Let me set the stage for you: It is the early 2000s, a nice restaurant in New York City’s West Village. My date says, “No one gets my humor. It’s black humor.”
We were breaking up, and I was actually kind of heartbroken (the guy was a dead ringer for Clark Kent, OK?), so I didn’t say anything. But in my head, I was like, “You don’t get to say that about yourself. That’s like saying, ‘Hey! This dress looks great on me.’ Other people say that about you. Oh, sure, you can say you think you’re a pretty funny guy, but even that has to come with a tiny bit of irony to it. Oh, you don’t know what irony is? This is so over, Clark.”
Obviously I did not say any of that. I was the one being dumped, anyway, and like I said, I had kind of liked Clark, or the idea of him, anyway. He wore cute bow ties entirely of his own volition and was an engineer and spat facts about New York City like he was a bottomless Pez dispenser and they were greased pieces of candy.
Since then, I haven’t really stopped thinking about what people think they mean when they say stuff like that. So I have built you a handy progressive chart of black humor for reference purposes. I come to you with some expertise: My debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I guess some people think I’m pretty funny. (See what I did there?)
First, a disclaimer. Writing humor can be hard. And sometimes you can get it wrong. (A nation full of depressed comics who can draw from a pit of stories about the times they flopped should be believed.) But don’t worry: This is what your beta readers or your editor are for. They will tell you when, to put it in the highly adept phrasing of novelist Camille Griep, who beta-read my novel for me, “things go clunk.”
And, oh, they will go clunk, like the day my friend Peggy, on our very first long-distance group bike ride together, slid out on a slick metal panel in the road, caused a five-bike pile up, and taco’ed her wheel, three miles after starting out. “Hey, Pegleg,” we said, “Good job getting that over with. It was bound to happen. Now you can be pretty sure it won’t happen again this entire ride.”
If you attempt something with the assumption you’ll screw up, you’ll feel pretty great when some stuff lands right.
Second, a definition: Black humor or comedy is what happens when you treat something that’s generally awful in a manner that evokes laughter, even if it’s the uneasy kind.
Third, another caveat. Some stuff will never be funny. Case in point: My aunt died of cancer last April, and her husband died of it in June. Six weeks later my dog was diagnosed with cancer. While we were at the doggie oncologist (yes, yes, we have one of those; I live in Southern California), I recounted this story to the receptionist and then said, “I was like, OK, life, you can stop now, it’s not funny anymore.” She gazed at me, let a beat go by, and said, “It was never funny.”
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So, yeah. Leave some stuff alone. (If you can picture someone saying, “Too soon,” after you drop the joke, leave it alone for about five years.)
OK. Now we can get to what you actually came here for: your handy black-humor chart. We start with the low-hanging fruit, and then get to the more sophisticated bits later on.
Fruit so low it is actually on the ground and has been picked at by fat, non-agile squirrels, or vulgar humor:
This is first on the list because it’s not quite black humor. It can go dark pretty quickly, like when Brianna from “Grace and Frankie” riffs on sex toys by way of commenting on her deep confusion over her dad’s newly-outed sexuality. But typically, it’s Adam Sandler stuff. Potty-humor stuff. This is the bodily function, nyah-nyah category of humor. No one who is over 12 will think this is funny when they see it in print.
Example: From Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade, a book I read at a terribly impressionable age: “Elsie was gross…Sharon said she should be in a circus, and Diane said she should be a garbage collector.”
Upshot: This kind of humor tends to be mean-spirited. If you can picture someone going, “Awww, that wasn’t necessary,” then you might have some low-hanging fruit.
Semi-low fruit, the stuff that may or may not still be OK to eat, or gallows humor:
This is the kind of stuff you say or write that necessitates a rueful scoff. It gets bandied around in hospitals on the graveyard shift. It’s usually the purview of categorically unhappy situations like death or terminal illness or things you will never be able to change about yourself. It is the humor you get out of tragedies.
Example: Yeah, my 2017 was a hum-dinger: two relatives’ funerals and a dead dog. Can’t wait to see what 2018 brings!
Upshot: This kind of humor tends to employ a heavy dose of sarcasm, and we see it often in reflection of one’s own terrible situations. It can work really effectively in the case of an unreliable narrator, or a first-person work, but it is highly subject to the “too soon” problem.
Further up the tree, things are looking healthier and shinier, or schadenfreude:
This is one of those beautiful German compound nouns. It literally means “harm-joy,” but what it means is joy derived from the harm or misfortune that others suffer. In other words, it’s laughing at someone else’s pain.
Which sounds terrible. But at some point in college, one of my professors pointed out that all humor is at someone else’s expense. Later, when I studied absurdism in a French class, it seemed unbelievable that something as abstract as absurdism could follow such a cut-and-dry rule, and yet. And yet.
Example: Oh, man. You should have seen Peggy’s crash. She flipped her bike, and landed right on her front, but she might as well have been on a Slip ‘n’ Slide – the road was so slick that she and her bike just plowed right through five other cyclists. They looked like a human bowling-pin set.
Upshot: This is really only funny if no one gets hurt. (It should not be confused with stuff you see in The Three Stooges, which is slapstick physical humor in which no one gets hurt but that really belongs closer to the low-hanging fruit category.) Schadenfreude works best if it serves some kind of intention that becomes obvious later in your work.
Highly desirable fruit, or comedy borne of a deeply ironic situation:
Sometimes, things are funny because they’re true. This is the stuff that comprises all the categories we’ve listed before, and employs them all to a tuneful end. This feels, in the end, like an ensemble of witty characters playing off each other, in a situation that’s ripe for their personalities to shine. It goes way beyond the old three-random-guys-walk-into-a-bar kind of funny. It’s Aaron Sorkin, crafting “West Wing.” Or Chris Buckley’s heartless tobacco lobbyist character, who gets himself into a pickle that ends with him covered with nicotine patches (Thank You for Smoking). When a writer introduces ironic situations, characters are forced to act out (if they’re not, they should be cut), and that can make for some really sharp humor.
Example: My gym takes itself very seriously: It offers a ton of classes for highly motivated people, and everything is “state of the art” with efficient-looking trainers in logoed shirts more or less ready to help you. But there’s a guy in my spin class I’m convinced is related to a Howler Monkey: He spends the bulk of spin class hooting, because he feels like he’s really pushing himself. Coincidentally, he also stares at himself in the mirror while he’s hooting. This guy does not quite comprehend that his totally juvenile behavior is transparent, and in direct contrast to the professionalism of our gym. He’s embarrassing himself, sure, but more important, his view of himself underscores the big gap between where he is and what he’s doing.
Upshot: Sometimes, the right situation is all you need to bring out some dark humor.
Also highly desirable fruit, or comedy borne of a deeply funny character.
This is what you get when you read a character who is so wry in his or her observations, that you just want to follow them along to see how he or she handles life. Life looks different when you have a genuinely entertaining person to show you how they view it.
Example: Jerry Lundegaard, obviously, of “Fargo.” More recently, you find it in Ken Pisani’s wonderful novel Amp’d, whose main character, Aaron, has just lost an arm after being sideswiped by an SUV. Aaron’s situation really sucks. But you want to get to know him because he’s funny from page 1, and not just because he’s on painkillers.
Upshot: Protagonists in stories are there for a reason. If you can craft one – or find one – that your readers will follow to the end of the work, then you probably have a winner.
Black humor or comedy is what happens when you treat something that’s generally awful in a manner that evokes laughter, even if it’s the uneasy kind.
You’ll notice that the further up the tree of desirable fruit we went, the more the success of dark humor depends on the characters populating the story. What we’re often talking about is funny people. The beauty of this is, you as the writer don’t have to be a naturally funny person. You might have to spend a significant amount of time studying the way funny people talk, and I don’t just mean standup comedians. I mean your funny friends who turn everything into a joke. Your Uncle Jerry-who-thinks-he’s funny. And yes, even Bowtie Guy, who’s convinced he has a black sense of humor that no one gets.
Because here’s the final thing about black humor: Everyone should at least be able to identify it, and access it. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
Yi Shun Lai is a novelist and editor. Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is available at booksellers everywhere. Find Yi Shun at tahomaliteraryreview.com, thegooddirt.org, and on Twitter @gooddirt.