I think I know what you’re thinking. He’s just going to retell a bunch of Eddy Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson jokes from the 1970’s which his fuzzy old-coot memory will get wrong in slightly amusing ways. Or he’s got dementia now and has turned totally racist. Or both.
Well, maybe. I am old after all.
But, no. I am writing about that kind of humor where you laugh when someone in the story dies a horrible death in an unusually humorous way. Or most dead-baby jokes. Or the part of “The Producers” where “Springtime with Hitler” turns out to be a Broadway hit musical even though the two con men in charge were gambling on it being a failure.
Bad things can be funny, you know.
At least if you have a brain-damaged sense of humor like mine.
Kurt Vonnegut was a master of very dark black humor. In his novel, Cat’s Cradle, (Spoiler alert!) the world ends at the end of the novel because the mad scientist commits suicide by swallowing his invention, Ice Nine, freezing solid in a way that couldn’t be melted at room temperature or above, and then falling into the ocean, thus permanently freezing the entire planet Earth. Golly, what a laugh fest!
Black humor is, of course, highly dependent on dramatic irony and the fact that people smart enough to read and enjoy Vonnegut, usually are smart enough to realize if you read too much ironic humor you are not in danger of actually rusting from the brain outward.
I, of course, am a black humor aficionado of sorts. I thoroughly enjoyed all the torture, death, and deadly mistakes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder. Of course, I had a ridiculously hard time gaining access to the show which originally aired on the BBC and didn’t appear on American TV channels until our household gave up television to save money due to ever-rising cable costs.
Fortunately, during the yearlong imprisonment of the Covid pandemic, I discovered the entire series available on Hulu which is cheap enough to stream on my laptop. Only in excess of 500,000 people had to die for me to get the chance to binge on all the historical reiterations of this amazingly dark show full of humorous English demise and occasional accidental murder.
So, that is what black humor is to me. As defined by Professor Wilson at Iowa State when I was assigned to read a novel by Saul Bellow and ended up reading three, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and The Adventures of Augie March. Of course, I am not sure which novel was the assignment. They were all deadly hilarious. And I am, after all, old enough to probably be demented and a closet racist. Is Saul Bellow Jewish? I ask because I am also forgetful.