Dark Humour: It helps to understand

Sasha Gisborne describes what separates dark humour and being offensive.


When I say dark jokes are funny, I would like to make something clear. This is not a tirade about why hate crimes against ethnic minorities are funny, or why “free speech” makes rape “jokes” okay. This is about why it’s alright to laugh and joke about dark and unpleasant topics.

The question of why we laugh is impossible to answer; we don’t know. We don’t know what makes something funny to a person, or what purpose it has. What is known, how-ever, are the benefits. It is important for bonding and making friends. It helps people talk about unpleasant experiences. But most importantly (in my opinion), it’s fun. I really enjoy it when someone makes me laugh or getting someone else to laugh. Anyway, that’s enough on the benefits of humour. More importantly, there is a notion I want to discuss: that some topics are off the table to joke about, too serious, too unpleasant, or just too taboo. Personally, I disagree. I think as long as a joke isn’t punching down, attacking someone who can’t fight back, it’s okay.

Firstly, I would like to talk about the idea that it is wrong to “make light” of a serious or unpleasant situation. The idea is that by laughing or joking about something, you are showing a lack of respect for how serious it is, or not reacting appropriately. But sometimes it’s easier to talk about and deal with difficult subjects in a light-hearted manner than by being serious, heavy and making a big issue out of something that is most likely not that serious and is easily forgotten.  That’s not to say I don’t understand the complaint people have. If something is very upsetting to you, having someone else crack jokes about it is going to make you feel like your feelings aren’t being taken seriously.

However, to me, this seems like an issue of misunderstanding the point of a joke. By trying to be funny about a difficult situation you can cheer up the person feeling miserable, and make it seem less severe. Who hasn’t made a bad situation worse by overthinking the severity of it and imagining all the worst possible out-comes? Let’s face it, someone being mildly insensitive and cracking a few smiles generally makes things better in a difficult situation.

The second general belief is that certain topics are simply too serious or too unpleasant to be joked about. This really comes down to personal taste I suppose, but I find this idea difficult to swallow. It seems to me that what people really find uncomfortable is not the joking aspect but who the target of the joke is. Police brutality towards black Americans in the US is a serious issue. If you make a racist “joke” mocking the victims of police brutality, that is unpleasant and morally wrong. However, if you make a joke mocking the police who perform these acts of brutality, then you’re making fun of a powerful figure who abuses said power. It’s not that bad. The difference between a funny dark joke that is talking about a serious issue and just making an insensitive comment is whether or not you’re making fun of the person in power within the situation. The idea of “punching up” is one which actually funny people use, whereas “punching down” is more in the realm of racists.

Irony is the final concept which other people use to defend dark jokes and to be honest it is probably the most difficult defence. The idea is simple: someone makes a horrific comment, often designed to shock the audience into laughter, and what makes the comment funny is that no-one would actually believe or say in seriousness what was just said. The difficulty here is it only works when you have trust in your audience, when they know you don’t think or believe what you are saying. So, when a British comedian makes a joke saying that the solution to the US gun problem is more guns, because more guns obviously makes gun violence less likely, it is funny because you know they don’t actually think that. This generally works as a concept; the problem arises when people start making comments which express real and prevalent opinions and then defend them as ironic. Or just making disgusting and unpleasant statements which are defended as “jokes.”


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