Richard Crouse: Taboo humour keeps audiences laughing in dark comedy Gringo
A recent study found people who laughed at dark jokes scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were more educated, scored lower on aggression and had better moods.
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We can all agree that serial killers, teenage suicide, alcoholism and unemployment are not laughing matters and yet films like Serial Mom, Heathers and Withnail & I mine those topics for giggles. They’re called dark comedies and unspool jokes about taboo subjects.
Slaughterhouse Five novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who knows a thing or two about finding the cheer in gloom, says dark comedy is about “small people being pushed this way and that way, enormous armies and plagues and so forth, and still hanging on in the face of hopelessness.”
To a certain extent his definition describes the plot of this weekend’s Gringo. David Oyelowo plays Harold, a hapless man who finds himself kidnapped, then on the run from everyone from drug lords to the DEA after a quick business trip to Mexico.
“I am somewhere in Mexico with a gun to my head!” Harold screams into the phone. “What a crybaby,” scoffs his hard-as-nails boss, played by Charlize Theron.
From slapstick to verbal humour, Gringo misses no opportunity to take a dire situation and wring out the laughs. It’s trickier than it seems. “Dark comedy is very difficult,” said Pierce Brosnan, who played up the gallows humour in the hitman farce The Matador. “You have to bring the audience in and push them away at the same time.”
You might imagine that audiences drawn to grim humour are very specific, that they’re angry or perhaps have negative attitudes — but a recent study from the Medical University of Vienna suggests otherwise. They found people who laughed at dark jokes scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were more educated, scored lower on aggression and had better moods.
If that sounds like you, here are some films that successfully navigate the light side of the dark side:
A Serious Man, involves two very bad weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnick, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. In an escalating series of events, his life is turned upside down.
Though billed as a comedy, this may be the bleakest movie the Coen Brothers have ever made. And remember these are the guys who once stuffed someone in a wood chipper on film. The story of a man who thought he did everything right, only to be jabbed in the eye by the fickle finger of fate is a tragiomedy that shows how ruthless real life can be.
Delicatessen is a high-voltage variation on Sweeney Todd, set in post-apocalyptic France where there is very little food and no meat; when people will eat almost anything — or anyone. It’s a dark and moody world worthy of any serious science-fiction movie that stylistically owes more to music videos and animator Tex Avery’s feverishly wild Bugs Bunny cartoons than to other post apocalyptic films.
At the same time it’s filled with belly laughs — especially for vegetarians.
What could be funnier than world annihilation? Coming just a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick’s comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’s story of an almost nuclear holocaust works so well because it is an exaggerated look at something that could actually happen. It’s a masterwork of dark comedy featuring one of the best lines in movie history: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”