There’s something about seeing a morbid situation played comedically out on the screen that makes you laugh, despite your intuition. This feeling comes from somewhere deep inside our psyche, where some weirdo part inside our brains that tells us that it’s OK to laugh when you watch something as dark and ominous as the last scene in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, where a nuclear bomb attack is impending, but ex-Nazi, Dr. Strangelove himself experiences a miracle when he gets up from his wheelchair and proclaims, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” just before a montage of nuclear explosions set to the a famous World War II era anthem, “We’ll Meet Again” ends the film. Dark comedies allow the audience to find humor in situations that are often dark and heavy enough that we would normally consider them off-limits or taboo to discuss in such a light manner. The most notable and influential dark comedy that has shaped the future for the sub-genre is Dr. Strangelove. Directed in 1964 by a master of so many different film genres, Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove is a dark, political satire about a U.S. Air Force general, Jack Ripper, who has gone off the deep end and believes that the Soviets have begun poisoning the American water supply, so he sends bombers to the U.S.S.R. without the consent of other political figures. It’s revealed that if the U.S.S.R. is bombed, then they have a “Doomsday Machine” that will detonate, killing everything on the planet. Peter Sellers brilliantly plays three different characters in the film who are trying to avert the impending nuclear destruction.
In Dr. Strangelove, and most dark comedies after, it’s the tone that distinguishes it from being just another drama. The concept of taking subject matter that would instinctively be thought of as serious and dramatic and using humor to make the subject lighter and more appealing to watch are the defining characteristics of a dark comedy. While Dr. Strangelove adds humor to a serious world threat, you can look at the film Heathers as a film that takes the subject of being a girl in high school and adds its dark humor by building an absurd universe where the main character gets caught up with a psychopath and accidentally dabbles in murder, all while juggling her frenemies. Dr. Strangelove laid the groundwork by allowing audiences to get used to the fact that no subject matter is off limits when it comes to dark comedy.
Dark comedies not only allow audiences to laugh at a situation that normally wouldn’t be a laughing matter, but they also heavily rely on social commentary and political satire for the humor. In Dr. Strangelove, one of the reasons we can laugh and identify with it at the same time is because during this Cold War era, nuclear war and the U.S.S.R were very real anxieties the American people had at that time. In the Cohen Brothers’ film, Burn After Reading, they take on the real threat (even more-so lately) of confidential information landing in the hands of the wrong people.
It seems that dark comedies are becoming the standard as far as comedies in the mainstream go. We’re seeing more of them released weekly, and they’re bringing in record-setting amounts of money. The 2013 film, This is the End, almost picks up where Dr. Strangelove ends, and looks at what happens after the world has ended—even though in This is the End the world was ended by The Rapture and had to be endured by comedians playing absurd versions of themselves. Even more recent, you can look to 2014 and the success of Birdman as another indication that the dark comedy lives on and has gained notoriety, critically as well as by audiences. Dark comedy gives the audience an escapist outlet to laugh at situations that they feel they normally wouldn’t be able to laugh at. I think we, as a mainstream audience, are realizing that sometimes comedy is the best type of therapy.
Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.