A black comedy is a film that deliberately uses humor to address controversial or taboo subjects. This type of film uses sarcastic or sardonic dialogue to dispel some of the audience’s preconceived notions about how a taboo subject should be handled. Many people would consider certain subjects or themes to be too taboo or morbid to be the basis of a traditional comedic film. Warfare’s realities, for example, lend themselves well to documentaries or serious dramatic films. Full Metal Jacket, directed Stanley Kubrick, and M*A*S*H*, directed Robert Altman, both treat the subject of war with unmistakably dark humor. For example, the protagonist in Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket spends much of the film muttering sarcastic observations as the horrors of war unfold around him.
The tone of a black comedy does not always have to be heavy or morbid. Occasionally, the humor comes from characters who are essentially straightforward but are placed in traditionally bleak or controversial situations. Outsiders, such as the audience, may have no idea that the characters’ occupations or lifestyles are morally or ethically questionable. Sunshine Cleaners, for example, is about two women who start their own crime scene cleaning service, which juxtaposes gruesome crime scene imagery with the upbeat pursuit of the American dream. A black comedy typically does not shy away from its darker subject matter, but instead presents certain aspects of it in a comedic or satirical light.
Because morbid or dark humor can be a highly subjective form of comedy, producers and directors of these films must decide whether a scene crosses the line into acceptable territory. Because a typical black comedy’s target audience is not typically mainstream, the creators can, and frequently do, push the envelope when it comes to shocking or controversial sequences. For example, a black comedy about the Korean War might include graphic battlefield or operating room scenes, but the filmmakers must decide whether the comedic elements are strong enough to counteract the more dramatic or controversial sequences. A successful black comedy should still be seen as a comedy the audience, rather than a drama with a few dark moments.
Many film critics consider Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining to be one of the best black comedies ever made. A mentally ill military officer refuses to recall a squadron of American bombers mistakenly ordered to drop atomic bombs on Russia in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dark comedy sequences are based on the efforts of various diplomats and military officers to prevent total global annihilation. Despite the fact that the film’s subject matter, the dangers of nuclear warfare, would not normally lend itself to comedy, Kubrick and actor Peter Sellers manage to keep the film’s darkly comedic tone through brilliant dialogue and over-the-top character roles. A black comedy differs from more traditional comedies in that it strikes a balance between comedy and pathos.