black humor

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a form of humor that regards human suffering as absurd rather than pitiable, or that considers human existence as ironic and pointless but somehow comic.
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Origin of black humor

First recorded in 1965–70
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does black humor mean?

Black humor is a kind of comedy that jokes about serious or depressing topics, such as hopelessness, suffering, or death.

The black in black humor refers to the dark or depressing subject matter that is central to such comedy. Similar terms are black comedy, dark humor, and gallows humor.

Sometimes black comedy is used as a way to point out or reflect on the absurdity of life—or, more specifically, of the dark aspects of life, like death and war. But like other comedy, sometimes it’s just used to get a laugh. Either way, it’s very popular in modern media.

Why is black humor important?

Here’s a funny joke for you: life is meaningless and humans exist in an uncaring universe. OK, as unfunny as that all sounds, people are able to find humor in the darkest things, and have been doing so for a long time. The term black humor is often credited to French surrealist André Breton, who used it in the title of his 1940 book Anthologie de l’humour noire (Anthology of Black Humor). By his own admission, Breton was not the creator of black humor and examples of this morbid style of comedy go at least as far back as the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes around 400 b.c. However, the term black humor didn’t become common until around the 1960s.

At its heart, black humor focuses on normally not-funny-at-all things, like the belief that existence is meaningless, the likelihood that humanity will destroy itself, or more personal tragedies, like death or illness. It uses these scary or depressing ideas as the punchline of jokes or somehow uses them as an element or premise of comedy.

Works often cited as classic examples of black humor include the novel Catch-22 (about the absurdity of war), the film Dr. Strangelove (a comedy that ends with nuclear destruction), and many of the skits of British sketch comedy group Monty Python. Some stand-up comedians are especially known for using black humor in their routines, often as a way to shock the audience into laughter. Of course, black humor also exists outside of books and movies—you probably have at least one friend with a pretty dark sense of humor.

Like all comedy, the delivery of such jokes varies, but what separates black humor from other forms of comedy is the subject matter: tragedy, suffering, and other topics usually considered taboo (off limits for discussion, let alone jokes). Joking about serious subject matter is not new, but it may be more popular than ever.

Did you know ... ?

Even cartoons can feature black humor. In the past, dark jokes were sometimes hidden in the background of family-friendly fare. Today, cartoons that feature black humor right up front (like the popular Rick and Morty) are more often for an adult audience.

What are real-life examples of black humor?

This clip from the cartoon Rick and Morty shows an example of a joke that relies on black humor:

What are some other words related to black humor?

Quiz yourself!

True or false?

Black humor isn’t really comedy because it focuses on dark topics.

How to use black humor in a sentence