural disasters, terrorism, cybercrime, and the list could go on. Or maybe, people have a darker outlook on life than ever before, although this often seems true statistics suggest this is in fact not the case, and for the last half-century, happiness has remained predominantly the same, with a slight increase. Thus, the answer to “why now?” remains unclear.

However, what is clear and can in turn help us to answer the question of “why now” is the fact that it is not Dark Comedy that is new. Rather it is specifically Dark Comedy on TV.

TV turns to the dark side

Comedy, in popular culture, has long had a dark side. With films like A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Gremlins (1984). As well as often controversial stand-up comedians like Jethro and Andrew Dice Clay who, in 1989 was banned from MTV for reciting at the VMA’s what he called “adult nursery rhymes”.

Literature has also long had a dark side, as previously stated, it truly came to fruition with the gallows humour of Jonathan Swift. In more recent history writers like Kurt Vonnegut and later Chuck Palahniuk have continued to push the dark boundaries of comedy, the latter of which stated that the dark and often grotesque nature of his novels was an attempt to identify with the inner most recesses of the reader. Thus, everyone can realise that they are not alone.

Gremlins (1984)

TV, however, has been slower off the mark on the dark track. Idealistic sitcoms have long since dominated the popularity charts on TV. Shows like Cheers, which Rolling Stone puts at first in the readers’ poll of best TV shows of the ‘80s, continually depicted an idyllic rose-tinted comedy of modern life. As we have got deeper into the twenty-first century this tide has in fact changed, making way for the murkier waters of Dark Comedy.

This is due in large part to the increase in creative freedom for the creative minds behind TV shows. The increase in the sheer volume of shows produced, due to a vast number of available channels making more room for shows, as well as subscription sites like Netflix removing the scheduling barrier entirely, has meant that show production is no longer constrained into squeezing the “perfect” episode into an hour slot minus the never-ending advert breaks.

The freedom this affords writers, directors, and producers is considerable and has allowed brilliant creative minds like Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) to bring a harsher, more dark side to the humour on TV.

In doing so, these creators have shown what is an arguably more realistic comedy, one that asks the big existential questions and one that allows people to bare the darker side of life through what may initially seem like a “sick” or “tasteless” joke.

This is what comedy has always done, helped people to alleviate the emotional weight that life so often brings. In doing so people live life with just a little more happiness, joy, and laughter.

Just as Charlie Chaplin famously said “A day without laughter is a day wasted”, it matters not where the laughter comes from.

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