Given recent political events, the film The Death of Stalin has been very much in the public mind. It’s a particularly brilliant black comedy, courtesy of Armando Ianucci, who is also responsible for other ingenious, politically-premised black comedies such as the film In the Loop and the TV series Veep and The Thick of It, as well as the sci-fi-inflected Avenue 5, which takes on the imaginable absurdities of luxury-liner space travel (should such a ghastly thing ever come to pass).
It may be that current events—characterized by an overwhelming sense that something fundamental has gone very wrong, with blame often placed on failing institutions—make black comedy a particularly apt genre for the moment. But what is it, exactly?
It’s been my experience that black comedy is a genre often defined more by “I know it when I see it” than any reliable set of conventions or guidelines. And yet I find that what most people think of as black comedy is anything that is darkly comic—including farce and satire as well as much of noir and hard-boiled crime that possesses a tinge of black humor—which is woefully imprecise, especially for writers.
For example, though the Catholic Herald deemed John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary a “jet black comedy,” I think the following discussion will reveal it’s not at all. (I will return to it below.) Rather, it’s a poignant drama laced with bleak Irish wit.
Genres serve a purpose. They establish certain conventions the writer and reader/audience both recognize as the rules of the highway—with the understanding that often the best part of the journey happens off-road. And some byways, existing in a no man’s land claimed by two or more genres, often provide the most surprising jaunts of all.
That said, I thought I’d use this month’s post to try to clear up some of the definitional confusion surrounding black comedy, since it may well be that it becomes a genre of not just current but continuing appeal, and some of us may want to try our hand at it. (I’m doing so in my current WIP, for example, depicting a dystopian future in terms of the oppressive systems that survived the great crisis.) If so, it’s best we learn a few of the aforementioned rules of the road.
A good working definition of the genre can be found in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. [Read more…]