Jeers of a Clown: Exploring the Balancing Act of Black Humor Writing

This entry originally appeared on Adrienne Jones’s website.

Jeers of a Clown: Exploring the Balancing Act of Black Humor Writing

By Adrienne Jones

Back in college, a bunch of us got called into the dorm lounge one day to receive some bad news—one of our dorm mates had attempted suicide. He was fine, they were able to save him, but he wouldn’t be coming back to school. A terrible thing, of course. We all sat mournful and appropriately shocked at the news. Then my buddy Al asked the dorm director how this kid had…you know, done it. Turns out he’d taken an overdose of Sudafed.

I went into one of those inappropriate snicker fits, the kind that happen in church or in a meeting with your boss, where laughter is the worst option. I was weakened by it, sliding off the chair, unable to stop while the others stared on in horror, like I was a monster. Come ON! The guy tried to dry his sinuses to death.

Since I started publishing fiction, my brand of humor as been repeatedly called “dark” or “black,” which recently led to pondering the source. Does a dark sense of humor come from the viewpoint of an author, or does the world regularly present us with these scenarios that only a certain personality type recognizes as humorous? Is it the same thing? And where do we draw the line between dark humor and a simple lack of taste?

The late Roald Dahl considered this endlessly, as evidenced in this quote: “If a bucket of paint falls on a man’s head, that’s funny. If the bucket fractures his skull at the same time and kills him, that’s not funny, it’s tragic. And yet if a man falls into a sausage machine and is sold in the shop at so much a pound, that’s funny. It’s also tragic. So why is it funny? I don’t know, but what I do know is that somewhere within this very difficult area lies the secret of all black comedy.”

I think most will agree that Roald Dahl found that balance in his own work. I wonder if his was based purely on speculations, or if he too felt plagued with darkly humorous scenarios thrust before him in daily life. This reminds me of another incident that happened while I was skiing with a group of friends at Killington Mountain. We spotted a man with no arms, expertly swishing down a mogul field, and thought, “Wow. That is incredible.” There was nothing funny about it. We certainly weren’t juvenile and callous enough to laugh at a no-armed skier. We looked on in awe and admiration of his courage.

Yet two hours later we spotted the same man in the ski lodge, casually watching the television as he had lunch with a companion. My friend nudged me and signaled to the TV screen, on which played out the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The knight continued to fight King Arthur even as both his arms had been hacked off by Arthur’s sword, jumping and kicking as fake blood gushed dramatically from his stumps. Dear God, I thought, why are you doing this to me? I mean, what are the odds of watching a no-armed man watching a comedy scene about a no-armed man? I don’t want to laugh at the no-armed skier! The universe is NOT playing fair.

There is a certain safety in laughing at such things in the realm of entertainment, and it would stand to reason that suspension of disbelief or the fiction buffer is the key. But there are just as many staunch haters of Monty Python’s brand of humor as there are fans. I’ve seen people come to blows over this topic. Which brings back the theory that dark humor is about viewpoint, in observer and creator alike.

Since I can’t dig up Roald Dahl and ask him, I participated in a discussion with some living writers of black humor about their life view and how it affects their writing. Author Aurelio O’Brien used to make his living on the big budget animated kiddie films, but crossed over to the dark side with his first novel Eve, a blackly humorous tale of genetic tampering gone awry in a dystopian future.

“For me, so much of life is observably funny and this automatically feeds my writing. When I was creating my all organic, genetically designed future, things like McDonald’s characters directly inspired me to go further than I might otherwise think to go…The little giggling McNuggets are really chunks of dead fowl flesh with cute little smiles carved into them. I find these kinds of things to be so twisted and humorous and odd. Most people don’t think about these characters beyond their surface appeal. So, when people tell me my Lick-n-Span© is gross, I think, is it really any grosser than having a hacked-up chicken giggle at you?”

I agree with O’Brien on this, most consumer icons are creepy. Like the Tidy Bowl man and Mr. Clean. Why is it always a little fantasy man helping the lonely housewife with her daily chores? Strange men coming up out of the floor and the toilet? And why does the housewife always keep them a secret from her husband? Notice the way Mr. Clean winks at her when hubby walks in? And what’s the actual purpose of that little hand guy from Hamburger Helper? What’s he really helping her with?

Speaking of sex and animation, most people know Gary K. Wolf as the creator of Disney’s Roger Rabbit, but he’s also a novelist, and one of the masters of dark humor. For Wolf, the humor definitely comes from a unique way of seeing the world, and is more second nature than calculated creativity.

“There’s something unfathomable about humor writers that compels them to look at a situation or a character, twist it, turn it, squeeze it, squash it until it’s a round peg that fits into a square hole and looks funny doing it,” says Wolf. “Good stand-up comedians have the same ability, taking everyday situations and making them funny. They do it verbally. Most of the humorous writers I know, me included, aren’t very funny in conversation. In fact, I’m so boring I could suck the laughs out of a hyena convention. However, give us a blank page and a pen, and we’ll have you in stitches. I’ve been applauded by editors, critics, and readers for the humor in my work. All well and good except they were talking about what I consider to be my serious work. What I’m saying is that there’s something perverse about the way I look at reality or, in the case of science fiction, unreality I see a situation, I make it funny. Can’t help it. Don’t do it intentionally. That’s just the way I write.”

Gary makes a good point here about stand-up comedians, which prompted me to speak with one of my favorite and darkest comedians, winner of the 2009 Boston Comedy Festival, Dave McDonough. Dave, who’s confessed to needing roughly 70 jokes written for a half-hour set, has a “serial killer on Valium” kind of delivery, and pushes the envelope with some wince-worthy jokes, but he’s booked solid most weeks, so the man has found his groove, and his audience.

“There is a balancing act but you can’t make everyone happy,” says McDonough. “I cross the line sometimes but that’s half the fun. I don’t have any material I draw the line at except Muslim jokes, because I need my head. I tell a Jesus Christ/abortion joke and a male-inmate rape joke that often get applause breaks, so there’s a way to make the darkest of topics palatable to the public. I’m nowhere near as dark or as crazy as the freak I play onstage, I’m really a positive, introverted person by nature who happens to believe that the world is coming to an end.”

So writers and entertainers alike seem to reiterate my previous theory, that black humor is a personality trait, an inherent point of view within the creative mind before the material ever reaches the page, or the stage. But in the spirit of point/counterpoint, I figured there had to be a dark humor writer who didn’t necessarily see the real world through gore-colored, Groucho Marx glasses. Someone calculating, a mere craftsman, crazy on the page but with a solid, normal worldview—author Jeff Strand.

If you’ve read Strand’s popular, horror/humor brand of fiction, you’re now scratching your head and saying, “Did she just call Jeff Strand normal?” Especially after reading excerpts like this one from his book Disposal, which shows off his talent for making gore and violence a casual affair.
“We’ll finish slicing up my husband’s body, then we’ll get rid of the chunks, then we’ll take a long shower, and then we’ll get some sleep–and no, you can’t spend the night–and then I’ll pay you.”

The reason I thought I’d get calculated normalcy from Jeff Strand obviously didn’t come from the content of his fiction. But having had many writing-craft related discussions with Strand, I always end up shaking my head at the logic he applies to the structure of writing, putting himself completely outside the whacky content in order to plot his scenes with almost mathematical precision. He’s like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, fixing the radio while everyone else is running around throwing coconut cream pies.

But I was wrong. While Strand recognizes more conventional logic about the crux of black humor, in the end he too opts for the warped theory.
“We’re living in dark times, and one theory is that because it’s difficult to cope with or even comprehend some of the horrors around us, we use them for comedic effect to help us better deal with them,” says Strand. “Which is a good theory. But at the same time, I think most of us are just sickos. The college student who creates an elaborate online animation of The Puppy Blender isn’t doing it as a defense mechanism. We’re all warped!”

Though like Roald Dahl, Jeff finds himself balancing that delicate line between humor and bad taste. “If I can come up with a genuinely funny angle that’s more than just ‘Oooh! Look how tasteless I can be!’ then my only off-limits material would be specific real-life people suffering tragedies. Cancer itself is acceptable. A real-life person dying of cancer is not. I wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to make something funnier just because of the uncomfortable subject matter—it would just have to be handled in a way that justified the material.”

And so ends the cage match, the popular vote going to the theory that black-humor writers have an inherently twisted perspective, a real-life view of the world that powers the motor for creating the dark funnies. Limitations are applied when putting pen to page, balancing the scales of humor and darkness to make the mix palatable for human consumption. If the mix is just right, the audience will laugh. Or at least some of them. Because as all humor is in the eye of the beholder, it’s inevitable that part of the population will always stare slack-jawed, horrified as you giggle maniacally at the boy who tried to dry his sinuses to death.

One comment on “Jeers of a Clown: Exploring the Balancing Act of Black Humor Writing

  1. Great article! 🙂

    At a Holiday Party two years ago, figure skating appeared on the television. One woman, the mother of one of my kid’s best friends (we used to talk), gasped during the portion where the male figure skater spins the female by the legs, her head missing the ice by inches. She remarked, “I get so nervous when they do tricks like that.” I agreed, and then pondered out loud: “How many ladies’ heads do you think he smashed like a Jack-o-lantern before perfecting that trick?” With a big smile.

    She immediately got up and left my presence, and has hardly spoken to me since.

    Part of my mind did eek out “Don’t go there.” before I said it, but the louder voice said: “I must.”

    A dark sense of humor can be a curse.

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