Laughspin analysis: When is it ok to laugh at dark comedy?

By | July 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm | 4 comments | News, Opinion | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

While it’s great that comedians are getting appreciated on America’s Got Talent, hearing Piers Morgan call J. Chris Newberg’s peformance “startlingly inappropriate” and Sharon Osbourne comment that his song was “just so, so wrong” is more than slightly obtuse (see video below). That’s not “wrong” at all. It’s not even close. Did Sharon forget about Black Sabbath and what they sang about?

Newberg has a line in the song, “Opening a disco in Alaska and calling it: Club… Baby Seals,” to which the children’s choir responds, “…that’s probably a bad idea.”

Sure, clubbing baby seals is a horrifying image, but in that line, the situation is ridiculously absurd, making the joke even more palatable to the family audience of America’s Got Talent. Also, several versions of that joke have been passed around for years to the point where that line shouldn’t be shocking anymore.

What then, exactly qualifies as “wrong” or “dark” comedy? What is appealing about dark comedy? Is it really wrong to laugh at touchy subjects like politics, religion, race– even rape?

As everyone brings their own perspective to watching comedy, obviously there’s no single answer. How about this sketch that involves two friends playing with a gun when things go horribly wrong?

Given how gory this sketch from Peter Atencio, Cale Hartmann and James Pumphrey is and how it would probably be only aired on FX late night, HBO or Showtime, I think this would definitely qualify as dark comedy. However, I’m sure there are plenty of people that would think this isn’t funny at all and is quite disturbing. Still, the situation of playing with a gun, having someone get shot, but then have the guy who gets shot still think “it’s cool” is a funny idea– and here it’s executed perfectly. The absurdity of it, despite how dark it is, has comedic potential.

Shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, South Park, and more constantly push the line of how dark they can get with their funny and have built a loyal following. With that being that case, whether it’s “wrong” to laugh at their commentary on normally taboo subjects or extremely graphic presentation of a simple message is a bit of a grey area. The initial short that acted as the spark for Sunny, which was hilariously pulled off, involved faking cancer. In one of the most hilarious episodes of the series that was based off of that, “Charlie Has Cancer,” Sunny pushes that idea even further when Dennis and Mac pretend to have polio. With comedy being the intention, I submit, what is so “wrong” about laughing at that?

Comedian on the rise, Ryan Stout repeatedly professes that comedy is a way to let out all those dark impulses in a safe environment. If you ever get a chance to catch Stout live and I highly recommend that you do, you’ll find that his act indeed delves into suicide, child molestation, and several unsavory subjects presented in a high brow, funny way. Check out his Conan appearance below.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik and his oft called “villainous persona” also falls into the same category. Both have been on Conan this year and tour the world performing stand-up as they have consistently made people laugh, proving, if anything, it’s right to laugh at something that’s “wrong” because of one simple fact: It’s funny.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where someone’s personal gauge on what’s dark comedy is. The responsibility of any person who is involved in comedy is to make it funny, no matter how family friendly or cringe-inducing it is. Just think of how many horrible puns or terrible topical jokes there are, which, to comedians especially, can be equally offensive for not being funny.

About the Author

Jake Kroeger

Jake Kroeger has dedicated his life, for better or probably worse, to comedy. Starting and continually running the Comedy Bureau, a voice for LA comedy, by himself, he also writes and performs stand-up comedy in LA and watches more live comedy than is probably humanly tolerable. He's been a daily contributor to Punchline Magazine, now because he loves and believes in comedy so much. Said of Kroeger, "...without his dangerously insane, unhealthy work ethic, certain comics would not have any press at all."

  • Tamar Whyte

    Very ironic twist that Cale Hartmann is mentioned in an article exploring dark comedy and the use of material drawn from rape and violence given the recent Instagram posts of bruised limbs and the cathartic dark rape inspired comedy routine of his ex Beth Stelling. She doesn’t mention Cale by name but says her ex warned her not to use their relationship as fodder because of being well known on the comedy circuit, and the negative impact it would have on his career. A commentator on Jezebel’s Facebook page identified him. Beth’s speaking out and using her experience within her work has won her support from fans and colleagues, but also drawn criticism from some people who feel she should report the crime through legal routes rather than the way she is currently handling it. I was thinking that the subject of ‘When is it ok to laugh at dark comedy?’ never more so applied here. Blog article here:

  • Tyler Meznarich

    Great article. I love performing dark comedy… and I don’t know if this is just because I’m a comic, but I will usually laugh more at disturbing premises. And I will even laugh louder when nobody else laughs. Guaranteed you say anything about rape, abortion, anything and I will laugh…

    But here’s my thoughts on why dark comedy doesn’t work on some people. Most people see laughter as a response. You say something, if it’s funny I laugh. But some people see laughter as a reward. That me laughing at you somehow empowers you and puts me on your side. No matter how funny your drunk Jesus joke is, those old-fashioned church ladies refuse to reward you with their laughs.

    By the way, Piers Morgan, you know what is really wildly inappropriate? You hacking into people’s personal phones. 

  • Cameron_durkin

    Anything is funny unless it isn’t funny.

  • Phil Johnson

    And it’s just another reason why comedians don’t belong on those type of shows.  If Piers Morgan find that song offensive, then I’ve got a couple that will make him poo a hornet’s nest of hatred.  There’s the constant battle in any venue of figuring out where the audience’s “edge” is and taking them there.  And when you’re dealing with an audience that big and mainstream, plus 3 judges, there’s no way you can win.

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