Dark humour: Is it okay to joke about that?

Personally I find dark humour hilariously funny, although there are some jokes that I have come across which are quite frankly, way below the belt. So recently after coming across one of those so called “jokes” on whatsapp, I started to wonder about dark humour, also known as black, off-colour and crude humour. In a bid to gain better literary insight on the concept, I decided to do some research to discover what dark humour is all about and why most people either find it hilariously funny or get offended at the mere thought of it.

So what is dark humour?

According to Wikipedia dark humour is understood as “comic work that employs farce and morbid humour, which, in its simplest form, is humour that makes light of subject matter usually considered taboo”. The long and short of it, is that dark humour makes joke of things meant to be serious subject matters. When it comes to dark humour, no topic is off limit. From morbid deathly imagery to sexual innuendos, everything is up for discussion. Even with this, dark humour is still largely controversial in many parts of the world. I mean as recently as 1964, a comedian called Lenny Bruce was imprisoned for obscenity after performing a comedy show that made use of “off colour” humour. In India for instance, dark humour of a sexual nature is referred to “non-veg” jokes, in contrast to jokes considered more politically correct which are called “vegs” jokes. The terminology originates from the popular vegetarian and non-vegetarian dietary preferences in the country.

Where did dark humour come from?

I decided to trace the origins of dark humour (being the nerdy geek that I am), which led me to ancient Greece where dark humour was used as a form of comedy, (probably because they didn’t have TV shows like Being Mary Jane to keep them glued, but that’s by the way). In the 16th century, William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet was also known for his use of dark humour to make jest and in a way shed light on serious social issues. In more recent times, American comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle used dark humour to criticise and draw attention to social problems such as racism and censorship. The satirical animation, South Park has become “popularly infamous” for its use of sometimes offensive humour, which seems to tickle the fancy of its audience. The British are also quite renowned for their use of dark humour which serves to make jest of taboo topics, and as a reaction “against political correctness” (or in my opinion as a way to help deal with the bitterly cold weather).

Is dark humour socially acceptable today?

Whether we like it or not, dark humour is here to stay. We have all been victims of a bad joke or two, told at our expense leaving us feeling embarrassed, bewildered or even annoyed. While many of us seldom gain a euphoric feeling from being at the receiving end of such “jokes”, sometimes when told within the right setting (and to the right person) they do carry a strong political and social message. The famous cartoonist Zapiro, is well known for his drawings that criticise the policies of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and with it, carries an important message about the abuse of power and respect for the rule of law in South Africa. Comedians such as; Trevor Noah, Kevin Hart and Russell Peters, (the list goes on and on) also use dark humour to raise awareness about social issues, be it race, sub-culture or even politics. Dark humour is also used as a “defence mechanism” to protect emotions and feelings (I am sure you know that person who makes fun of his weight even before you make a comment, almost to say let’s get that out of the way). And lastly, dark humour is often used to calm tension or potentially volatile situations (you know the ice-breaker joke that MCs use to make everyone feel comfortable? Yeah that’s what I mean). So in such settings, dark humour isn’t all that bad.

But in certain societies, dark humour is not received with humorous gusto in fact it is vehemently rejected and sometimes translated into violent acts against the “perpetrators” or those who support them. The recent attack on the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was an apparent act of reprisal against the magazine, for previous satirical cartoon publications of the prophet Mohammed. In Copenhagen the controversial Swedish artist Lars Vilks—who depicted a defaced image of the prophet Mohammed, narrowly avoided another assassination attempt on his life, when the cafe he was holding a meeting on free speech was attacked by a gun man. These are all examples of extreme reactions against the use dark humour. These incidences have also sparked fierce media debate on the respect for religion versus freedom of speech, both of which are constitutionally recognised rights in many parts of the world.

A few last words

As I write the concluding part of this piece, I am forced to reflect on my own experience with dark humour. I acknowledge that there is a thin line to cross. My hope is that I will maintain my sense of humour but at the same time, not become oblivious of the far-reaching effects dark humour has on society. I hope that my mind will be open to learn, even when it is “an inconvenient truth”.

PHOTO CREDIT: Osama Dark humour

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