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BURY, BURN OR DUMP:

BLACK HUMOUR IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY

KRISTEN A. MURRAY

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements


for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

University of New South Wales


School of Media, Theatre & Film and School of Sociology
Sydney, NSW, Australia

September 2007

Abstract

In humour studies research, there have been few attempts to elucidate why black humour was
such a prevalent, powerful force in late twentieth century culture and why it continues to make a
profound impression in the new millennium. As Dana Polan (1991) laments: Rarely have there
been attempts to offer material, historically specific explanations of particular manifestations of
the comic.1 This thesis offers an interdisciplinary analysis of black humour in the late twentieth
century. I contend that the experience of black humour emerges from the intricacies of human
beliefs and behaviours surrounding death and through the diverse rituals that shape experiences
of loss. I suggest that black humour is an attempt to articulate the tension between the haunting
absence and disturbing presence of death in contemporary society. Chapter 1 of this thesis offers
an historical and etymological perspective on black humour. In Chapter 2, I argue that the
increasing privatisation and medicalisation of death, along with the overt mediatisation of death,
creates a problematic juxtaposition. I contend that these unique social conditions created, and
continue to foster, an ideal environment for the creation and proliferation of black humour. In
Chapters 3 and 4, I examine the structures and functions of black humour through three key
theories of humour: incongruity, catharsis and superiority. Chapter 5 looks at ways in which the
experience of black humour creates resolutions and forces dissonances for people entwined with
loss. In this final chapter, I also consider how black humour may help people make meaning
from issues surrounding death. Throughout this theoretical discussion, I interweave the analysis
of a range of scenes from contemporary black comic texts (i.e. plays, screenplays and television
scripts). On the whole, this thesis works towards a more complex, specific understanding of the
phenomenon of black humour within a social context.

Polan, Dana 1991, The Light Side of Genius: Hitchcocks Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the
Screwball Tradition in Comedy/Cinema/Theory, Andrew Horton (Ed.), University of
California Press, Los Angeles, pp. 131-152.

Acknowledgments

I offer my sincere gratitude to those who have encouraged, inspired, cajoled, rallied and
supported me during the decade it took to complete this thesis. Thank you.
To my mother Gail Murray and grandmother Marjorie Fought, for their unwavering, energetic,
affectionate encouragement.
To my father Patrick Murray and brother Gregory Murray, for their constant, accepting, caring
support.
To my sister Erin Murray, whose severe disabilities and joyous resilience sparked my interest in
black humour.
To my extended family Joe Hawes, Sarah DuVall Murray, Barbara Fought, Chuck Fought Jr.
and Nelson Price, as well as Fran, Laurence, Chris, Catherine and Gabrielle Mulcahy for their
warm, thoughtful interest in my work.
To those who are no longer living but who supported my endeavours: Clara and Woody Murray,
Chuck Fought Sr., Jane Murray and Laura Jones.
To my supervisors John McCallum, Jim Davis, Mira Crouch and Philip Bell for taking an active
interest in this thesis. A special thanks to Mira for her thoughtful, insightful input and to Philip
for his humour and dedication in bringing the project to fruition; I am grateful for your guidance.
To Jessica Milner Davis for her continuous support of my enthusiasm for humour studies.
To my friend Julia Mant, who cheerfully proofread the penultimate draft, provided formatting
resources and offered encouragement over the past several years.
To my friends in Australia and in the United States, who have listened patiently to stories of
academia, expressed genuine interest in my thesis and accepted my periods of hermetic
existence.
To the writers, directors and performers who have made me laugh over the years, in the hopes
that you keep sharing your gift. To the scholars whose work led the way in the field of humour
studies, allowing others of us to develop our fascination with this phenomenon.
To my dear husband and best friend, Nicholas Mulcahy, who enriches my life every day. I adore
you and I could not have finished this thesis without you.
And finally, to the baby who has been with me most of this year and who we will soon welcome
into the world. Thank you for the perspective you bring, little one.*

* Augustine is here and is the joy of our lives.

ii

Dedication

To my family: remembered, present and forthcoming.

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Table of Contents
Page Number

Prologue

Chapter 1
Defining Black Humour

Chapter 2
Depicting Death in a Contemporary Context

42

Chapter 3
86
Collisions, Reversals and Repetitions: Structures in Black Comedy

Chapter 4
144
Contusions, Ruptures and Dislocations: Functions of Black Humour

Chapter 5
198
Resolutions and Dissonances: Making Meaning from Black Humour

Bibliography

228

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Conventions

I use Australian standard spelling throughout this thesis, even within quotes from American texts
that use different spelling in the original.
Within the Bibliography, I maintain the original spelling in all aspects of the citations. I have
used consistent capitalisation in the titles of articles, books and other resources.
For citations, I use the Harvard method (2002, 6th edition) with particular reference to the
accepted standards of universities in Australia.
In the body of the text, I use the modern format for referencing (Smith, 2000: 301) and (Smith
2000, Alma 1996) instead of the more formal style (Smith, 2000, p. 301) and (Smith, 2000;
Alma, 1996).
For reprinted and translated texts, I list the year of publication of the edition I referenced in the
thesis, not the original year of publication.
I maintain the punctuation, spelling and format within all excerpts from scripts. When providing
excerpts from plays or screenplays, I refer to the corresponding page number, act or scene in the
published text.
When providing excerpts from films or television programs for which the original screenplay is
not available, I refer to the production itself, from which dialogue has been transcribed. I provide
both the year(s) of cinematic release or television broadcast and the year of DVD release.
I use single quotes to draw attention to, or problematise, the definitions of certain words or
phrases. I generally do not use single quotes on subsequent applications of the same term, except
in the etymological discussion in Chapter 1.
I apply the present tense to the discussion of texts from all time periods, regardless of whether
the writer is living or deceased. (I take this approach because the past tense reduces flexibility
and gives permanency to particular interpretations.) I do not alter the verb tense within
quotations of any type unless the change is indicated in brackets.
In reference to scholars, I use the surname only. In reference to writers (i.e. playwrights and
screenwriters) of artistic works, I use the first name and surname on the first reference, then
surname only thereafter.
For ease of access, the Endnotes are provided at the conclusion of each chapter.

List of Texts

In this thesis, I analyse a range of texts that I believe exemplify contemporary black comedy.
These works emanate from theatre, film and television in the years 1970 to 2001.
Preface:
Monty Python Graham Chapman et. al.
Chapter 1:

Chapter 2:
M*A*S*H Ring Lardner, Jr.
Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino
Chapter 3:
The Lonesome West Martin McDonagh
Fargo Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Six Feet Under Alan Ball et. al.
Funny Bones Peter Chesholm and Peter Flannery
Three Days of Rain Richard Greenberg
Absent Friends Alan Ayckbourn
Weekend at Bernies Robert Klane
Loot Joe Orton
The Memory of Water Shelagh Stephenson
The Precious Woman Louis Nowra
Weekend at Bernies Robert Klane
Loot Joe Orton
Waking Ned Devine Kirk Jones
Absolutely Fabulous Jennifer Saunders
Groundhog Day Scott Rubin and Harold Ramis
Better Off Dead Savage Steve Holland
Harold and Maude Colin Higgins
Chapter 4:
Crimes of the Heart Beth Henley
Radiance Louis Nowra
The Memory of Water - Shelagh Stephenson
Absurd Person Singular Alan Ayckbourn
W;t Margaret Edson
Angles in America Tony Kushner
Seasons Greetings Alan Ayckbourn
Out of Sight Scott Frank
Raised in Captivity Nicky Silver
Fred Beatrix Christian
The Big Lebowski Ethan Coen
Last Orders Fred Schepisi, from the novel by Graham Swift

List of Texts continued


Chapter 5:
A Skull in Connemara Martin McDonagh
Traveling North David Williamson

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Monk David Breckman


The John Wayne Principle Tony McNamara

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Prologue

In a dark comic sketch from Monty Pythons Flying Circus, a bereaved man enters a
funeral home. He inquires about the services of the establishment because his
mother has just passed away. Well, the undertaker says calmly. We can help you.
We deal with stiffs (Chapman et al. 1989). The grieving customer assumes he has
misunderstood, so he asks again if the funeral home staff can assist.

UNDERTAKER:
Well, there are three things we can do with your Mum. We can
bury her, burn her or dump her.
MAN:
Dump her?
UNDERTAKER:
In the Thames.
MAN:
What?
UNDERTAKER:
Oh, did you like her?
MAN:
Yes!
UNDERTAKER:
Oh well, we wont dump her then. What do you think? We can
bury her or burn her.
MAN:
Well, which do you recommend?
UNDERTAKER:
Well, theyre both nasty. If we burn her she gets stuffed in the
flames, crackle, crackle, crackle, which is a bit of a shock if shes
not quite dead, but quick. Then we give you a handful of ashes,
which you can pretend were hers.

MAN:
Oh.
UNDERTAKER:
Or, if we bury her she gets eaten up by lots of weevils and nasty
maggots, which as I said before is a bit of a shock if shes not quite
dead.
MAN:
I see. Well, shes definitely dead...
(Chapman et al., 1989: 42-43)
This scene between a cynical undertaker and a man carrying a corpse begins with a
seemingly predictable conversation in unfortunate, though relatively common,
circumstances. Yet the undertaker speaks in a surprisingly coarse and factual tone,
as though explaining the eradication of house pests. He treats the dead body as an
inconvenience rather than as a sacred remnant of an individual life.

The undertaker demonstrates a crude sense of realism about loss. He also implies
that death is a routine event, and that it is unnecessary to use euphemisms for it or
hide its repulsiveness. In Monty Pythons unconventional funeral home, grief is
absent and the corpse is a disposable object. The undertaker seems to minimise
death; he reduces its physical importance and emotional weight.

The undertakers behaviour contradicts social and cultural expectations about


respecting the deceased and sympathising with the bereaved. The scene also calls
into question the publics level of trust in the services of funeral homes, hospitals,
nursing homes, churches and others involved in the final stages of human life. The
attitudes and actions depicted in this scene evoke a series of comparisons: empathy
is contrasted with detachment, reverence with insolence, and seriousness with
casualness.

As the scene continues, the undertaker again behaves in a highly unorthodox manner
when he peers at the dead body in the sack and shouts to his assistant, Fred, I think
we have an eater!. The undertaker then suggests they roast the corpse with a few
French fries, broccoli [and] horseradish sauce. This grotesque menu obviously
contravenes the limits of acceptable behaviour surrounding death. The undertakers
transgressive acts contribute not only to the humour within the scene, but also to the
potential offensiveness of it.1 This scene demonstrates how black comedy engages
with social mores related to the end of life. The humour stems from the undertakers
apparent disregard for propriety. Although he seems rude, he is also truthful. (In
reality, there are only a few things one can do with a dead body: bury, burn or dump
it.) In this sense, the undertakers words are both incongruous and logical in relation
to his profession; he is simultaneously pitiless and pragmatic.

As an archetypal example of black comedy, the Monty Python funeral home sketch
raises intriguing questions about contemporary perceptions of death. Does a comic
perspective on death improve, encumber or merely distract from our ability to
grieve? Does comedy about death denigrate those who are dying and bereaved? Or,
does it serve as a robust reminder of our inevitable demise? This scene indicates
how people living in a particular time and place articulate, as well as repress, their
reactions to death.

Because death and bereavement are some of the most emotionally and intellectually
resonant experiences human beings encounter, the potential for comedy surrounding
these experiences may be both diminished and enhanced, depending upon the
perceptions of the individuals involved. Some people feel it is inappropriate to
engage with comedy about death, while others view it as an opportunity to release
tension and relieve the burden of grief. In some instances, black humour suggests
that death is unconscionably terrifying; at other times, it implies that death is
satisfyingly tranquil. Black humour challenges assumptions; it taunts and confronts,
provokes and prevaricates. Yet what makes black comedy funny? Why has it been

so popular in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? How does the
experience of black humour affect those who engage with it? These questions
underpin this thesis and lead into an examination of humour in general, before
returning to the particular experience of black humour.

Prologue Endnotes
1

The Monty Python team believed this sketch would be censored by the British Broadcasting
Corporation in the early 1970s, so they added booing and other verbal criticisms to the audio track.
The end of the scene calls for actors, posing as members of the studio audience, to rush onto the set
and physically attack the characters. By depicting the limits of black humour within the sketch, the
Monty Python team identified and challenged social boundaries. Their staged self-censorship was
effective; the sketch went to air (Chapman et al. 1989).

Chapter 1 Defining Black Humour

A Device of Social Analysis: Introduction to Black Humour

The experience of humour seems to emerge from the intricacies of human beliefs
and behaviours and through the diverse institutions, governments, languages and
rituals that people create. Boskin contends that as a cultural index, a reflector of
social change and conflict, humour provides an unusual historical ray into the
complex connection between societys concerns and issues (1997a: 17).
Similarly, Koziski argues that the analysis of humour can provide insights into
the unstated ideas of a society ideas that may not otherwise be visible (1997:
87). In this thesis, I examine links between the experience of black humour and
the social conditions of the late twentieth century. I also investigate ideas about
the structures and functions of black humour. Throughout these discussions, I
interweave analysis of a range of scenes from contemporary black comic plays,
screenplays and scripts. On the whole, this thesis works towards a more
complex, specific and inclusive understanding of black humour within a social
context. To begin, I consider the nature of humour studies research and explain
the interdisciplinary perspective of this thesis.

Humour seems to involve a process of engagement through which people make


comparisons, evaluate possibilities and develop perspectives. Perceptions of
humour also appear to shift over time and through different circumstances. In
this sense, humour is continually being made and interpreted. Horton believes
that humour involves insight into the limitations and capabilities of human
potential (1991: 3). The existing body of research on humour which begins in
ancient Greece and stretches through nineteenth-century Europe into the twentyfirst century international arena shapes our contemporary understanding of this
intriguing phenomenon. Yet due to the sensitivities of the experience of humour,
it is a notoriously elusive phenomenon to analyse. The creation and perception
of humour is deeply grounded in historical, social, cultural, political and

personal contexts, yet it also appears to have an instinctive component. Through


the process of engaging with comedy, individuals investigate a wide range of
attitudes, behaviours, preferences and expectations. As a result of these
interactions, the experience of humour can contradict, confirm or change
expectations. At times, the antithetical aspects of humour appear to co-exist, so
that entities viewed in a humorous light seem simultaneously impossible and
inevitable, ridiculous and momentous.

Humour, and in particular black humour, involves a connection between


seemingly incompatible ideas and emotions. The terms black comedy and
black humour capture the image of death in connection with the origins of
merriment (Simpson 1989). These terms represent implausible combinations: joy
and tranquillity are conjoined with confusion, frustration and despair. In this
sense, black comedy embodies a paradox. It explores two philosophically
extreme positions: that death is everything and death is nothing. This profound
absurdity distinguishes black comedy from other forms of humorous expression.

Another paradoxical aspect of humour and one that undermines the goals of
any humour studies project is that attempts to understand the experience may
minimise the enjoyment of it. Levin writes that inherent in [humours]
pleasurable quality is a tendency to ward off serious treatment, to fight shy of
interpretation, and consequently to defy analysis (1972: 1). Bergson echoes this
point, saying that we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a
definition (1956: 61). Since humour is a pleasing and transient encounter, some
people are reluctant to apply the same assiduous inspection used for other
individual and social phenomena. As E. B. White said, Humour can be
dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are
discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind (1977: 303).

This perspective suggests that comedy is compromised through investigation of


how the material is constructed, delivered and received. In previous decades, this
notion has adversely affected the development of humour research. As Horton

points out, there is a historical bias against a close and serious consideration of
comedy (1991: 2). Palmer also cites the established paradox [of] taking
humour seriously (1994: 1). The view that humour defies analysis presumes
that it is fragile and vulnerable to scrutiny. Admittedly, the experience of
humour is intricate and elusive. As a result, the research challenges in this field
are numerous, including the isolation of particular aspects of the experience, the
measurement of intensity of the experience and the comparison of different
interpretations of comedy. What exactly is funny about a joke told at a funeral
wake? Is it the cleverness of the verbalisation, the relationship of the comic
material to the circumstances, the opportunity to escape from a sombre mood or
the alcohol that may be consumed? Any or all of these factors contribute to the
perception, or failure, of humour in this situation.

White may be correct that over-analysis eviscerates a particular moment of


humour. Yet the insight gained from analysis does not necessarily affect the
enjoyment of a similar, or entirely different, piece of comic material. Although
humour is susceptible to various influences, it also appears to be robust. The
proliferation of research into humour has not reduced the prevalence of comedy
in contemporary culture, nor has it dampened interest in further investigation. As
a result, the value of humour studies research is no longer in question according
to a wide range of scholars both within and outside the field.1 I join with other
contemporary humour studies scholars in asserting that the analysis and
appreciation of humour are entirely compatible. My brief discussion of the
antiquated debate about the seriousness of humour merely highlights the
historical development of the field of humour studies.

Humour is a multi-faceted experience incorporating different aspects of


individual and social existence. Aside from its aesthetically pleasing qualities,
humour is absolutely central to culture (Palmer, 1994: 2). The study of humour
intersects with many different areas of academic investigation, including literary
criticism,

psychology,

sociology,

philosophy,

anthropology,

linguistics,

medicine, public policy, media studies, management and the performing arts.

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, researchers from different
academic disciplines tended to investigate humour according to the established
methodologies of their respective fields (Davis 2003). In general, philosophers
explored broad questions about the nature of the phenomenon, while social
scientists concentrated upon individual and cultural interactions involving
humour. Biologists were concerned with physiological responses to humour.
Literature and theatre scholars wrestled with the concept of comedy and its
manifestation in novels, stories and plays. The results of these various research
projects were, for the most part, disseminated solely within each respective
discipline. This relative insularity meant that scholars were not always aware of
projects undertaken by colleagues in other fields (Palmer 1994, Davis 2003).
However, the past quarter century of humour research has provided an extensive
collection of influential theories, statistical data and compelling textual analyses
across and between different disciplines. Currently, humour studies researchers
operate from a variety of perspectives, yet integrate findings in a combined
format.2 Interdisciplinary research has become an influential strategy in humour
studies, with scholars drawing upon shared concepts, models and metaphors.

Since the phenomenon of black humour is entwined with death, this thesis also
incorporates research from the field of thanatology. As in the field of humour
studies, the past twenty to thirty years have been pivotal for interdisciplinary
research into death, dying and bereavement. These years have seen remarkable
developments in intervention programs associated with loss, such as palliative
care and grief therapy (Rumbold 2000, Jalland 2006). Social scientists, health
service professionals, philosophers, ethicists and other scholars currently work to
articulate diverse and difficult issues surrounding death. Although it is not
possible to do justice to this entire body of work within this thesis, I draw upon
aspects of this research in my analysis of black humour.

In addition, this thesis incorporates a representative range of black comic texts


for performance (i.e. plays, screenplays and scripts written for theatre, film and
television) as illustrative material.3 These examples have been selected to

highlight different styles and approaches in black comic writing and to enhance
the theoretical discussion in this thesis. The analysis of black comic texts is also
intended to illuminate each text on its own and create links between similar
texts. The scenes included in this thesis depict potent symbols of death (e.g.
corpses, caskets, hospitals, morgues and ashes) as well as rituals associated with
loss (e.g. funerals, burials, wakes). These texts also reveal the diverse ways in
which people respond to grief.

Overall, I take an interdisciplinary approach in this thesis and utilise an array of


resources including philosophical/theoretical writings, literary criticism, social
science research and black comic texts to help elucidate the experience of
black humour. Palmer, writing about interdisciplinary research in general, says
that this approach reveals how particular cultural phenomena exist in several
dimensions at once, and how an account of those dimensions enhances our
knowledge (1994: 3). Along these lines, Bennett articulates the critical interplay
of the social sciences and the performing arts. She believes that media, theatre
and film scholars should maintain an interest in, and a dialogue with
sociological research (1990: 99). Similarly, Kellehear expresses the view that,
while specific disciplines offer insights into particular aspects of bereavement,
the wisdom needed to realise the relative importance and value [of these
findings] can only come from interdisciplinary perspectives (2000: xvii).

Establishing Thesis Parameters

In embracing this project, I am cognisant of the challenges of interdisciplinary


research as well as its potential for compelling insights. I work with an
awareness of shifting relationships between previous findings and new
perspectives, between existing theories and emerging interpretations. I recognise

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this work as an ongoing project of inquiry and development, to which I bring my


own predispositions and biases.

This section, and the one to follow, articulate the boundaries of this thesis. To
contain the scope of the project, I limit my analysis to texts that emanate from
the predominantly English-speaking, Western countries of Australia, the United
States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.4 I recognise that the populations of all
four countries are very diverse and that each individual within these populations
may identify with diffuse and overlapping social groups.

In addition, the timeframe of this project is defined as the late twentieth century.
Thus, the comic material I analyse originates in the years 1970 to 2001.5 By
focussing on this period, I am able to examine the nature and influence of black
comedy in theatre, film and television at a time when this form of expression
became extremely popular and prevalent. I am aware that in focusing my
analysis on the last third of the twentieth century, in the countries noted above, I
imply that a significant shift in perception occurred in these regions from the late
1960s onward. As Denzin cautions, attempts at periodisation give the
impression that any historical moment is a massive homogeneity, bounded on
each side by distinct historical markers (1991: 3). Yet the events of the mid
twentieth century, and in particular World War II and its aftermath, had a
profound effect on comedy in the decades that followed. Boskin says that the
comedy of the immediate post-World War II decades expressed as black,
sick and cruel illustrates the complexities by which humour responds to
swift and unsettling changes in society (1997c: 187). He also notes the
relevance of the study of humour in a particular time and place.

As a device of social analysis, humour illumines the expectations


and contradictions of society, its anxieties and confusions, and
offers perspective into any historical moment.
(Boskin, 1997a: 20)
I acknowledge the complex, multifaceted nature of the social changes I identify
in this thesis. While I argue that there are consistent characteristics of life and

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death in the late twentieth century, across the four countries considered in this
thesis, I do not suggest that these social conditions affect every individual in the
same ways.

In this research, I employ the word society and other collective terms. In doing
so, I recognise that terminology is always in flux; I am particularly aware of the
controversial nature of words that reflect shared experiences. I employ this
terminology not to condense or conceal differences between individuals and
groups, but to reflect the fact that people living in a particular location share
certain aspects of their existence. They have in common a physical landscape
(although it may be extremely diverse across and within various regions), a
government, a tax system, a transport system, an educational system, several
forms of media, usually a language and other elements of social, cultural and
political life. As Kellehear points out:

All of these [experiences] are captured in a nations art or


literature, debated inside different versions of its histories, and
rolled into the ready and pithy rhetoric of newspaper headlines
and politicians speeches.
(2000: 11)
Kellehear expresses the relevance of these shared aspects of culture, but also
acknowledges that the concept of cultural or national identity is fraught with
complexity. Throughout this thesis, I apply the word social in a broad sense,
encompassing a range of influences on contemporary life: interpersonal, cultural,
political, economic and religious. This terminology is not meant to oversimplify
the importance of each factor that contributes to this picture, but rather to
represent the interwoven nature of these aspects of existence.

This thesis draws on texts from each of these four countries noted above,
although the origins of the works are not the focus of my research. I do not
identify or analyse the national origins of the texts I cite, nor do I presume the
work is valued equally by all residents of the region/country in which it was
created.6 The thesis does not attempt to describe the myriad of different cultural,

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political, gender, sexual and religious issues of all individuals within the
countries covered by this analysis. Within these four countries, people tend to
relocate and travel more often than in previous generations and they have greater
access to data about other regions and countries. Due to these factors, cultural
products such as comic texts are increasingly widely distributed within and
between these countries. In this thesis, therefore, I investigate what appear to be
shared, recognisable experiences of death and grief as well as the expression of
these experiences through contemporary comic writing.

Throughout this thesis, I work with a wide range of contemporary comic texts,
from the realistic to the fantastical. I discuss characters who are highly articulate
and those who are lost for words. I cite scenes about terminal illness, funerals,
burials, wakes and the process of grieving. As noted, this project strives to
clarify the boundaries of black comedy, analyse a representative selection of
contemporary texts and suggest reasons for the power and relevance of black
humour in the late twentieth century.

Disentangling Black Comedy and Black Humour

Before analysing the social context of contemporary black humour, it is


important to clarify additional key terms used in this thesis. The most crucial
terms are comedy and humour and, more specifically, black comedy and
black humour. To date, humour studies scholars have used these terms in
different ways. For example, Nelson (1990) uses comedy and humour
interchangeably to indicate any type of written or performed material that may
be considered amusing. Boskin (1997a) uses the word humour to refer to all
comic material and to the experience of appreciating comic material. Palmer
(1994) discriminates between the two by making one a subset of the other. He
conceives of humour as everything that is actually or potentially funny and
the processes by which this funniness occurs; he sees comedy as just the
written and performed texts that may be considered funny (1994: 3, 7). While
these definitions assist in understanding the terms, the two still overlap. Palmer

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is forced to apply both terms in phrases like an article about humour and
comedy (1994: 2). Yet he is aware of the problematic nature of these
definitions, stating that the distinction is far from watertight (1994: 7).

The uncertainty Palmer articulates is echoed by other scholars in the field. Davis
also recognises the challenges involved in describing humour. She cautions that
the field of humour studies [is] still in its evolutionary phase regarding
terminology, yet she believes it is important to demarcate the key concepts in
humour studies research (2003: x). Davis uses the term comedy to envelop all
types of written or performed material that may be funny, including farce,
parody, satire, black comedy and other styles. She uses the term humour to
cover the origins and effects of laughter. Humour is the general rubric under
which scholars from all disciplines unite their efforts in this field of inquiry
(ibid.).

For the purposes of this research, I make a different distinction between the two
terms. I use the term comedy to refer to an interaction or communication that
may be deemed funny. Comedy can consist of jokes, stories, images, physical
events and texts. The subject matter of comedy may be as wide-ranging as the
style of presentation, which may be verbal, nonverbal, visual or a combination of
these forms. Comedy may elicit familiar responses such as smiling and laughing,
but these effects are not the same as comedy itself; they relate to the overarching
experience of humour. In this thesis, I use the term humour to describe the
experience of perceiving and appreciating an entity as funny. Humour
encompasses the psychological, social and cultural factors related to getting a
joke, as well as the emotional and physiological effects of reacting to it. In light
of these definitions of comedy and humour, I use the term black humour to
refer to the experience, however transient, through which individuals find death
and bereavement funny. I use the term black comedy to describe the complex
set of interactions and communications, including texts, which may give rise to
the experience of black humour. (In practice, black comedy and black humour

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are intertwined. However, I make the above distinction to increase clarity in the
analysis that follows.)

Differentiating between comedy and humour in this way seems to evoke a social
science model for the phenomenon of humour: comedy serves as a stimulus,
while humour denotes a response. According to proponents of this model,
comedy produces a set of cognitive, emotional and physiological reactions in
individuals who engage with it. In previous decades, the stimulus-response
model was prominent in humour research, especially in work related the notion
of a sense of humour (Chapman and Foot 1977). Yet this application of the
stimulus-response model is not flexible enough for the unpredictability and
variability in the experience of humour. As a result, this model has largely been
superseded by the concept that humour involves a negotiation between
participants (Martin 1998).

In this thesis, I view humour as an intricate process that evokes comparisons,


creates connections, challenges opinions and offers alternate perspectives. As
discussed in the following chapters, the conceptual flexibility that this process
requires may be experienced as both pleasurable and challenging. Regardless of
the effects, humour is an active encounter; it exists as it reverberates within
the [participant] (Winston, 1972: 273).

This thesis concentrates on written black comedy and does not cover purely
physical black comedy, songs, cartoons or other artwork.7 I also limit the
research to texts concerning the comic treatment of human death, dying and
bereavement. In order to manage the scale of the current project, I do not include
texts related to other experiences such as divorce, disability, dislocation,
discrimination or the loss of material goods or animals. I perceive these
experiences as part of the larger group of subjects that may be recruited into
black comedy. In other words, I recognise the breadth of dark material that may
be made funny, even though I am not including these experiences in this
analysis.

15

The decision to concentrate solely on written black comic texts precludes the
consideration of the many performances based on these texts.8 As discussed
further below, this decision is not intended to minimise the importance of issues
surrounding performance. Rather, this approach is designed to address the key
questions posed in the thesis and to provide shape and focus to the analysis.

The rest of this chapter presents key issues in the study of black humour. First I
offer a short discussion of the reader response theories; this section provides a
background on my approach to the analysis of black comic texts in subsequent
chapters. The two sections thereafter introduce the notion of humour perception
and the three key theories of humour, respectively. The next segment looks at
the etymology of the terms black humour and black comedy. This is followed
by a brief introduction to black comedy in the mid twentieth century the period
just before the timeframe considered in this thesis. The final section of this
chapter sets out the structure for the remaining chapters in the thesis.

Texts and Reader Response Theories

The analytical perspective known as reader response theory arose in the late
1960s from a desire to explore and honour the influence of the receiver on the
interpretation of texts. Rather than representing one coherent, unified theory, the
term reader response theory actually consists of a collection of projects, each
of which focus upon different areas of the central concept of the reader as active
interpreter of a text. Some scholars refer to aspects of this work as reception
theory; in addition, there is overlap between the group of reader response
theories and performance theory.

16

The reader response theories, taken collectively, oppose previous critical


preoccupations with authorial intention and biography. They also reject the
notion of an all-powerful text containing a consistent, established meaning
which may be penetrated only by perfectly informed receivers. Barthes, whose
wide-ranging work had a significant impact on the development of this theory,
states that the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author
(1977: 148, capitalisation in the original). In other words, the reader/receiver
produces opinions about a text and these views are not dependent upon the
intentions of the texts creator. Fishs (1980) notion of interpretive
communities has also influenced the reader response theories. Fish suggests that
groups of individuals sanction and approve particular interpretations of texts.
Thus, the process of making meaning from a text does not derive solely from
one individuals opinion; the process is affected by the values and interests of
pre-existing groups and institutions. This perspective gives readers permission to
resist dominant interpretations. In short, the reader response theories push back
against the hegemony of the established literary criticism of the previous half
century.

In addition, scholarship on gender, sexuality, race and culture has contributed to


the scope of the reader response theories. Each of these areas of research asserts
differences in the reading strategies of previously marginalised individuals.
Thus, the reader response theories move beyond the model of the reader as an
undiscerning subject, responding predictably to the stimulus of the text.

The idea of the receiver as meaning-maker has been integrated into


contemporary notions of what a text is and how it is experienced by individuals
and groups. Because the reader response theories originated within criticism on
fiction and film, they did not initially incorporate the analysis of theatre texts. In
responding to this omission, Carlson describes the interactive process of
reception in theatre as a negotiation between the possibilities of a text and the
expectations, assumptions and strategies of the individuals who engage with
that text (1989: 97). Carlson points out that, in the case of plays, screenplays and

17

scripts, the word text suggests both a written document and a production. By
definition, a production involves interpreting or reading a written text. A
production also engenders another evaluative process when an individual or
audience reads the performance. Using a term coined by Marco de Marinis,
Carlson speaks of a spectacle text, or a written text that has been made into a
performance; this distinction creates space for both written and produced works
of art within the term text.9

Bennetts (1990) research applies the principles of the reader response theories
to the analysis of performance. In this performance theory project, Bennett
focuses on challenges and disruptions [to] the codes and conventions which
demand passivity from audiences (1990: 4). Performance theory challenges the
assumption of a passive reader/viewer. This perspective reconfigures the
individual, and the set of individuals that comprise an audience, as essential
participants in the experience of performance. In this sense, Bennett foregrounds
the social construction of performance; she is less concerned with the opinions
of any individual receiver (1990: 184).

In analysing plays, screenplays and scripts, I am aware of the implied


performance (that is, the readers mental concept of a production of the text).
This imagined production, and with it the presence of a conceptual or ideal
audience, is a factor in any interpretation of a text written for performance. I
carry an imagined performance, or set of performances, in my mind as I analyse
texts. Yet this aspect of reading a work of art does not prevent the analysis of the
written text on its own. In this thesis, the word text refers predominantly to
written work, as this is the focus of my analysis. Each text discussed in this
thesis is open to multiple interpretations which may change over time. I
recognise that readers of this thesis may construe the work in different ways. I
also optimistically assume that by carefully shaping the discussion, I ensure that
this process of construction is not entirely arbitrary.

18

Although I examine written texts, I do not attempt to render meaning as fixed; I


remain very aware of how texts assume different, unique existences in
performance. I also understand that texts realised in production are received and
appreciated within a range of circumstances: a reader is usually alone when
engaging with written material, whereas a viewer is often part of a group
watching a performance. In both modes of reception, people play an active role
in interpreting texts and appreciating humour. I take the position that people
engage with the complex, varied and fragile experience of humour; they work
with a text to make meaning from the collisions, reversals, ruptures and
resolutions it may contain.

From that perspective, my work in this thesis is conceptually indebted to Kellys


(1955) construct theory. Although this thesis is not a constructivist project, and I
do not refer to Kelly in the main body of the work, I implicitly draw on Kellys
ideas about how individuals create meaning from their experiences. Construct
theory is particularly relevant to both humour studies and thanatology because it
holds that people are not passive in their relationship to the world. Instead, they
are seen to continually form impressions, evaluate beliefs and behaviours, and
make decisions based upon their perceptions. Palmer (1994) and Koestler (1975)
employ similar concepts in describing the phenomenon of humour. In addition,
Neimeyer (1996, 2005/6) uses Kellys construct theory extensively in his
research on death and grief.

Kelly applies the specific term personal constructs to the cognitive and
emotional structures that influence peoples thinking and behaviour. He believes
that people erect conceptual frames, then later modify or reinforce them through
subsequent evaluations of their experiences. Through this interactive process,
individuals may change their opinions or confirm their previous beliefs. In
discussing construct theory, Kelly rejects the term subject in favour of the term
participant; he believes this linguistic distinction represents a collaborative
relationship with those involved in research. Throughout the remainder of this
thesis, I employ the term participant to represent the individuals involved in the

19

experience of humour. I have chosen this term because it positions people as


proactive, integrated players in the process of making meaning from their lives.
The term is also gender-neutral and acknowledges the ongoing, dependent
relationship between stimulus and response, between social forces and social
beings. Although the term participant is not common in humour studies
research, scholars such as Colletta (2003) use this word to reflect the dynamic
process through which individuals interact with comic texts.

In general terms, there are three types of participants involved in the experience
of humour: (1) the creators of comic material, (2) the presenters of this material
and (3) the readers of the material.10 These three roles are integral to, and often
overlapping in, the process of forming that which is perceived as funny. In order
to limit the scope of this thesis, I do not concentrate on the first two sets of
participants. As discussed above, neither the creators intention (which cannot
necessarily be elicited, articulated or stabilised), nor the productions of a text,
are the focus of this work.11 Instead, my analysis concentrates upon the readers. I
engage with the texts discussed herein as a reader in an active process of
interpretation.

Finding it Funny: Humour Perception

One of the main challenges of humour research, as alluded to above, is


describing the perceptions of individuals who engage with comic material. How
do people make sense of comedy? To begin to address this question, I look at
key aspects of the experience of humour.

Humour seems to be comprised of interconnected processes. First, there is the


work of understanding humour and second there is the act of responding to
humour.12 The process of understanding humour appears to be grounded in
peoples existing knowledge, emotions, beliefs and behaviours. These
predispositions enable people to make hypotheses about the situation presented
in a comic text. As each individual reads a text, he/she matches his/her

20

predictions to subsequent information. This process of comparison may lead to


the perception of humour, which in turn may yield a range of personal and social
effects for the individual. In the subsequent chapters of this thesis, I discuss this
process in further detail. In examining the structures within black comic material
in Chapter 3, I am particularly concerned with the act of perceiving humour. In
analysing the functions of black humour in Chapter 4, I focus on the how the
experience of humour affects those who engage with it. I recognise, however,
that people experience these processes as interrelated and virtually concurrent.

In discussing the perception of humour, is important to note that the readers


perceptions of humour are separate from the characters perceptions within a
text. Characters create and appreciate humour in the diegesis: the fictional world
of the text. As a result, the characters interpretations may not match the
perceptions of individuals who respond to this text. In the analysis of black
comedy to follow, I differentiate between the characters perceptions of humour
within the text and the readers experience of humour while interacting with the
text.

Three Theories of Humour

Hypotheses about humour converge around three main concepts: incongruity,


catharsis and superiority. Although scholars occasionally use different terms to
denote the three theories, these concepts are used consistently within humour
studies research and therefore play a significant role in the analysis of humour
(Morreall 1983, Palmer 1994). The theories stem from centuries of research and
writing on humour, yet over the past three decades scholars have developed
these notions further and applied them to a range of projects, including work in
the humanities, social sciences, medicine, management and the performing arts.
Each of the three theories reflects the social context from which it emerged, as
well as the assumptions and preoccupations of its creators and contributors. My
focus on these three theories corresponds with the attention they have received in
extant humour research. In the absence of theoretical research devoted

21

specifically to black humour, I apply the incongruity, catharsis and superiority


theories to that phenomenon. I touch upon each theory briefly below, then return
to them in more detail within subsequent chapters.

Incongruity

The incongruity theory of humour focuses on the relationship between


incompatible elements within a comic text. This theory assumes that virtually all
comic texts contain two or more distinct ideas, emotions or entities. Participants
compare and evaluate these elements; if they seem mismatched, yet also
surprisingly complementary in some way, the situation may be perceived as
funny. According to the incongruity theory, this process of comparison is
integral to the perception of humour.

Scholars in a range of disciplines have contributed to the development of the


incongruity theory over time (Bergson 1956, Koestler 1975, Palmer 1994, Suls
1983). These influential thinkers and others in the field, despite variations in
interpretations of the theory, share a belief that humour emerges from the
unlikely yet ultimately rewarding associations between contradictory elements in
a text. This theory is discussed further in Chapter 3 of this thesis, which focuses
on structures in black comedy.

Catharsis

Another key theory of humour stems from the notion of catharsis, which has its
origins in the Greek word katharsis meaning to purge or release. Aristotle
(1964a) proposes the catharsis theory in the Poetics, saying that individuals who
engage with drama build up tension regarding the characters and situations
depicted in the text; this tension then dissipates when the dramatic conflict is
resolved. Aristotle writes about catharsis in relation to tragic drama, but he also
applies the theory to comic drama in a treatise called the Coislinian Tractate.13

22

In this essay, Aristotle (1964b) suggests that comedy engenders feelings of


pleasure, which are then purged through laughter.

Freud (1960) develops the catharsis theory of humour in Jokes and Their
Relation to the Unconscious, suggesting that participants build up anxiety about
controversial issues within a comic text. He refers to comedy about sensitive
subject matter as tendentious comedy; this includes jokes and stories about
bodily functions (and dysfunctions), sex, money, religion and politics. For
Freud, tendentious comedy also has a purpose: it seeks to provoke discussion, to
challenge beliefs or to titillate. Only jokes that have a purpose run the risk of
meeting with people who do not want to listen to them (Freud, 1976: 132). He
contrasts this style of expression with innocent comedy, which he describes as
inoffensive but not insubstantial. Of these two types, tendentious comedy relates
most closely to the structures, contents and effects of black comedy. Freud
argues that tendentious comedy enables participants to raise challenging issues
in a protected environment. He suggests that people are unconsciously motivated
to experience humour because it alleviates social repression.

In recent decades, scholars have worked with the catharsis theory in a substantial
collection of research projects related to the effects of humour (Moran 1997,
Morrow 1987, Zolten 1992). The concept of catharsis is analysed in greater
depth in Chapter 4, which investigates the possible functions of black humour.

Superiority

Comic texts often present inequitable power relationships by dismissing other


individuals, ideas or entities. Participants who are not the target of ridicule may
feel more capable and fortunate than those being teased. According to the
superiority theory, participants enjoy humour because it improves their selfregard. Aristotle suggests that comedy belittles characters of a lower type
(1964a: 13). He states that the ludicrous consists in some defect or ugliness
which is not painful (1964a: 14). In other words, comedy permits participants

23

to laugh at the mistakes and misfortunes of others. Yet in this conception, the
objects of derision are more inept than villainous.

Hobbes (1997) advances the superiority theory of humour in Leviathan. Hobbes


believes that human beings generally yearn to improve their status. By
undermining and excluding others, people may be able to reduce their
vulnerability and increase their chances of success. Hobbes theorises that people
use humour to make fun of the frailties of others or their own previous failings.
Advocates of the superiority theory find evidence of its validity in racial,
cultural, sexual and religious slurs, as well as in jokes about disasters, crimes and
accidents (Barrick 1997, Davies 1982, Dundes 1997). This theory also relates to
Freuds perspective on tendentious comedy because texts that make fun of others
are intended to denigrate those individuals. According to Freud (1960), comedy
that makes participants feel superior is also tendentious. The superiority theory is
discussed again in Chapter 4 of this thesis.

To set the stage for the analysis in subsequent chapters, the following section
presents a brief etymological and historical perspective on black comedy and
black humour. This discussion helps situate this form of expression within the
context of the late twentieth century; it also provides a broader perspective on
my definitions of the terms black comedy and black humour.

Etymology of Black Comedy and Black Humour

In the absence of a specific entry for the combined terms black humour or
black comedy in The Oxford English Dictionary, I consider the interrelated
definitions of the words comedy, humour and black (Simpson 1989).14 The
word comedy comes from the ancient Greek word komoidia, based on the
combination of two Greek terms: komos (revel) and aoidos (singer or minstrel).
Since approximately the sixteenth century, the word comedy has referred to
funny, surprising experiences in everyday life (Simpson, 1989, Vol III: 530).
This meaning of the word suggests informality and a resistance to authority in

24

favour of independence and liberation. In general, the notion of comedy seems to


contain "an assertion of some essential human sense of vitality" (Palmer, 1994:
33). Horton contends that comedy is about freedom, yet also control; it involves
an awareness of stated or implied rules/codes and the imagination/fantasy to
manipulate them (1991: 5). (I pursue this point further in subsequent chapters,
in which I contend that black humour evokes and exploits tension between social
rules and social rebellion.)

The word humour stems from the Latin word humor or humere meaning
moisture or fluids. The word originally referred to the concept of different bodily
fluids of a living organism (Simpson, 1989, Vol VII: 485). The Latin root hum
also forms the core of the English words exhume and humility (Simpson,
1989, Vol V: 539, 485). This suggests that the word humour has etymological
connections to the natural life cycle and to the act of grounding ones self in
earthly, realistic matters. Davis argues that the concept of humour contains, at its
core, an awareness of the limitations of physical existence: all human dignity is
at the mercy of the human body and its appetites and needs (2003: 3).

It was not until the seventeenth century that the word humour took on a
meaning associated with comedy and laughter. At this time, the term came to
mean a quality of action, speech, etc. which excites amusement (Simpson,
1989, Vol VII: 486). This definition also includes a reference to a faculty of
perceiving and enjoying what is ludicrous, or of expressing it in speech, writing
or other composition (ibid.). Thus, the concept of humour seems to
encompass various aspects of the natural life cycle.

The literal and figurative meanings of the word black inform the meaning of
the terms black humour and black comedy. The literal meaning of black
stems from the Old English word sweart or swart, which means dark in
colour as well as wicked, malignant (Simpson, 1989, Vol II: 238). The
figurative meaning of black includes a sense of dark or deadly purposes,
malignant; pertaining to or involving death... (Simpson, 1989, Vol II: 239). In

25

the latter part of the sixteenth century, the word became associated with
malevolence. Several decades later, black also came to mean clouded with
sorrow or melancholy; dismal, gloomy, sad (ibid.). This definition suggests a
pessimistic mood and a sense of loss.
It was not until the mid twentieth century that the term black became linked
with both humour and comedy, creating two new terms with contemporary
meanings.15 At this time, the notion of black, or blackness, began to reflect a
sense of the comic and macabre (Simpson 1989, Vol II: 239). The coupling of
black with comedy created an unusual duality: black implied evil, sadness
or loss, while comedy related to justice, celebration and renewal. Thus, the
apparent lack of fit between the words black and comedy now reflects the
inherent incongruity, flexibility and controversy in this form of expression.

As noted previously, descriptive terms related to black humour are not applied
consistently in existing research. A number of terms including tragicomedy,
sick humour and gallows humour are used interchangeably. To address this
ambiguity, I provide below a brief etymological investigation of key terms
related to black comedy and black humour. I then reiterate the way in which
these terms are employed within this thesis.

Because the terms related to black humour arose as labels for particular styles of
expression, it is first relevant to consider these terms in relation to the notion of
genre. Over hundreds of years, the concept of genre has significantly influenced
the way texts are created and perceived, through existing and emerging
definitions of literary and artistic style. In the twentieth century, terms like
tragicomedy and black farce developed as labels for works that did not fit
clearly within previously defined genres. Other terms, such as pastoral
comedy, faded from common usage. This ongoing process of adaptation,
though it extends back to the drama of ancient Greece, has been particularly
evident over the past half century. During this time there have been significant
transformations in the types of texts written for performance. These notable

26

changes resulted in a diverse collection of works that seemed quite different


from those of previous generations.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, scholars challenged the notion of
genre. The idea of formal divisions between styles of expression became less
dominant, even consciously absent, in literary criticism. As conceptual borders
were crossed and new ones constructed, traditional genre terms imparted less
meaning. Currently, some scholars still choose to employ genre names to
describe different styles of expression. Other scholars use genre terms in an
historical context, looking at how texts were received at the time they were
initially created and performed. Writers often use genre labels in either a literal
or ironic manner to provide an indication of the style of work they have
produced.

Contemporary scholars and writers who apply genre labels, particularly terms
related to humour, generally seem to do so with an awareness of the problematic
nature of the concept of genre. Creators and scholars of comic material tend to
recognise, and even exploit, the shifting borders of previous genre definitions.
For example, Davis (2003) asserts that contemporary writers of farce manipulate
the established tenets of that form to reshape it into a multifaceted, postmodern
style of expression. In this manner, the vocabulary related to humour is
continually evolving. Arguably, some contemporary texts resist categorisation
altogether. Feibleman (1964) concedes that traditional genre definitions of
tragedy and comedy may not be useful because some situations contain both
types of experiences.16 Writing in the mid twentieth century, Feibleman signals a
growing awareness of the notion of black humour.

The term tragicomedy is one of the oldest labels connected to the form of
expression now known as black comedy. The term emerged in the latter
sixteenth century to describe works of drama that incorporate elements of both
traditional comedy and tragedy (Simpson 1989). For more than three centuries,
tragicomedy served as the dominant descriptor for written work involving both

27

comedy and melancholy. The emergence of a different style of writing in the


mid twentieth century affected subsequent impressions of tragicomedy. Samuel
Beckett (1954) labelled Waiting for Godot as a tragicomedy. This play, and
Becketts other dramatic works over the next three decades, significantly shaped
the development of black comedy. (In fact, Beckett describes a style of writing
similar to black comedy in his later work, but does not use that term. Becketts
work is considered briefly below in the section on black comic texts in the mid
twentieth century.)

From the 1960s onward, black comedy became the popular name for the sharp,
cynical humour of the post-war era, whereas tragicomedy came to represent a
simpler, less graphic style of expression. Winston, writing about this shift in
terminology, argues that the nature of tragicomedyis at odds with black
humours violent juxtaposition and combination [of] extremes (1972: 274).
Berger (1998), in a more recent discussion of genre labels, states that the concept
of tragicomedy has evolved to describe a relatively non-contentious form of
writing: one which does not overtly challenge notions of death. Similarly, Cohen
(1997) says that tragicomedy may be differentiated from other forms of
humorous expression by its muted depiction of fear and loss and its comfortable
ending.

Some scholars associate tragicomedy with texts written in the period between
the late sixteenth and mid twentieth centuries. Within this perspective, there
remains a particular focus on tragicomedy from the Renaissance period (Foster
2004). Other scholars view tragicomedy as a modern, even postmodern, style of
writing and therefore connect it with recent texts for performance (Orr 1991).
When the term is used in a contemporary context, it tends to denote writing that
is more affirming than confronting in relation to death. This contrast illustrates a
previous point: that genre terms are continually reconstructed and exist within a
changing, contested space.

28

The term gallows humour developed over a century ago as a label for the witty,
if apocryphal, comments that individuals made prior to their deaths particularly
deaths by execution. This form of comedy was intentional on the part of the
condemned individual; it involved wilful rebellion against the forces of fate. As
noted above and elsewhere in this thesis, I apply the term black comedy to a
wider range of material, including jokes made purposefully or unintentionally by
those experiencing death or observing it (either directly or indirectly).

Freud expresses interest in gallows humour and recounts a joke about a criminal
walking towards the gallows on a Monday morning. Well, the man remarks,
the weeks beginning nicely (1985: 427). According to Freud, gallows humour
is inextricable from the life-threatening situations in which it is created. The
humour stems from the contrast between dire circumstances and superficial
comments about those circumstances.17

Over time, the notion of gallows humour came to refer to a range of ominous
situations, not just those involving death. Today, the term is not as prevalent in
humour research. More than thirty years ago, Esslin (1969) categorised gallows
humour as old-fashioned. He argued that this style of writing was less complex
and dangerous than the black comedy associated with Beckett and other writers
of that period.

Another term associated with black comedy is black farce. Davis (2003) sees
this as a particular type of dark comic writing in which the energy and
experimentalism of farce is combined with situations and information related to
death. Texts labelled as black farce tend to maintain a light, ridiculous tone; they
usually focus less on character development and more on a comic state of affairs.
Breton (1997), as discussed further below, links farce of all types to black
comedy. He believes that farce generally revolves around the threat of death.

Black comedy also shares essential qualities with the grotesque, a form of
literature, art and performance centred on nature and corporeality. The term

29

originated in the sixteenth century, but approximately a century later took on


darker connotations about the deformity of people and creatures. The grotesque
style focuses on representations of portions of human and animal forms,
fantastically combined (Simpson 1989, Vol VI: 873). In general, the
grotesque is concerned with the destruction or exaggeration of physical entities
of varying types, even to the extent of making these entities seem surreal.

Bakhtin (1968) sees the grotesque body as the full physical and spiritual
identity of an individual, which encompasses notions of life and death, the
beautiful and the ugly. For Bakhtin, the functions of the body serve as signs of
the ongoing cycle of life and are therefore simultaneously sacred and profane.
He also believes the fallible physical self is an essential element of comedy.
Thus, Bakhtin sees the corpse is a natural part of complete human existence.
Along these lines, Winston identifies the grotesque as a sub-set of black comedy
in which humour arises from damage to the body. This style of writing examines
the ways in which [the body] can be distorted, separated into its component
parts, mutilated and abused (Winston, 1972: 282). The grotesque shares with
black comedy a concern with physical injury, illness, death and corpses.
Similarly, Dundes (1987) links his description of sick humour to comic forms
such as the grotesque, dark humour and gallows humour.

The term satire is also sometimes linked to black comedy. The term stems from
the sixteenth century and generally refers to writing that attempts to convince the
reader to accept a particular viewpoint. Satire employs irony and other devices to
expose vice or to belittle an individual or idea (Simpson 1989). Berger sees
satire as the deliberate use of the comic for purposes of attack (1998: 136). He
believes benevolent satire is an oxymoron (ibid.). In contrast, black comedy
suggests a more open, less directive relationship with participants. Black comedy
usually does not require participants to accept a certain political position before
the humour can succeed; it seems to offer existential possibilities, but does not
focus on persuasion regarding specific issues.

30

Finally, Styan (1968) uses the phrase dark comedy to refer to the incisive,
inventive, even violent writing that emerged in the mid twentieth century. He
contends that this style of expression depicts ambiguity about death in a new and
forceful manner. In dark comedy, the impulse to laugh and the desire to cry are
felt in quick succession, creating an overwhelming emotional effect. Styan also
notes that dark comedy counterpoint[s] the pathetic and the comic within the
same experience by demonstrating their object from more than one angle
(1968: 117). Styan believes dark comedy is an amalgamation of existing genres.
It incorporates diverse approaches and effects, but is primarily concerned with
loss.

In making these distinctions, Styan foregrounds the notion of genre; he


establishes boundaries and attempts to define unique qualities within
contemporary texts written for performance. Like other scholars from that
period, Styan assumes that most examples of comedy fit into a defined category.
As discussed above, a more contemporary perspective on genre suggests that
these terms have flexible, controversial, permeable boundaries. As Winston
notes, scholars who apply previously established genre labels to contemporary
black comedy find themselves compelled to posit a modern form of these
genres which is radically different from the traditional form (1972: 274).18

For the purposes of this thesis, I have set forth a definition of the terms black
humour and black comedy and have described the boundaries around my
project. However, I am not attempting to establish a permanent or static
definition of these terms. Instead, I take the perspective that genre terms evolve
over time, as does the concept of genre itself. Like any text, this thesis is bound
by the time and location of its creation, as well as current trends in terminology
and theory. I do believe, however, that clear research practice involves the
consistent use of fundamental terms. To this end, I made a distinction between
black comedy and black humour in this chapter and apply that perspective
throughout the thesis. Yet I recognise that the application of these terms may be

31

different for other scholars and writers and that the use of the terms may shift in
the future.

Black Comedy in Twentieth Century Texts

It seems impossible to identify the first text containing black comedy. The desire
to mock death, however expressed, has probably been present in different
cultures for millennia. Centuries before the development of black humour and
black comedy, the impulse to laugh at loss seems to emerge in literature.19
However, this extensive debate regarding the interpretation of texts from
previous centuries in the light of modern sensibilities lies outside the scope of
this thesis. Thus, I begin this introduction to black comic texts in the twentieth
century with the first published use of the term black humour, followed by an
explanation of how I have defined the term within this thesis.

In the latter 1930s, Breton (1997) coined the phrase lhumour noir (black
humour) to describe a dark, surreal style of comic writing that arose during
World War I and developed extensively in the mid twentieth century. In the
years between the wars, Breton collected and analysed literary works that he
believed represented this newly emergent style. Anthologie de lhumour noir
(1997) was published in 1940, just a week before the Nazi invasion of France;
the Vichy government then censored the book and it disappeared. The war
forced Bretons exile in the United States. While overseas, Breton wrote to his
publisher, stressing that the new style of humour he discussed in the anthology
was highly relevant to 1940s Europe. Breton urged his publisher to release the
book in the very period we are living through, [for] I believe that afterward it
would no longer be quite so situated (Polizzotti, 1997: ix). The anthology was
distributed in France in 1945 and finally published in English in 1997.

32

Bretons (1997) anthology includes excerpts of black comedy from fiction


(novels and short stories) and non-fiction (letters, essays and quotes), along with
an introduction to each piece. The earliest writing is from Jonathan Swift, who
Breton considers the true initiator of this style of expression. Breton features
Swifts essay A Modest Proposal, along with two others. Currently, the term
black comedy tends to refer to texts written in the past several decades, while
Swifts work tends to be referred to as satire.

Breton updated the contents of his anthology for a 1966 edition, but died later
that year. In his foreword to this edition, Breton (1997) notes that black comedy
developed extensively in the two decades after the initial publication of his book.
Yet he maintained the belief that black humour was inherently linked to the
period preceding, surrounding and following World War II. In Bretons view,
the years between the wars and a series of significant events including
economic depression, political upheaval and shifting social circumstances
forged a set of conditions that led to the growth and development of this sharp,
unsympathetic form of writing. Black comedy suggests that life is relatively
short, violent and unsatisfying. Nonetheless, much of this material maintains an
energetic, indignant tone. Breton further suggests that black comedy should not
be seen as a genre, but as a perspective a way of understanding the world. He
even personifies black humour, saying that if scholars were able to define it,
imagine the advantage humour would be likely to take of its very definition
(1997: xiv). Attempts to adequately define and contain black humour, Breton
reasons, may be undermined by the rebellious nature of this form of expression.

The decades following World War II saw unprecedented changes to European,


American and Australian cities, as well as many other places around the globe.
The cataclysmic changes in social and political systems contributed to the cruel,
bizarre form of writing called black comedy.20 Many of these works depict the
uncertainties of life after the devastation of war. As mentioned above, the work
of Samuel Beckett in particular the debut of Waiting for Godot in Paris in 1953
marked a new style of writing for performance. As extensively documented

33

elsewhere, the play received both critical accolades and dismissals when it
premiered. The works non-traditional theatricality (i.e. the absence of a clear
setting, no clear plot, characters who do not undergo change) confused and
angered some participants, while it excited others. The main characters,
Vladimir and Estragon, do not overtly state any of the plays possible
interpretations, nor did Beckett offer explanations at the time of the plays initial
presentation and publication. Waiting for Godot foreshadows Becketts later
work in which he delves further into the futility of life and the disappointments
that originate in human weakness. Becketts work from this period is distinctive
because he captures the emotional and visceral experience of despair in his stage
images and in halting, bitterly funny dialogue (Esslin 1969).

Becketts dramatic works speak to a torturous, ridiculous ambiguity. His plays


depict a rueful desire to be someone else, or do something else. The characters
desperately yearn for significance and a sense of purpose before they die. They
reveal strength in their ability to endure awful circumstances, yet they are also
frail and incapable of change. Becketts characters are often powerless,
frightened and delusional.

The themes of Waiting for Godot echo the ideas of Camus and Sartre, exponents
of the philosophy of existentialism. Their perspective which seemed urgent,
natural and necessary in the light of two highly destructive wars articulates a
sense of hopelessness and ennui. These three writers, in addition to numerous
others, contribute the body of work known as the Theatre of the Absurd, a
general term for writing associated with the fatalism and cynicism of the mid
twentieth century. The list of playwrights considered central to the Theatre of the
Absurd is subjective, but Cohen (1997) includes Jean Genet, Eugne Ionesco,
Freidrich Duerrenmatt, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. Esslin (1969) believes
that the Theatre of the Absurd extends beyond the boundaries of comedy or
tragedy to encompass texts that deal with death in a surreal, but not necessarily
funny, manner.

34

Pattie (2000) notes that the Theatre of the Absurd represents more of a
conceptual grouping than a consolidated, focused movement. The texts
considered to fit this descriptor are loosely tied together by a common rejection
of a world run on rational principles (Pattie, 2000: 114). The phrase Theatre of
the Absurd implies adherence to a political or social agenda, but it is also an
expression of emptiness; this style of writing reflects a loss of belief.

The major social movements of the 1950s and 1960s campaigns to enhance the
rights of minority groups, to recognise and respect indigenous people, to
improve working conditions and healthcare, to mainstream disabled individuals
and to integrate education were also forces in shaping the texts of the latter
twentieth century. In conjunction with the significant changes in opinions and
practices wrought by these movements, there was a noticeable shift towards a
more permissive, perhaps pessimistic, style of writing and performance.

The new style of writing that emerged in the mid twentieth century seemed
unfathomable to those who had studied literature and theatre in prior decades.
Writing in the 1960s, Lauter wonders, What critic a hundred years agocould
have anticipated todays sick humour and murderously funny British
comedies? (1964: xxiv). Berger describes this style of writing as a
distinctively modern comic sensibility which is witty, sardonic, very much
detached (1998: 215). Similarly, Horton links the changes in comic writing
from the 1950s onward to an increasingly fragmented sense of the old order
after World War II (1991: 15).

Although the above discussion offers a limited introduction to the development


of black comedy in the mid to latter twentieth century, the chapter to follow
discusses the social conditions of this period in further detail, concentrating on
ideas, attitudes and practices associated with death. The purpose of the following
chapter is to examine the phenomenon of black humour within the complex
social conditions from which it emerged. The next and final section of this
chapter outlines each of the subsequent sections of this thesis.

35

Thesis Structure

This thesis is presented in five chapters. The first chapter comprises this
introduction, which lays the groundwork for the analysis to follow. The
following chapter offers a discussion of the social context of black humour in the
late twentieth century. In this analysis, I consider the factors that formed a
unique and fertile environment for the proliferation of black comedy. To better
comprehend the experience of black humour in context, I look at the ways in
which death is sequestered, yet at the same time publicised, in contemporary
society. I suggest that this juxtaposition creates tensions that erupt in black
comedy.

In the next two chapters, I employ the three key theories of humour
incongruity, catharsis and superiority to analyse black comic texts and to
investigate the experience of black humour. More specifically, Chapter 3
examines the structures of black comedy through the incongruity theory of
humour. In particular, I consider the different ways in which elements in a comic
text may be juxtaposed against one another. I express these contrasts through the
metaphors of collisions, reversals and repetitions. Chapter 4 considers the
possible functions of black humour through the catharsis and superiority theories
of humour. More specifically, I reflect on the experience of finding death funny
and how that affects participants beliefs and behaviours surrounding loss. I
present this discussion through the metaphors of contusions, ruptures and
dislocations. In both these chapters, I assemble and analyse a diverse collection
of black comic texts from the late twentieth century.

The final chapter brings together the concepts addressed previously in the thesis.
In particular, I attempt to articulate the interconnectedness of the three theories
of humour and the diverse range of physical tropes that depict the experience of
black humour. As in the other chapters, this discussion incorporates the analysis

36

of contemporary black comic texts. I conclude by considering the role of black


humour in the process of making meaning from death.

In short, the impetus for this thesis stems from the dearth of research specifically
focused on black humour. Although there is a small body of extant work in this
area, an examination of this research also reveals omissions. Much of this work
has concentrated solely on jokes (Boskin 1997c, Davies 1982, Dundes 1997,
Morrow 1987) or on the improvised use of black comedy in emergency
situations (Moran 1990, Maeve 1998, Schulman-Green 2003). Currently, there is
no recent English-language anthology of contemporary black comic texts for
performance. In addition, there have been few attempts to elucidate why black
humour was such a prevalent, powerful part of late twentieth century culture and
why it continues to make a major impression in the new millennium. As Polan
laments: Rarely have there been attempts to offer material, historically specific
explanations of particular manifestations of the comic (1991: 140-1). This
thesis seeks to make a contribution within that space through an interdisciplinary
analysis of the phenomenon of black humour in the late twentieth century.

37

Chapter 1 Endnotes
1

The current breadth of humour studies research means that a list of scholars engaged in this
work is too extensive to provide here. However, many of these individuals are referenced in this
thesis. (Please also see endnote 2, below.)
2
Humour studies research is represented in publications devoted to humour in particular
Humor: The International Journal of Humor Research as well as in journals and monographs
from other disciplines such as the arts, social sciences and biological sciences. The field of
humour studies is also the focus of numerous conferences and associations, most notably the
events of the International Society for Humor Studies.
3
I read hundreds of texts before selecting the thirty-six examples in this thesis. I do not suggest
that the thesis contains all the works that may be relevant to the discussion, but it includes what I
believe to be a representative sample of voices in contemporary black comic writing.
4
Although a wide variety of languages are spoken throughout these countries, I write in English
using texts from that language. This choice is not intended to minimise the importance of
creative or critical contributions made in different languages. In addition, the decision to narrow
the scope of the thesis to these four countries does not imply a heightened importance for these
countries or an acceptance of the hegemonic histories of these parts of the world.
5
The scholarly work I employ in working with this comic material stems from a much wider
period (i.e. philosophical writings of Ancient Greece through to social science projects and
literary and film criticism of the early twenty-first century).
6
This thesis does not attempt to identify a sense of humour for a particular region or country.
For research in that area see Ziv (1988) and Davies (1998).
7
My use of the term black comedy does not refer to the writing or performance of comic work
by people of colour. I am highly respectful of other scholars decisions to employ that term to
distinguish the origins of comic material. However, I have chosen not to highlight the race,
gender or other defining qualities of the writers and scholars whose work I investigate in this
thesis.
8
The texts discussed in this thesis have generated a vast number of performances. For example,
Beth Henleys play Crimes of the Heart has been produced thousands of times over the past
twenty years. It is not feasible for this thesis to offer an analysis of these innumerable
performances. Instead, I offer my interpretation of this and other comic texts as written works of
art. Analysing texts in this manner is an established method of research in various fields,
including literary criticism, theatre studies, folklore studies and sociology.
9
Other scholars prefer to use the term pre-text for written plays, screenplays and scripts and the
term text for performances. I do not employ that terminology in this thesis, but instead use the
term text to refer to written works of art.
10
To reiterate, I use the word reader to refer to individuals who engage with comic material
through any of their senses.
11
It is not possible to cover the oeuvre of each writer whose work is included in this thesis, or to
discuss the full range of criticism surrounding the selected texts. As stated, it also not feasible to
consider all productions and performances of these texts.
12
I acknowledge that each individuals level of connection or involvement with the experience
of humour may vary. In addition, the number of people simultaneously engaged in the
experience of humour ranges from one (e.g. a joke created and enjoyed by one person) to
millions (e.g. a production broadcast to a wide audience). This factor affects the perception of
humour, but is linked to issues of presentation and reception, which are not the focus of this
thesis.
13
Not all scholars agree that Aristotle wrote this treatise. However, similarities in focus and style
lead many experts to surmise that the work is his. This debate is not central to this thesis, but I
include the treatise for its significance in understanding the concept of humour in Greece in the
fourth century B.C.E..
14
To date, The Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series (Simpson 1997) contains no
additions or emendations to the words comedy, humour or black.
15
The Macquarie Dictionary offers a definition of the combined term black comedy as a form
of expression characterised by an underlying pessimism or bitternessdealing with a tragic or
gruesome subject (Delbridge et al.,1991: 181). This dictionary also offers a figurative meaning

38

of black as superficially humorous but pursuing an underlying theme related to the darker side
of life (1991: 180). Both these definitions seem overly restrictive; they imply that black comedy
is merely a faade that covers exigent issues associated with death.
16
Feibleman describes a scene from Alice in Wonderland (Carroll 2004) in which Alice
experiences the strange transformation of a baby into a pig, then encounters the bewildering
Cheshire Cat. Feibleman points out that this convoluted scene does not fit easily into one single
literary genre. He says that we may see the actual situation as comedy or as tragedy; for in fact
it is both (1974: 474).
17
Both Critchley (2002) and Colletta (2004) note that Freuds explanation of gallows humour
also involves the efforts of the super-ego to control the id. Freud believes that, in these moments
of humour, the super-ego (i.e. parent figure) refuses to let the id (i.e. child figure) react to the
execution with pure emotion.
18
Winston makes specific reference to Styan as one of several scholars who modifies an existing
genre label to match the new mode of communication now commonly known as black comedy.
19
For example, some contemporary literary critics perceive black humour in particular ancient
Greek tragedies, such as Euripedes Medea (1994). This stems from both the characters
emotional intensity, as well as their callous indifference, in the face of death. For example, when
Medeas servant informs her that she has successfully murdered her ex-husbands new wife, as
well as her own two sons, she says Good news!...How did they die? Was it really so horrible, so
vile? The worse it was, the more I want to hear (1994: 39). McLeish and Raphael describe
moments like this as brutal comedy (1994: x).
Other critics find black humour in Renaissance drama, especially in Christopher Marlowes The
Jew of Malta (1969), which details the vengeful murders of the wealthy, scheming Barabas. This
play is often described as a black comedy because Barabas jokes about his terrible deeds and
finds increasingly clever ways to dispatch his perceived enemies. After devising a complicated
mass murder, he says slyly: Will this not be brave? (1969: 427).
Similar dark comic undertones appear in the anonymous play The Arden of Feversham (1984),
dated from approximately 1592, which details the murder of a prominent merchant at the hands
of his wife Alice and her lover. The play has been attributed to a number of prominent
playwrights of the period including Marlowe, Kyd and Shakespeare but authorship remains
unknown. In this play, Alice and her hired assassins repeatedly fail to kill Arden. They succeed
at the end of the play and are quickly apprehended. Their ineptitude may be perceived as darkly
comic.
Scholars also point to moments of bleak humour in Shakespeare (1982). One of the most
commonly cited examples is the gravediggers scene in Hamlet, in which the clown/gravedigger
gives witty, elusive answers to Hamlets questions. In addition, the Porter at the castle gate in
Macbeth recounts the numerous different professions of people that wind up in hell. In another
dark scene from Richard III, King Richard duplicitously woos Princess Anne, whose husband he
has just killed. The same play contains two dim-witted murderers who bicker about how they
should execute George, Duke of Clarence. In Titus Andronicus, General Titus laughs out loud
when he discovers that his sons have been murdered. Titus enemys sons rape and maim his
daughter, Lavinia, then crack jokes about her dire condition. Bate interprets these scenes as a
glorious comic parody of tragic plays in the late sixteenth century (1995: 121). He contends
that Titus Andronicus in contrast to its reputation as a primitive example of Shakespeares
writing is a clever and well-structured dark comedy. Yet Ellis questions whether Shakespeares
plays contain black humour. He notes that marrying comedy with violence in Elizabethan
drama is a complicated business, due to a lack of knowledge about the perceptions of
readers/viewers at that time (2001: 388). Ellis suggests that it may be speculative to read black
comedy into texts from previous centuries, yet it is also difficult not to do so give a
contemporary perspective on violence and loss.
20
A strong, dark voice associated with black comedy began to emerge before the two World
Wars within a small number of texts. For example, John Millington Synges 1907 play The
Playboy of the Western World depicts the underlying violence in Irish culture at the turn of last
century. In this text, Christy Mahon a young, impoverished farmer appears at a pub in a
village on the coast of country Mayo. He explains his disheveled appearance by saying he has
just murdered his father in the fields after being threatened by the old man. When Christy

39

receives unexpected attention, he elaborates on the story. The gory and heartless details of the
murder ignite passion and admiration in the villagers. Christy revels in his new fame for twentyfour hours until his robust father arrives at the pub to bring his son back to the family farm. In
this work, Synge demonstrates peoples gullibility and desire for prurient details. Although
Synges work was not identified as black comedy at the time, it tends to be discussed in these
terms today. Llewellyn-Jones (1997) points out that the plays strange blend of mirth and horror
contributes to its charm as well as its controversial history. The first audience to the play (in
Dublin in 1907) broke into a riot which ended the performance. The protest was apparently
ignited by issues of national politics and regional stereotypes more than by the plays dark
humour (Llewellyn-Jones 1997).

40

Chapter 2 Depicting Death in a Contemporary Context

In this chapter, I discuss various factors that may have contributed to the
popularity and proliferation of black comedy in contemporary society.1 I consider
how changes in the information, practices and institutions surrounding death may
have heightened the desire to make fun of it. I also look at how death is depicted
in the contemporary media and how these stories and images shape peoples
perceptions of mortality. I examine these depictions of death because the media,
in all its iterations, has exerted a major cultural force over recent decades. In this
discussion, I focus on news and entertainment because these entities are
perceived and interpreted in a public context; they are shared cultural artefacts
that reveal the curious, changing ways in which people process loss. I argue that
the media-rich environment of the late twentieth century has been particularly
conducive to the growth and development of black comedy.

My purpose in this chapter is to present an overview of the social conditions


related to death in the late twentieth century.2 Over the past twenty-five years in
particular, researchers in a range of disciplines (including the humanities, social
sciences, medicine, palliative care and the arts) have contributed to a multifaceted
body of academic and therapeutic work on death, dying and bereavement.
Scholars in this field generally support an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural
approach to research and intervention (Kellehear 2000; Williamson and
Shneidman 1995). In keeping with this inclusive approach to research, I draw
from a diverse range of resources as I work to place the experience of death
within the framework of contemporary life.

This chapter is predicated on the notion that individuals interact with society in a
multifaceted, contested and continuous manner. This concept, which is central to
contemporary critical thought, helps describe the ongoing arbitration between
individuals and social forces. By approaching the phenomenon of humour from
this standpoint, I acknowledge the contribution of postmodern critical theory. Yet

42

this expansive body of work is not the focus of this thesis. Instead, my research
design is based around the key extant theories of humour. My decision to shape
the thesis in this manner is not intended to minimise the relevance of
postmodernism, or to suggest that critical theory lacks relevance to my project,
but it is designed to address specific questions and contain the scope of the
project. As Denzin notes, the terms postmodern and postmodernism speak to
at least four interrelated phenomena [that are woven] into complex,
contradictory fields of experience (1991: 3). It is not feasible to consider the
implications of different strands of postmodern theory in relation to the key
questions in the thesis.

I do, however, acknowledge the marked impact Foucault has made on


contemporary criticism in a range of fields, including his references to death. To
analyse Foucaults insights here, in a necessarily condensed manner, would do a
disservice to the complexity of his ideas and the voluminous scholarship
surrounding his work. Miller (1993) suggests that Foucault was preoccupied with
death both in terms of his philosophical/sociological endeavours and in relation
to his own mortality. In particular, Foucaults (1977) analysis of death as
spectacle reveals the attraction of death and corpses as elements of
entertainment.3 In addition, his work on social institutions how they emerge,
intensify and weaken influences the perspective taken in this chapter, which
focuses on contemporary social changes and their effect on peoples perceptions
of death and grief. Thus, I approach the following analysis of death in the late
twentieth century with the understanding that each individuals concept of death
represents both a personal exploration and a socially constructed experience. In
this chapter, I integrate recent research on death with black comic texts to help
elucidate the dynamic relationship between individuals, society and the
experience of black humour.

As discussed in the previous chapter, the style of expression known as black


comedy emerged in the mid twentieth century against a backdrop of global
violence and intense social change. During this time, peoples experiences of loss

43

were particularly devastating and pervasive (Jalland 2006). Recent events such as
wars, famines, political assassinations, civil and human rights movements,
political debates, religious movements and medical advances have significantly
influenced peoples perceptions of, and practices related to, death. Yet these
transformations did not occur at clearly defined moments; the changes associated
with these events stirred, accelerated, slowed and sparked erratically. In this
chapter, I look at beliefs and behaviours associated with death in the late
twentieth century. I also explore the link between cultural meanings of death and
experiences of black humour. As Giddens says, one of the distinctive features of
modernity is an increasing interconnection betweenglobalising influences on
the one hand and personal dispositions on the other (1991: 1).

The Ultimate Incongruity: Death in Contemporary Society


Perhaps the single most impressive fact about death todayis how much, and in
how many different ways, various aspects of death and dying are currently
undergoing dramatic changes (Williamson and Shneidman, 1995: 1). While key
events of the past century have clearly changed the way people live, these same
developments have influenced the way people die and how they conceptualise
their mortality.

Death is one experience with which all individuals are forced to engage. Death
is an essential feature of the human condition and it frequently demands our
complete attention (Mellor and Shilling, 1993: 411). Experiences of loss
constitute some of the most prominent, lasting memories people carry. People
encounter death in diverse ways: through the passing of a loved one, through a
disaster, within the context of work, or through a personal illness causing an
increased awareness of the brevity of life. People also connect to ideas about
death through creative works. There are countless images of violence and loss in
contemporary cultural products: theatre, film, television, dance, art, video games
and the news.

44

At the same time, many people in contemporary Western societies engage in a


sophisticated process of denying mortality (Becker 1997, Nitschke 2001). Becker
believes this avoidance is entrenched in social institutions, cultural practices and
personal interactions. As discussed in the sections to follow, this tendency to
deny death took hold through a complex web of social factors. According to
Jalland (2006), the silence surrounding death became particularly pronounced in
the mid-twentieth century, largely due to the devastation of the two world wars.
Jalland describes this shared cultural experience as a massive overload of death
and sorrow (2006: 14). She emphasises that twentieth-century attitudes towards
death were moulded not merely by one terrible world war, but the cumulative
effect of two in little more than thirty years (ibid.). After World War I, and for
decades to follow, there was an intense, continuous social imperative not to
grieve: emotional and expressive dying and grieving was minimised, even
thwarted entirely, by social pressure to keep a stiff upper lip in times of loss
(Jalland, 2006: 3).4 Jalland notes that the effects of this silence were felt
especially keenly for women and for people with limited education. These
individuals either were not allowed to grieve or had very few resources through
which to express their losses.

Yet the denial of death, however intricately conceived and practised, ignores a
fundamental tenet of the organic system: that death is necessary to the
continuation of life. Bauman calls death the ultimate incongruity because it
juxtaposes the free, rational, abstract human mind with the crude limitations of
the human body (1992: 1). These contradictions illustrate a certain irrationality in
relation to loss. For example, people may sense that their minds and spirits are
capable of unspecified longevity, but that their physical forms disappoint. Crouch
and Huppauf write that death intrudes into human thought in a myriad of ways
(1985: xi). Reminders of mortality emerge unexpectedly and engender complex
responses.

According to recent research in Australia, the majority of people feel a


prevailing unease about death and grief (Commonwealth Department of Health

45

and Aged Care, 2000: 1). Due to the uncertainty and discomfort elicited by the
notion of mortality, death has been isolated from other aspects of living (ibid.).
Most people living in contemporary society do not encounter death in their
everyday lives; more commonly, people gain information about death through the
media. Although that information tends to be highly detailed and replete with
personal stories, the virtuality of the connection serves to distance people even
further from the experiences surrounding loss. This reveals a contradiction in
contemporary perceptions of death: although people may acknowledge that death
is inevitable, and they know a great deal about how death occurs, they tend to
separate it out and suppress discussion of it (Giddens 1991). People are reluctant
to wrestle with experiences that disturb their predictable, contained view of their
place in the world, or what Giddens calls their ontological security (1991: 36).

Death remains a relatively forbidden topic of conversation (unless it is discussed


through the veil of fictional entertainment). People may be reluctant to describe
the full extent of their fear and grief because these emotions may be met with
disapproval. People also feel uncertain about addressing a loss with a bereaved
individual. This tendency to avoid communicating about death creates a
disconcerting public silence around these issues a silence that may help
explain the intense confusion, anxiety, and even terror which are frequently
experienced by individuals [facing] signs of their own mortality (Mellor and
Shilling, 1993: 414). The silence surrounding death leaves many people
uncertain, socially unsupported and vulnerable (1993: 417).

Many individuals feel unprepared when death occurs (Department of Health and
Aged Care, 2000: 1). Although the physical causes of death and images of violent
death are featured prominently in the media, the existential facets of death are
not. People have greater access to objective, statistical information about death
(i.e. medical/physical, governmental) than to subjective information about it (i.e.
spiritual, communal) (Bauman 1992, Giddens 1991, Kellehear 2000). Without the
promise of a meaningful public discourse on death, bereaved individuals may
have to investigate and evaluate their own resources for the emotional aspects of

46

loss. The bereaved may experience a paralysis of will that the ordinary
conventions of day-to-day life usually keep successfully at bay (Giddens, 1991:
3, 37). Although people may acknowledge the death of a loved one, and may be
able to conceive of their own mortality, they may not possess the resources to
deal with these experiences effectively.

One of the possible reasons for this cognitive and emotional paralysis may be the
complex contradiction between the visibility and secrecy of death in
contemporary society. On one hand, death seems to be denied and concealed; on
the other, it seems to be acknowledged and publicised. The next three main
sections of this chapter are devoted to this contradiction and its relevance to the
experience of black humour. First, I look at how death is contained within the
professional domain; second, I consider how death is secularised. Finally, I look
at how death is mediatised in contemporary society. Within this discussion I
include the analysis of two black comic texts.

Medicalising Death
In previous generations, within the countries studied in this thesis, the elderly and
the terminally ill were usually cared for at home by family members. In general,
people knew death close at hand; it was a common event in all age groups
(Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, 2000: 1). Today, it is
mainly the elderly who remember when death was a regular part of both familial
and communal life.

A variety of infectious and parasitic diseases, now considered curable, accounted


for twelve percent of all deaths at the beginning of the twentieth century (Najman
2000). Infant mortality was also tragically high at this time: children who
survived their first year remained vulnerable to a variety of fatal diseases. Until
approximately the 1950s, it was not unusual for men and women to be widowed
young, or to lose more than one spouse during a lifetime. Yet life expectancy has
increased significantly over the past one hundred years: in Australia, the average

47

age went from 59 years to 81 years for women and 55 years to 76 years for men.
This improvement was similarly pronounced in Great Britain and the United
States over the same period (Najman 2000; National Statistics UK 2000; U.S.
Census Bureau 1999).5

One reason for this change is that death became increasingly medicalised. Instead
of caring for the dying at home, most people relegated these tasks to professional
organisations (e.g. hospitals and hospice care facilities). From approximately
1970 onward, the vast majority of deaths in Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and
the United States occurred within sanctioned institutions. This shifting social
practice placed death in a professional rather than personal space. Jalland notes
that by the last thirty years of the twentieth century, a particular combination of
complex forces was creating a massive challenge for society (2006: 207). The
ageing of the population, in addition to the heightened medicalisation of the
process of dying, meant that death became an alien experience dominated by
doctors [and] detached from everyday life (ibid.). The effect of this societal shift
was to render death almost invisible, secluding it from the community (Lee,
2002). Nuland describes this as a move towards the method of modern dying,
where [death] can be hidden, cleansed of its organic blight, and finally packaged
for modern burial (1997: xv). Currently, more than eighty percent of people in
the United States and Australia die in hospitals; the rest pass away in nursing
homes or hospices (Nuland 1997, Stevens et al. 2000). In Australia, less than
one per cent of people over the age of sixty-five years die by choice in their own
homes (Stevens et al., 2000: 180). Although a terminally ill or elderly person
may wish to remain in the home during the process of dying, this does not
necessarily transpire (Campbell et al. 2000). In contemporary society, people in
the general population rarely witness a death or see a dead body (Kellehear
2000). This means that even some doctors and other health professionals at
least in the early stages of their careers have never seen a person die (Holloway
1996).

48

Modern hospitals and nursing homes tend to shield patients and their families
from the complexities of dying (Nuland 1997, Jalland 2006). People tend to
abdicate responsibility for their health, transferring their sense of control to the
medical system a strategy that can be both reassuring and frightening. To
alleviate anxiety, people want to entrust their lives to the cult of specialists
(Bauman, 1992: 23). Bauman argues that many people, when faced with
mortality, experience diffuse feelings of helplessness and incompetence which
demand permanent assistance of people in the know (ibid.). Kellehear echoes
this point, saying that the last several decades heralded a major period of patient
passivity (2000: 6). People have come to see death as a failure of health and not
as a natural or divine outcome of life (Kellehear, 2001: 509). Many people place
an extensive, perhaps excessive, sense of trust in the medical system to help fight
life-threatening diseases, despite the fact that death must occur at some point in
time. Fighting death is meaningless. But fighting the causes of dying turns into
the meaning of life (Bauman, 1992: 7; italics in the original).

The medical system, and to an extent the media, foster the impression that death
is caused by the failure of a specific organ or body part. While this perspective is
logical within a medical context, it also suggests that death as such is inevitable;
but each concrete instance of death is contingent (Bauman, 1992: 8). This view
of death may manifest itself in a conceptual separation of the diseased parts of the
body; the body parts become entities to be attacked and defeated, rather than
components of a complex and natural physical life. This emphasis on overcoming
disease, Bauman argues, is simply a way of saying I would rather die of that than
this or I would rather die then than now (1992: 10). The medicalisation of
death carries with it a deceptive sense of hope: people believe they can
continuously postpone death with better health practices, pharmaceuticals,
surgery and other treatments. In the coming years, cloning and human stem cell
research may also significantly change peoples perspectives on death.

Limitations to the longevity remain, of course, despite the development of


medical practices such as organ transplants, in-vitro conception, micro-surgery

49

and artificial body part replacements. These developments in technology and


pharmacology are often said to save lives a euphemism for the act of
postponing death. Maddocks (2000) cautions that this continuous focus on
preserving life leaves little opportunity for people to grapple with their mortality.
As a consequence, people tend to peer forward, continuously embracing new
areas of expertise and hoping for a hundred years of high-quality individual
existence. This urgent push to extend life then becomes a struggle for
immortality through technology (Lee, 2002).

By attempting to remain young an obsession in contemporary Western society


people seek to control factors [which] offer particularly potent threats to their
secure sense of meaning (Mellor and Shilling, 1993: 13). Many people
experiment with dietary and exercise regimes, as well as a continuous stream of
new pharmacological products, to achieve a sense of physical well-being. It
seems as though the worry about immortality can now all but be forgotten in the
daily bustle about health (Bauman, 1992: 19). People worship the vernal, vibrant
body and struggle, often quite unrealistically, to preserve it. Mellor and Shilling
(1993) argue that an overwhelming emphasis on youth may make death
especially confronting for people; it negates their desire for continual beginnings.

This preoccupation with youth is not restricted to the medical system, but extends
to its imitators, such as the cosmetics industry. Modifications to the face and
body, to emulate the appearance of youth, have become commonplace. Through
its marketing, the cosmetic industry says that people can do something about
ageing and dying. As a result, the vast majority of faces in the media have been
altered (either surgically or digitally). This sets up an artificial public image for
the process of ageing. With these modifications, the physical body becomes a
project: a work perpetually in progress. The implication is that the natural body
with its variations, vulnerabilities and inevitable decline is not acceptable.

Ageing and dying are frequently perceived as suspicious, rather than being
ordinary aspects of human existence (Bauman, 1992: 20). Along these lines,

50

Gorer argues that the process of ageing is considered as disgusting as the natural
processes of copulation and birth were a century ago (1995: 20). This set of
circumstances does not encourage people to prepare for dying; people who are
busy trying to extend their lives will have little opportunity to contemplate their
future as old or infirm individuals. Mellor and Shilling predict the effects of this
avoidance: The more people prioritise [a connection between] self-identity and
the body, the more difficult it will be for them to cope with the idea of the self
ceasing to exist (1993: 414).

The twentieth century was the first period in which an individual was more likely
to die in old age than in infancy (Jalland 2006). As a result of improved health
practices, the process of dying now takes longer than ever before. In Australia,
the vast majority of people die slowly rather than suddenly. Many people have, or
will have, significant, if not major, disabilities that require medical care and
continuing community support (Najman, 2000: 33). This trend is set to continue
in Australia, Great Britain and the United States: if life expectancy continues to
increase and the birth rate declines or stabilises at its current level, the percentage
of elderly people in the population will increase markedly after the year 2010
(Najman 2000). It is not clear how society will care for a sizable proportion of
people who are in the process of dying, grieving or both.

Over the past three decades, however, there have been significant developments
in hospices and home-based care programs for the dying.6 These efforts offer an
alternative to a medicalised passing in hospital. In 1986 the World Heath
Organisation published a definition of palliative care which recognised that the
psychological, social and spiritual problems associated with dying, as well as the
control of pain, are paramount (Maddocks 1996: 61). In addition, the
development of professional bereavement therapy and the publication of
influential books on bereavement have changed peoples understanding of the
effects of loss (Jalland 2006). These resources, such as Kubler-Ross (1969) On
Death and Dying, have had a significant social impact.

51

The power, clarity and emotional appeal of [Kubler-Ross] work


took advantage of changes in the cultural climate to alter both
medical and popular responses to death and bereavement.
(Jalland, 2006: 352)
Jalland argues that, during the past thirty years, people have had greater
opportunities for dealing with death and grief. Yet as discussed above, this
heightened awareness of death as a concept and experience has been complicated
by a continued sequestration of the practicalities of death. Mellor (1993) points
out that much of the work on bereavement for example, Kubler-Ross (1969)
description of the stages of grieving focuses on the individual experience rather
than the communal. This gives people nothing to counteract the widespread
privatisation of meaning . . . which is the major source of many persons
contemporary difficulties in dealing with death (Mellor, 1993: 22). So although
the past three decades have seen more frequent discussions of death and dying
within an interpersonal context, this sense of openness does not necessarily
extend to the public sphere.

Another indicator of the invisibility of death is peoples lack of exposure to


corpses. It is now rare for people to see a dead body or view an open casket. If a
viewing does occur, the body is most often displayed in a private room within
professional funeral home (Mitford 2000, Mellor and Shilling 1993). In previous
decades, however, people often kept the casket of a loved one in the family home
prior to burial. Playwright Joe Orton describes his experience with a casket in his
parents house in the late 1960s:

[My mothers] corpse was downstairs in the main living room.


[This] meant going out or watching television with death at ones
elbow. My father, fumbling out of bed in the middle of the night,
bumped into the coffin and almost [knocked] the corpse on the
floor.
(cited in Lahr, 1993: 22)
Ortons mothers corpse seems both odd and utterly natural in the living room.
This situation contains a juxtaposition between the image of the living mother

52

(sitting and watching television) and the deceased mother (lying in a casket in the
same location). The casket becomes an obstacle to the surviving family members.

Today, people tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of a corpse in their private
home. Instead, the dead body is something that should be disposed of
immediately, albeit carefully and thoughtfully, so that living memories of the
deceased individual can continue. Over recent years, it has become less common
to view a casket, open or closed, at any time in the grieving process. More often
than not, the body of the deceased is not present at the event that marks its
demise. As often as not, the dead are unwelcome at their own obsequies
(Mellor, 1993: 22). Crouch (2004) argues that the practice of not having a casket
at a memorial service symbolically hides the corpse and thereby denies the
permanency of death. In the absence of a body, bereaved individuals may have
difficulty acknowledging the loss. The disposal [of the corpse] is hedged about
with ritual to fence in the dangers it signifies (Crouch, 2004: 1).

In contemporary society, some individuals see a corpse as a remnant of a human


being whose spirit has departed. Others, particularly within health services, are
conscious of the organs that may be transplanted from the body. This clinical
view of the deceased body tends to de-emphasise the spiritual aspects of
existence. Instead, it foregrounds the cause of death and the causality of failed
body parts and physical systems. This conceptual segmentation of the body
serves to make the deceased less knowable. The corpse becomes less important
to the process of grieving.

Another shift in practices associated with death, and one which also seems to
depersonalise the corpse, is the marked increase in cremations. At the beginning
of the twentieth century, there were no crematoria in Australia. It was not until
after World War II that the practice of cremation gained acceptance (Nicol 2000).
Jalland (2006) argues that veterans memories of dead soldiers, rotting on the
ground on a battle site, may have led them to choose cremation for themselves
and their loved ones in subsequent decades. Nicol notes that cremation was seen

53

as more hygienic than burial in the early twentieth century. During this period,
heightened awareness of public health issues [affected] the policies adopted with
regard to the disposal of human remains (Nicol, 2000: 97). It also appears that a
decline in organised religion, discussed further below, may have influenced the
growing acceptance of cremation because a number of religions do not deem the
practice acceptable.7 Thus, people may be more likely to choose cremation if they
are not affiliated with any particular religious group. Through a combination of
these social forces, the percentage of deceased people being cremated in Australia
rose to over fifty percent by the end of the twentieth century. At this time in Great
Britain, the percentage was approximately seventy percent; in the United States it
was twenty-five percent (Nicol 2000; Mitford 2000).

Following cremation, an individual persons ashes, or cremains, are usually


scattered or kept in a family home. Under these circumstances, there is often not a
public, tangible marker (such as a tombstone) of a deceased individuals
existence (Nicol 2000). The process of cremation forms an entity that bears no
resemblance to the original physical body of the deceased. In this sense, ashes
may seem less threatening than a casket because they do not clearly remind the
bereaved of the inert, cumbersome corpse. Nonetheless, ashes still have an
emotional, spiritual and tangible importance and may therefore prompt
controversial discussions and decisions, just as corpses do.

In contemporary society, the complexities of death seem to be removed from the


public sphere, whether in a hospital, hospice or other private location in which
death occurs (Kellehear 2000). Each of the factors discussed above the
increased number of nursing homes, the worship of youth and the rapid growth in
the elderly population contributes to the sense that death is increasingly
medicalised and privatised. The experience of loss now seems less visible, less
communal. Yet medical information about death and dying is more accessible,
which brings death into the pubic sphere in a general, impersonal manner. This
point is discussed further at the end of this chapter. In the following section, I

54

look another cultural shift that affects contemporary perceptions of death: the
diminishing influence of organised religion.

Secularising Death
In previous centuries, organised religion played a primary role in shaping
peoples beliefs about death by providing a sense of meaning for loss (Jalland
2006). Many religious teachings and services were, and are, intended to help
explain death and ameliorate the distress associated with it. Religion tends to
provide a communal context for death, conceptualising it as a necessary and
continuous aspect of the natural life cycle. One of the other main concerns of
religion is the life of the soul after death. As discussed further below, this focus
on eternal spiritual existence has influenced practices associated with the demise
of the human body, including medical interventions, palliative care, funerals and
the handling of corpses.

During the twentieth century, most individuals living in Australia, the United
Kingdom, Ireland and the United States were aligned with the Christian tradition,
although other religious groups also had a major impact on beliefs and
behaviours associated with death: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other systems
of religious thought permeated the collective culture in these four countries. From
approximately the middle of the twentieth century onward, however, religion has
been a less powerful cultural force than it was previously (Aries 1981, Jalland
2006). During this time, the percentage of people involved in organised religion
declined markedly; people living in the Anglophone world have been
renegotiating their relationship with organised religion (Kellehear, 2001: 508).8
For example, in the 1990s, the number of Australians who stated that they did not
belong to any religious group increased by thirty-five percentage points (A.B.S.
Year Book Australia 2003: online). Mellor and Shilling point to an overall
reduction in the scope of the sacred; they see this shift away from organised
religion as one of the major sociological changes of the twentieth century (1993:
413).

55

One of the results of increased secularism has been that many people lack a
means of containing [death] in an over-arching, existentially meaningful, ritual
structure (Mellor and Shilling, 1993: 427). In turn, the increasing power of the
health care system has obscured the role of the church (Rumbold 2000). This
shift from a communal, religious perspective to a more individual, medical one
emphasises the physical reality of death, rather than its spiritual meaning.
Currently, the clinical aspects of individuals dying and grieving dominate social
consciousness, individualising and marginalising traditional religious practices
and beliefs (Rumbold, 2000: 286). In addition, pastoral care for the terminally ill
has become less religious (Rumbold 2000). Previously, pastoral carers generally
worked within the context of a particular faith to help people cope with death.
Today, pastoral care tends to represent a wide range of perspectives. It requires
an eclectic approach, including traditional pastoral discourses, an active search
for alliances with new spiritualities, and an exploration of non-clinical health
paradigms (Rumbold, 2000: 286). This increased spiritual relativism represents
a major cultural change in relation to death.

An additional yet related aspect of the secularisation of death is the prominence


of the funeral industry. In contemporary society, people rarely prepare bodies for
burial at home. In previous generations, dressing a corpse was a piece of
domestic technology familiar to most households (Feifel, 1977: 5). Women,
especially, were familiar with the ritual of preparing a body (Jalland 2006).
Currently, the vast majority of people in Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and the
United States instead use the services of a professional funeral company to handle
a deceased individual. The usual practice is for the company representative to
pick up a corpse within a few hours of death and take it to a private location.
Often, relatives and friends of the deceased do not see the body after this point.

Another related change in the practices surrounding death is the contemporary


funeral. Most funerals held in the early to mid-twentieth century were religious
occasions; they consisted of a pre-ordained structure with conventional content.
At this time, funerals served as collective rituals in which people came together to

56

mourn a loved one and to adjust to that persons disappearance from the
community. These services usually focussed on the communal experience of
living and dying (Jalland 2006). Over the past two to three decades, however,
funeral practices have changed markedly; they are now less entwined with
organised religion and more focussed on the characteristics and achievements of
a particular deceased individual. The shift away from religion has changed
contemporary memorial services. Currently, funerals range from traditional
religious rituals to secular events to any combination of these (Mellor and
Shilling 1993, Rumbold 2000). Contemporary funerals, if they are in honour of
an individual who is not famous, are likely to be private, personal occasions
rather than public, community events. These services generally seem little
concerned with the nature of human existence and the life of the soul after death.
Instead, they seem focussed on providing a diverse and animated record of an
individual life (Crouch 2004).

It is now increasingly common to replace the term funeral with memorial or


celebration of life and to include popular music, secular prose, poems or other
quotes in place of a religious order of service. The celebration of life event may
also involve comic stories told about the deceased, favourite (non-religious) items
displayed, and pictures or videos of the deceased. These more secular funeral
services do not necessarily emphasise the future existence of the deceaseds soul;
the gaze is instead on the past, on his/her life experiences and interactions.

Due to the increasing secularisation of death, the established theologies that


accompany formal religions are less frequently applied to the processes of dying
and grieving. People therefore have to search for other ways of understanding
their losses. Recently, many people have applied the formats of other social
gatherings such as music concerts, sporting events, performances and political
rallies to funerals. When there are multiple deaths from violence or a natural
disaster, or when famous people pass away, memorial services are often held in
large, prominent public locations.9 Participation in these events seems to indicate
a desire for ritual in a public forum and for a non-traditional experience of

57

mourning. These celebration of life memorial services speak to the positive


value of an individual human existence. They may also make honouring the dead
seem easier, simpler and more familiar, because death is placed in a
contemporary social framework. Yet these events may also suggest a reluctance
to accept the profundity and finality of death. In Crouchs (2004) view, the
secular celebration of life may become an additional strategy for avoiding the
realities of death. By focussing on the past, bereaved individuals may neglect
long-term issues associated with loss: their changing personal, social,
professional and financial circumstances, their perceptions of what happens to
their loved ones spirit after death and their own mortality. Crouch believes a
celebration of life event merely papers over the fragmentations of our
existence, our terror and ignorance of death (2004: 3).

Increasing globalisation is a major trend in funeral services (Howarth 2000). One


large international company, Service Corporation International (SCI), now
handles twenty percent of funerals in the United States, twenty-five percent in
Australia and fifteen percent in Great Britain (Mitford 2000).10 According to
Howarth, this trend towards single corporate dominance of the funeral industry
results in a lessening of cultural difference...and the loss of diversity within
funerals (2000: 90). Increased globalisation seems to lead not only to a more
generic style of funeral, but also to a consistently secular one, as cultural and
religious differences are minimised in the process of marketing international
products related to death.

Another service which has recently emerged within the death industry is the
funeral planner. This individual is akin to a party or wedding consultant, but
specialises in funerals.11 This service can be purchased either before death
(similar to purchasing a burial plot while still alive), or a relative/friend may
subscribe to the service after the loss of a loved one. The funeral planner
professionalises duties that were previously accomplished by the community of
friends and relatives that surrounded the bereaved. The market for this service

58

may not only be wealthy individuals; it also seems to be aimed at those who do
not want to deal directly with the issues and tasks that accompany death.

On the other hand, globalisation of the funeral industry may encourage more
personalised memorial events. Companies like SCI capitalise on peoples desire
to individualise and localise death by offering a multitude of funeral options.
Increasingly, the bereaved choose from various service frameworks and slot in
the songs, texts and images that befit their loved one. Through this process, the
notion of a funeral becomes flexible, private and specific, in contrast to the
public, timeless emphasis of traditional religious services. Kellehear suggests that
a growing emphasis on choice, discernment and privacy has effectively brought
death out of the communal sphere (2001: 509).

It seems that the increasing secularisation of death, as well as the commercialism


of the funeral industry, may create a less integrated, less resonant place for death
in society. People seem reluctant to conceive of death as an inevitable aspect of
existence; they prefer to regard it from a literal or conceptual distance, as though
death were a product or public event. This point leads to the following discussion
on death in the media.

Mediatising Death
While the preceding discussion focussed predominantly on the ways in which
death is kept private and separate from everyday life, this section looks at how
death is made public and visible. The following discussion investigates media
coverage of death in recent decades. How is death depicted in the media? How
might images of violence and corpses affect peoples perceptions of death?

Death is a pervasive aspect of the postmodern media, in both documentary and


fictional content. Our newspapers, television screens, computer monitors and
cinemas are replete with images of death, and particularly violent death. People
now encounter news about death so frequently, and often fleetingly, that the

59

experience becomes unremarkable (Kellehear, 2000: 9). The National Institute of


Mental Health in the United States estimates that children witness approximately
20,000 deaths on television by the age of eighteen (Kearl, 1995: 23). Some of
these deaths are artificial, found in drama and even comedy programs, and some
deaths are real, seen in documentaries or on the news, which is the medium with
the greatest density of death stories (Kearl, 1995: 24). The news often presents
detailed descriptions and images of death and corpses. In each hour of broadcast
television, the media may depict a few individual deaths, or in the case of a
disaster or war, thousands of deaths. Most people obtain all their information
about disasters, wars and famines through the television news, films, newspapers
and the internet. Denzin says that the new information technologies turn
everyday life into a theatrical spectaclethese dramas are staged against the
backdrop of compelling, newsworthy events which are shaped by uncertainty,
unpredictability and natural disaster (1991: 8).12 Thus, peoples perceptions of
death, at least when it occurs on a broad scale, are largely constructed by the
media (Hijer 2004).

The overwhelming majority of deaths presented in the media (both in news and
fictional entertainment) are caused by violence. Geoffrey Gorer writes that while
natural death [has become] more and more smothered in prudery, violent death
has played an ever-growing part in the fantasies offered to mass audiences
(1995: 21). Although violent or sudden deaths represent only a small percentage
of actual deaths per annum around six percent in Australia the scenarios
presented on television (in both fictional and realistic material) focus on sudden,
tragic, multiple deaths (Najman 2000). Television, print and internet media rarely
cover a story about a single, natural death unless the person was a public figure.
Jalland (2006) points out that when media coverage is predominantly given to
deaths from disasters, wars and outbreaks of disease, it can be difficult for people
to grieve the loss of a individual a loved one whose life was not deemed worthy
of publicity.

60

The media do take an interest, however, when several individuals are killed in
related circumstances or within the same incident (Fought 2002, pers. comm, 18
March). This gives the impression that death is largely a function of crime,
addiction, accidents and natural disasters. As a result, people tend to overestimate
the likelihood that they will be harmed by violence or disasters. The prevalence
of death-related images and stories in the media seems to magnify peoples fears
in relation to sudden and violent death (Gorer 1995).

News coverage has also become more concerned with the personal than with the
social or political (Hijer 2004). Individual stories of loss tend to pique peoples
interest and are simple to follow; these incidents also seem specific and situated,
so they may feel less threatening to readers/viewers/listeners. Finally, individual
stories seem contained and isolated, so they require less collective responsibility
to address the conditions of trauma. This tendency to individualise death seems to
reflect the highly focussed, self-referential nature of contemporary society.
Giddens (1991) argues that peoples concern with uniqueness and selfpreservation is a major characteristic of life in the late twentieth century. The
foregrounding of the personal in news stories about death also pertains to the
types of victims who receive attention. Hijers (2004) research suggests that,
over the past two decades, stories about death have focussed on individual
civilians and have displayed increasingly brutal images.

The camera explores faces twisted in pain, or lingers on wounds


and bloody bandages; it zooms in on broken and mutilated limbs,
or pools of blood, and the injured are not soldiers but ordinary
people.
(Hijer, 2004: 516)
These graphic pictures impact upon peoples memories; they have a certain
penetrative power (Hijer 2004: 520). The focus on individual death also
serves to narrow the perspective offered by these stories. This emphasis on the
individual makes the idea of death seem violent and specific.

61

Another influential aspect of the news coverage of death is that stories are
depicted in quick succession, often without coverage of the consequences.
Information about death and disasters sweeps rapidly across the globe, and
therefore seems omnipresent in world news. Viewers/readers/listeners are
constantly entreated to notice, to participate briefly in stories about death, and
then to allow the losses to slip smoothly into the stream of information received
each day. Bauman points out that in the contemporary media, deaths are usually
episodes [or] occurrences with no history and no follow up, one-off happenings
(Bauman, 1992: 30). In a sense, people in contemporary society are never not
invited to grieve. As a result, death may become only momentarily meaningful.
There are so many deaths in the news that viewers need to dismiss the losses
almost as swiftly as they are presented. Most often, viewers are given information
only about the victims demise, not their actual lives, so both victims and
survivors soon seem anonymous.

Yet the media rely upon tragedy for news. Images of trauma are part of our
political economy. Papers are sold, television programs gain audience shareand
prizes are awarded through the appropriation of images of suffering (Kleinman
and Kleinman, 1997: 8). Langer says that television news must include stories
[about death, accidents and disasters] in order to retain its modus operandi
(1998: 75, italics in the original). Events as major as the terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 are covered so extensively that they
become what Volkan calls a chosen trauma (2003: 218). These types of events
garner extensive emotional, political and financial attention. Other tragedies, such
as the schoolyard murders of four children and a teacher in 1998 in Arkansas,
have fewer victims and therefore make the front page only once. Tragedies like
this fade from consciousness and wash into the sea of anguish reported in each
days news. Stories of single deaths receive even less coverage in the mainstream
media. Ordinary people who pass away quietly each day are not part of collective
cultural experience, except in the obituaries. This creates an unrealistic contrast:
the deaths (from natural causes) of anonymous, single individuals are sheltered
from public view, while the deaths of numerous individuals at once, or

62

celebrities, are viewed and replicated on an international scale. This creates a


simultaneous minimisation and proliferation of images of death in contemporary
culture. (I discuss this point further below and again in the last section of this
chapter.)

Over the past decade, peoples exposure to death via the media has become
increasingly vivid (Kearl 1989: 23). To continue holding [peoples] interest,
Kearl observes, the entertainment industry must constantly outdo itself
(ibid.). Furthermore, information about death is now available twenty-four hours
per day on television and radio news programs, on the internet and in fictional
entertainment. With the advent of new technologies related to preserving
material, people can now view and personalise images of deaths at any time, in
public or in private, by replaying the scenes an infinite number of times (Bauman
1993, Kearl 1989). Access to violent video games and television programs
focussing on forensics means that people may more quickly and easily enter into
the intimate details of pain and misfortune (Kleinman and Kleinman, 1997: 1).
In short, people living in contemporary society may engage with the details of
death in a continuous, virtual environment. Although the deaths depicted may be
fictional, these media provide a superfluity of death images.

As noted above, the sheer number of deaths people are exposed to in the media,
and the intensity of their presentation, may be overwhelming. Furthermore, if an
individual chooses to engage with one disastrous situation, that concern may still
be present when the next tragedy strikes. Bauman believes the main function of
the news is to chase yesterdays news off and to be driven away by tomorrows
news (1992: 29). Thus, deaths in the media tend to become part of a continuous
parade of individuals with distressing histories. This was particularly evident in
the news coverage of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. News coverage
of these events was intense, graphic and pervasive. In the days and weeks
following the attacks, pictures and narratives of loss were ubiquitous. On the day
of the attacks and for several days thereafter, television networks repeatedly
showed the second jet crashing into the World Trade Center. The news coverage

63

of September 11 had an unsettling fictional quality. The plane crashing into the
tower reminded people of images they had seen in films with an apocalyptic tone
(Erth 2002).

What are the effects of intensive or long-term exposure to media stories about
death? Research on the media coverage of the September 11 attacks reveals that
many thousands of people felt distressed upon encountering recurrent images of
death and destruction. Erths (2002) review of this work cites a significant
positive correlation between the duration and intensity of exposure to media
coverage and symptoms of stress and depression. (Most studies in this area
measured symptoms via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV definition of
PTSD, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and MDD, or Major Depressive
Disorder; other studies used alternative indicators of distress.) The correlation
between viewing hours and levels of distress does not necessarily indicate
causation. Although research shows that PTSD and MDD can be caused or
exacerbated by graphic images of death, it also suggests that people who are more
prone to MDD, or tend to be more affected by violent images, may also be drawn
to watch more television coverage (Erth 2002, Pfefferbaum et al. 2002).
Pfefferbaum et al. note that peoples responses to initial media coverage of a
tragedy may simply reflect [the] horror of the event itself; it is difficult to
separate out these factors in research (2002: 307). The experience of learning
about multiple, violent deaths through the media may now be considered a risk
factor for PTSD in both adults and children. Thus, Erth (2002) calls for a
reconsideration of the notion of trauma to include not only firsthand experience
of death but also media exposure to real, graphic stories and pictures of death.

Despite the magnitude of media coverage of the events of September 11, there
was remarkably little public debate about the effects of these explicit images of
death and stories of loss. There were discussions and research projects within the
academic community, but these findings were rarely discussed in a broad public
forum. There were, however, efforts to construct media guidelines for parents and
broadcasters in relation to children because there is now no question that

64

exposure to disaster, direct or indirect, can have serious psychological effects on


children (Saylor et al. 2003).

In general, researchers agree that viewing repeated images of death desensitise


people, making them less sensitive to the plight of other human beings (Erth
2002, Kearl 1995, Bauman 1993). Individuals may experience empathy fatigue:
an inability to cope with unremitting news of misery. Kearl notes that public
callousness towards televised death [inflates] the visual requirements (1995: 24).
As a result of ongoing exposure to death in the media, people require increasingly
shocking images and stories to garner their attention; they seem inured to data
about death.13

Hijer (2004) describes the ways in which people distance themselves from
media stories of death. One method, which is a conscious process for some
individuals and unconscious for others, involves [rejecting] the truth claim of
the reporting (Hijer, 2004: 524). In this response, people decide that news
stories are exaggerated or fabricated so that they are less affecting. Other
individuals choose to believe that the victims of tragedy induced the disastrous
circumstances themselves and do not deserve sympathy. Each of these responses
negates the sense of collective global compassion (Hijer, 2004: 515). People
habituate to data about death and, as a result, the desire to help fades over time.
Empathy fatigue seems to be inversely proportional to efficacy, or the ability to
change tragic circumstances. People disconnect when they feel ineffectual in the
face of suffering (Hijer 2004).

I argue that this feeling of disconnection is a central element in the experience of


black humour. As discussed further below and in the following chapters, the
ability to laugh at death seems to involve a simultaneous sense of engagement
and disengagement. People tend to immerse themselves in information about
death through the media, sliding from one piece of information to the next,
without necessarily perceiving the subtleties of these bereavements. Thus, they
may absorb death-related information without the emotion attached to more

65

personal losses. Black comedy exploits this sense of confusion and apprehension.
In this sense, black comedy is both a product of, and a contributing factor in, the
simultaneous sequestration and saturation of images of death. I suggest that
participants get black comedy because they understand the circumstances
surrounding the death depicted in a text, but they are able to place distance
between themselves and the loss. The contemporary media shape this situation;
they provide both the death-related stories/images and the sense of virtuality. In
the social circumstances of the late twentieth century, therefore, people are
ideally situated to perceive and appreciate black comedy. (I return to this
assertion at the end of this chapter, but first I illustrate the juxtaposition with a
key example of contemporary black comedy.)

The contrast between connection and disconnection is a central aspect of the


screenplay for the film MASH (1970). MASH is set within a Mobile Army
Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. The surgeons who serve there are
genuinely concerned about their patients and work extremely hard to save lives.
Yet they also seem to set their emotions aside in order to cope with the unceasing
stream of injured soldiers. The surgeons create distractions through practical
jokes, sports, gambling, extra-marital affairs and alcohol. They also engage in
respectful silliness and blithesome banter in the operating theatre. When
Benjamin Hawkeye Pierce needs his nose scratched while performing a surgical
amputation, he asks a pretty nurse to oblige. In another scene, an officer enters
the operating theatre and salutes the surgeons. When they attempt to return the
salute, they raise bloody scalpels and artery clamps to their foreheads.

The black humour in the screenplay for the film MASH emerges more from a
series of juxtapositions between scenes, rather than from the witty one-liners
characteristic of the screenplays for the subsequent television series M*A*S*H
(1972-1983). In one scene from the film, the surgeons are tangled in the triage of
dozens of dying bodies. They rush from patient to patient, stemming the flow of
blood and making urgent decisions about medication and intervention. Later in
the same day, the surgeons create schemes to catch their female colleagues in the

66

nude. On another occasion, the surgeons and nurses take time off to drink beer
and lounge by the river in the sun. Suddenly they are strafed by gunfire and
scramble behind rocks to survive. These sharp shifts between deadly destruction
and the affirmation of life, between utter dismay and delight, create black
comedy.

In another scene, the surgeons find that their arterial clamps are inadequate and
blood spurts up from a soldiers neck like a ghastly fountain. The surgeons and
nurses, sticky from the blood, have to improvise a solution. In this moment, the
natural, organic side of humanity overwhelms the technical, inanimate side; the
medical staff have to acknowledge that they will not always defeat death. When
these situations occur, the ability to joke about death enables the characters to
gain perspective, ameliorate tension and increase their stamina for future work.
Dickstein (1993), in analysing a range of novels from the 1960s (although not
specifically the original 1968 novel of MASH), highlights the pervasiveness of
black comedy in these texts. He says that black comedy is pitched at the
breaking point where moral anguish explodes into a mixture of comedy and
terror, where things are so bad you might as well laugh (1993: 127).

After many months at war, Hawkeye learns that he and fellow surgeon Augustus
Duke Forrest have fulfilled their tour of duty. Hawkeye bursts into the operating
theatre to inform his buddy of the good news.

HAWKEYE:
We can go home now.
DUKE:
Now?
HAWKEYE:
Anytime we want.
DUKE:
Can we get outta this guys brain first?
(1970)

67

MASH (1970) was filmed in 1969, during a period of pronounced controversy


surrounding Americas involvement in the Vietnam War. This conflict was the
first fully televised international war, with images of death captured and
replicated in colour soon after the actual events occurred. As McLuhan famously
said, Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room
(1975). During the 1960s, television gave the general public unprecedented
exposure to stories and images of violent death. People learned the details of
conflicts in other parts of the world, famines, natural disasters, urban violence
and race-related murders. Denzin summarises these influences, saying that
American culture [was] defined and polarised by [the] Vietnam war as well as
other national crises in the 1960s (1991: 3).

When the film MASH was released in 1970, the parallels between the Korean and
Vietnam wars were obvious. Director Robert Altman intended for MASH to
resonate with current events. Many individuals, distressed by the war-related
deaths they witnessed in the news and within their communities, participated in
anti-war protests. Other individuals were part of pro-military rallies. On both
sides there was a deep sense of concern surrounding the seeming impossibilities
of winning the war. As a result, people may have been especially receptive to the
irreverence, melancholy and ambiguity in this text. MASH was a highly popular
and profitable film; it also won critical acclaim and awards. In the context of the
late 1960s and early 1970s, the black comedy in MASH was perceived as
refreshing and empowering. It seems that the mixture of farce, violence and
hysteria in [the texts of this period] stems from the wars, riots, movements,
assassinations,

conspiracies

[and]

much

subtler

and

less

spectacular

manifestations of the spirit of the sixties (Dickstein, 1993: 131).

Hijer (2004), although she does not comment on black comic texts, draws a link
between media coverage of death and the tendency for people to vacillate
between engagement with, and disengagement from, this information. She
highlights the feeling of desensitisation that stems from extensive media exposure
to trauma. Hijer describes the experience of empathy as a series of waves.

68

People feel empathetic towards victims, then tend to feel exhausted by news of
continuous sadness, so they retreat. Before long, another disaster beckons their
attention and they experience a fresh surge of empathy; this feeling then loses its
potency as well. The following section considers some of the social and cultural
effects of this cycle in contemporary society. In particular, I work with the notion
of coolness, one of the cultural options for individuals living in a society which
has a problematic relationship to death. In this discussion, I link the concept of
coolness to contemporary black comedy.

Psychological Camouflage: Coolness and Death


The word 'cool' meaning both "moderately cold" and "not affected by passion"
originated in the twelfth century, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century
that the word took on its secondary meaning of "excellent, admirably up-to-date,
stylishrelaxed (Brown, 1993: 505). Currently, the term describes a kind of
"fashionable sulkiness" (Harris, 1999: 41). It is defined by attitudes, behaviours
and utterances that defend against stress and loss, particularly in an urban
environment. In dealing with frequent violence and death, some individuals
develop a tough, unassailable attitude; they seem unusually self-assured when
coping with violence and loss. Emergencies and the attendant sounds of
ambulances and police are aspects of everyday life in many urban areas. Walton
(1999) reports that death comes more frequently and unexpectedly to
underprivileged youth: they 'know' death in a way that other people do not. This
environment of continual aggression makes young people grow up too quickly.
As a result of exposure to loss, people living with violence are likely to become
emotionally detached from it. When coolness is displayed by individuals from
less privileged urban communities, it is seen as a defense a response to "the
strain of living in metropolitan war zones where one's equanimity is constantly
being challenged..." (Harris, 1999: 39-40). In a potentially dangerous
environment, coolness is part of both individual and group identity; it serves as a
form of "psychological camouflage" (Harris, 1999: 40).

69

The twin threats of death and grief are difficult to grasp for those living in the
peaceful suburbs. For those who do not experience actual threats to their survival,
coolness is about becoming powerful within a social network.14 People who lead
relatively protected lives, and particularly those who are young, tend to engage
with images and narratives about death vicariously through the media. They may
adopt a cool attitude by watching news and entertainment containing
information about death and by imitating the behaviour of others. This cool
comportment seems to involve a sense of psychosocial detachment; the
individual is of the metropolis, yet rides slightly above it. The quality of being
cool seems yoked with the latter twentieth century (Harris 1999). This point is
also relevant to the early twenty-first century because these issues have
continued, even magnified, over the past several years. As Denzin describes it,
the public self and its masks are increasingly defined by a media-oriented mass
culture in which youth, health and sexuality have taken on premium values
(1991: 5). In contemporary society, cool people are perceived as unconventional,
cynical, indifferent and knowing.

Being cool about death involves being calm, distant, unafraid and clever in the
face of violence and loss. Instead of being shocked by death, cool people seem to
know what to do. In this sense, coolness is a vital element in many black comic
texts. Boskin (1997) points out that comedy from the latter twentieth century
tends to be urban in focus, partly due to the influence of immigrants from Europe
and African Americans from the American South who moved into the cities in
significant numbers from the 1960s onwards. Boskin characterises contemporary
comedy as aggressively witty and sly, prodding and absurdist, bordering on
catastrophe and gallows, and representative of the underdog (1997: 122).

The current social phenomenon of the Darwin Awards reveals peoples appetite
for cool, violent black comedy.15 Structured as a contest (with no prizes), the
Darwin Awards publicise the actions of people who have unintentionally killed
themselves in bizarre ways (Northcutt 2000). The Darwin Awards are named
after Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.16 The winners are given their

70

awards posthumously because they are said to have reduced the average level of
ineptitude in the collective gene pool. The awards are reported as a long list of
unfortunate individuals; each name is accompanied by a graphic description of
the persons death. Recent winners include a man shot dead while trying to rob a
gun store with a knife, a terrorist who misunderstood the timing of the bomb he
was carrying and a zookeeper killed by a quarter-tonne of elephant excrement.

These death-related stories highlight the sense of indifference and aggression in


black comedy of the late twentieth century. The Darwin Awards indicate that
although people may not feel justified in laughing at a murder victim, they may
find it permissible to laugh at a fatal mistake. In addition, participants may be
able to separate themselves from these deaths, to assume the losses occur in
isolation and without associated trauma. The Darwin Awards prompt some of the
key questions considered throughout this thesis. What leads people to find these
morbid stories funny? What does the popularity of this type of black comedy
reveal about peoples perceptions of death in contemporary society?

In response to the first question, participants may simply enjoy the frisson of
these graphic incidents. Participants may also seek to release anxiety surrounding
death, especially in an environment in which they feel they cannot openly discuss
their losses. The Darwin Awards seem to provide a culturally acceptable avenue
for information about death. In addition, participants may use these stories to
reassure themselves that premature death affects only to those who make foolish
decisions. These possible explanations relate to the three key theories of humour
incongruity, catharsis and superiority each of which is discussed further in the
following chapters.

In relation to the second question above, the Darwin Awards provide a prominent
indicator of how death is perceived and communicated in contemporary society.
It may be that the Darwin Awards function as a collective response to constant,
pointless violence depicted in the news. The Darwin Awards may also provide an
anonymous way of discussing death, and in particular death that is sudden,

71

violent or accidental. These awards depict death as an aberration rather than as an


inevitable aspect of existence. As a result, participants who engage with this type
of black comedy may separate death from its complexities and complications.
The Darwin Awards make death seem quick, impersonal and avoidable.

The appeal of the Darwin Awards may also be related to Mellors (1993) notion
of the simultaneous absence and presence of death in contemporary society. Due
to the invisibility of real, personal death, participants may seek an unconventional
forum for the expression of objective, even scientific, details of fatal events. For
example, in one story a man lights a bowl of gunpowder with a blowtorch. In
another, a man causes a devastating explosion by combining red phosphorus and
iodine (ingredients used to make illegal drugs) into an empty film canister, which
he hides in his pocket. While these stories have a prurient allure, they also focus
attention on the mechanics of death. Drawing on Bauman (1992), I suggest that
the Darwin Awards reconfigure death as both specific and contingent. This makes
death seem less threatening and therefore funnier.

In order to enjoy the Darwin Awards, participants need to maintain a certain


distance from the deceased. The stories facilitate a sense of detachment because
they are devoid of context about the victims or their loved ones. There are no
personal details to encourage a more complicated, empathetic relationship with
the award winners. The stories are also accompanied by simplistic, colourful
cartoons which make the deaths seem like fictional entertainment. Finally,
participants are invited to vote on the best stories of the year through the
Darwin Awards website. For these reasons, the Darwin Awards are decidedly
cool, even brutal, in their treatment of death. In general, the Darwin Awards
support the link between black comedy and coolness.

This contemporary sense of coolness is also evident in Quentin Tarantinos


(1994) screenplay for the film Pulp Fiction. The screenplay is comprised of three
overlapping stories set in late twentieth century Los Angeles. Two of the central
characters Vincent and Jules are hit men for a crime boss called Marsellus

72

Wallace. These criminals demonstrate a tough, slick, detached attitude towards


violence. Their self-assurance in the face of death contributes to the film's
terrifying black humour. Nearly all the violence in the screenplay is fatal, yet
most of it is accompanied by light-hearted dialogue. The film contains eight
murders and one near-death experience for a woman who inadvertently overdoses
on heroin. Black humour emerges from the opposing social forces in the text:
violence and mercy, accident and intent, threat and rescue.

In the first scene, Vincent and Jules casually discuss hamburgers and sex on their
way to a pre-arranged murder. Driving along with automatic weapons in the boot
of their vehicle, the two professional hit men appear to be two average
commuters on the way to work. During the hit, Jules brings up trivial issues and
thereby taunts his prey. He inquires about the type of hamburgers the young men
are eating and remarks upon the hairstyle of another boy before killing him. You
ever had a Big Kahuna burger? he asks. The victims are too terrified to reply.
Me, I cant usually eat em because my girlfriends a vegetarianbut I sure love
the taste of a good burger (Tarantino, 1994: 26). Jules and Vincent are so
accustomed to killing that they conduct casual conversations before and after the
murders. Ellis points out that the ordinariness of this subject matter means that
readers/viewers can build a connection with the hit men. Jules and Vincent seem
like regular guys; they cannot be comfortably dismissed as a race apart (2001:
386). Thus, the scene creates a troubling continuity between normal life and [the
hit mens] unusual profession (ibid.).

The mens conversations reveal a detached attitude towards death. This attitude,
in turn, creates a sense of incongruity because the mens position defies social
mores about the sanctity of human life. These men seem cool because they are
not concerned about the personal risks they take or the destruction they wreak;
they see murder as just one aspect of their jobs. This creates a juxtaposition
between how most people react to violent death and how these men respond.
Participants may experience black humour through this surprising, confronting
contrast. Yet within the reality of the text, the characters do not find their

73

situation funny. The black humour in Pulp Fiction is not intentionally created by
the characters; it emerges from peoples perceptions of the characters words and
actions in relation to death. (This issue is discussed further in the following
chapter on incongruity.)

Jules and Vincents calculated coolness begins to evaporate in the subsequent


scene. Following the morning murders, the hit men capture the lone survivor
from the group of young men and drive him to meet their boss. In the car,
Vincent accidentally shoots and kills the boy. Suddenly the mens main concern
is not for the fatal injury, but for the mess it creates in the car.

VINCENT:
I just accidentally shot Marvin in the throat.
JULES:
Why the fuck did you do that?
VINCENT:
I didn't mean to. I said it was an accident.
JULES:
I've seen a lot of crazy-ass shit in my time...
VINCENT:
Look! I didn't mean to shoot the son-of-a-bitch, the gun just
went off, don't ask me how!
JULES:
Look at this mess! We're driving around on a city street in
broad daylight -VINCENT:
-- I know, I know, I wasn't thinking about the splatter.
JULES:
Well, you better be thinking about it now, motherfucker! We
gotta get this car off the road. Cops tend to notice shit like you
driving a car drenched in fuckin' blood.
(Tarantino, 1994b: 141-143)

74

Tarantino raises the stakes in this scene: the men who seemed imperturbable are
not cool enough. Jules boss calls in Mr. Winston Wolf, known as The Wolf, an
expert in cleaning up disasters that involve the disposal of a corpse. He arrives in
a tuxedo with the details of the upcoming operation written neatly on a pad of
paper: "1 body (no head)" (152). The Wolf's professionalism is in contrast with
the vile nature of his task. He remains completely calm when he sees the dead
body in the car. He then directs the two hit men to mop up Marvin's remains.
While doing so, they blame each other for the gross task, completely disregarding
the loss of human life.

JULES:
I will never forgive your ass for this shit. This is some fuckedup repugnant shit.
VINCENT:
Jules, did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits
hes wrong, hes immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings?
JULES:
Man, get outta my face with that shit. The motherfucker who
said that never had to pick up itty-bitty pieces of skull with his
fingers on account of your dumb assIn fact, what the fuck
am I doin in the back? [You] should be on brain detail
(Tarantino, 1994: 158-9)
Lewis points out that this type of black comedy reduces the human body to the
level of charred protoplasmic filth (1997: 267). A act that destroys the corpse
also obfuscates the individuality of the victim (ibid.). In Pulp Fiction, Marvin
becomes an anonymous, unrecoverable entity. The text does not provide any
further information about the effects of Marvins death on his family and friends.
In order to perceive the black humour in this scene, participants cannot think or
feel too much about those effects, either. The experience of black humour seems
to require a suspension of sympathy (Lewis, 1997: 268). Lewis asserts that
when participants perceive black humour, they temporarily refuse to empathise
with their fellow human beings.

75

As the clean-up operation continues in the next scene, Jules and Vincent slip
outside their normal roles. The two cynical hit men suddenly seem like confused,
squeamish teenagers. In the bathroom, Jules yells at Vincent for drying his
bloody hands on a white towel.

JULES:
Youre supposed to wash em first.
VINCENT:
You watched me wash em.
JULES:
I watched you get em wet.
VINCENT:
I washed em. Bloods real hard to get off
JULES:
I used the same soap you did and when I finished with that
towel it didnt look like a fuckin Maxi Pad.
(Tarantino, 1994: 145-146)
Throughout the clean-up, the Wolf orders Jules and Vincent around like naughty,
muddy children. They are forced to stand nude in their friends back garden while
The Wolf hoses them down. In this scene, neither Jules nor Vincent fits the
stereotype of a gun for hire. Although they appear to be a powerful team in the
first scene, their inability to deal with the grotesque realities of a riddled corpse
reveals that they are not entirely in control of death. The hit men are cool, yet not
cool enough. The black comedy in this scene stems from the hit mens fading
bravado, which is in contrast to the Wolfs equanimity.

Mr. Wolf dispenses with all remnants of the dead body. This process may be seen
as a metaphor for the privatisation and medicalisation of death in contemporary
society. In this scene, the loss of life is treated quickly and effectively by a
trained clinician. The effect is that death seems minimised, even entirely absent,
from the situation. Yet at the same time, the saturation of blood, skin and bone in
the car (which Jules nervously drives around Los Angeles in broad daylight)

76

symbolises the mediatisation of death. The hyper-cool hit men cannot cope with
the pervasiveness of the mess they have created; the realities of the corpse
overwhelm them. Thus, death seems highly present in the situation. As discussed
further below and in the following chapter, this is strange juxtaposition between
the absence and presence of death shapes the black comedy in this and other
texts from the late twentieth century.

In another darkly comic scene from Pulp Fiction, a professional boxer called
Butch returns to his apartment to find a submachine gun on the kitchen counter.
He knows he is being tracked by a hired killer, but he does not know where the
hit man is. When Butch hears a noise in the bathroom, he quickly picks up the
gun. Vincent opens the bathroom door and Butch slaughters him. The scene
contains several juxtapositions: Vincent's location (sitting on the toilet as opposed
to keeping watch), his treatment of a weapon (leaving the gun unattended several
meters away, instead of being vigilant with it), and his death at the hands of the
man he was supposed to kill. Another comic contrast emerges from Butchs
response to the submachine gun. Despite the fact that he just killed a man the
night before and proceeds to kill two more that day, Butch is wary of the
powerful weapon. His lack of familiarity with the gun means that he is as
surprised as his victim when Vincent flies backwards from the force of twenty
bullets. Each of these incongruous pairings creates the potential for black
humour.17

In some ways, Pulp Fiction appears to minimise the impact of violence; it makes
death seem quick, insignificant and surreal. The text does not provide background
on the murdered characters, nor indicate the consequences of these deaths. Thus,
the murders are self-contained incidents, almost violent games, and therefore
seem simple and dismissible. When The Wolf is asked who the dead body was in
the car, he answers: Nobody wholl be missed (1994: 157). There is a clinical
frigidity to these deaths. With the exception of the accidental shooting of Marvin,
the murders are not considered unethical, problematic or disruptive and they are
not re-evaluated afterwards. The customary emotions associated with death

77

sadness, anger and remorse are missing from these scenes. In some ways, death
seems to be denied, hidden and unmourned.

In other ways, Pulp Fiction places death in the foreground. Virtually every main
character in the text (except The Wolf) faces his/her own death on at least one
occasion: Jules, Vincent, Butch, Marsellus, Marsellus wife Mia and two thieves
called Pumpkin and Honey Bunny all narrowly escape a sudden and unpleasant
demise. (Vincent is not as fortunate the second time, when Butch kills him.)
Death is a driving force for these characters; they run from it, to a certain extent,
but they also chase after it. In this way, the notion of death, in all its unwieldy
complexity, is both very present in, and very absent from, this text. While death
serves as a powerful, visceral presence in each of the interlocking stories, the
issues associated with loss (e.g. funerals, burials, cremations, financial
responsibilities and relationship changes) are never overtly discussed.

Pulp Fiction and the Darwin Awards exemplify the key issues discussed in this
chapter. Pulp Fiction, in particular, shows how people sequester death and
simultaneously revel in it; (this may be true for both characters and participants
who engage with the text). The black humour in this text emerges through a
powerful juxtaposition between the overt and hidden aspects of death. The
following section looks more closely at the contradiction between the absence
and presence of death in contemporary society.

The Absence/Presence of Death


According to Giddens (1991), the last three decades of the twentieth century were
characterised by self-reflection and re-evaluation of social and political
institutions. During this time, people continuously redefined their parameters of
existence; they may have changed identities, partners, occupations and locations,
repeatedly set goals and readily examined their position in relation to others. In
some ways, this perpetual process of questioning became a disruptive force. As
noted above, changes in traditional beliefs and practices have forged a process of

78

cultural de-contextualisation: certain experiences have been lifted out of local,


identifiable contexts and placed in the hands of professionals (Giddens, 1991:
18). This process has made people feel stranded in relation to death, with fewer
resources for answering existential questions. People now tend to develop their
own interpretations of, and ceremonies for, death. As playwright Beatrix
Christian says:

Death is always a part of peoples lives, but its not an organic part
of life anymore in this culture, so our relationship to it is quite
different... Now people who die are put away from the family. We
have systems instead of rituals; its more disorientating.
(1998: 2)
In drawing upon the work of Walter (1991), Mellor notes that individuals in
contemporary society are caught between two conflicting traditions: (a) their
inherited knowledge of a time when death was romanticised and grief was overt,
and (b) a contemporary society in which death is sequestered and grief is
abnegated (1993: 412).

In addition to this conflict between historical periods, people in contemporary


society are faced with a current conflict in relation to death. As discussed above,
reminders of personal mortality seem relatively absent from life in contemporary
society. Yet information about the death of others, garnered through the media,
makes death seem perpetually present and public. At the same time, individual
death and grief experiences seem sequestered through cultural forces such as the
medical system and the funeral industry. In this sense, death is both strangely
concealed and highly exposed. Mellor speaks of a confusing contradiction
between the absence and presence of death (1993: 11, italics in the original).
This contradiction creates tension, constantly forcing people to simultaneously
ignore and attend to their mortality.

In this chapter, I set forth the argument that contemporary social attitudes and
practices surrounding death, in combination with the pervasiveness of media
information about death, create a problematic juxtaposition. People living in

79

contemporary society have a sense of knowing and yet not knowing death, a
sense of engaging with it and retreating from it. As people attempt to make
meaning from death and grief, they encounter contradictory notions. On one
hand, there is the perception that grief should not be discussed, nor corpses
viewed, lest the visible confirmation of death diminish the celebration of a
deceased persons life. As noted previously, many memorial services now ignore
the eternal, communal aspects of death and instead serve as sunny summaries of
peoples lives. In this way, people maintain a kind of disconnect with real death.

On the other hand, there is an awareness that death is ever-present and therefore
the realities of loss should be acknowledged. It is almost impossible to avoid
stories about, and images of, death. In news broadcasts and in entertainment
(especially television, films and video games), people are killed with chilling
regularity. Kearl points out that the staple of death is essential to the success of
the news (1989: 24). Films render intense, calibrated visions of destruction.
People who engage with these texts and images are thrown into the midst of
death, saturated in its furore and gore, but spared its finality. (As noted above,
these cultural artefacts may show consequences for the perpetrators of violence,
but rarely for its victims.) There are no efforts to conceal loss in these contexts;
the number of deceased individuals serves as a measure of an events importance,
even its allure. In contemporary culture, death is a commodity.

In essence, we have become accustomed to seeing, although perhaps not feeling,


loss. Yet when people lack the resources to deal with the death they encounter,
they tend to distance themselves from it; they find ways to shift its impact, to
dehumanise its victims and to contain its ramifications. In contemporary society,
people are less likely to relate to death through the timeless lens of organised
religion than through the immediate, secular context in which they live. This
seems to create a sense of disconnection in relation to death, which may in turn
fuel the urge to laugh at loss. Lewis argues that the apparent intensification of
cruel [i.e. black] humour over the past decade [suggests] an evolving and
resonant humour convention, one that both reveals and supports a widely shared

80

desire or need (1997: 253). He believes that death-related jokes (regarding


famous murders, disasters and eruptions of disease) are a sign that people want
detachment from the human targets of these jokes (ibid.). People may use black
comic jokes and texts to create a shift in consciousness (or mood) that brings
amusement to guilt, fear and despair (ibid.).

At the same time, black humour seems to require enmeshment with death. As
noted above, people living in contemporary society are bombarded with images
and information about the failure of the human form. People use this information
to understand black humour, to place themselves in a space where they are
emotionally and intellectually prepared to laugh at death. I believe that the
increased medicalisation and secularisation of death sets up a situation in which
people can be irreverent in relation to death.

People seem to carry both these sets of conditions disconnection and


enmeshment in their minds simultaneously. They may therefore feel uncertain
about how to handle death, either when it affects them personally or when it is
depicted in the media. The resulting conflict may have a destabilising,
disconcerting effect.

I contend that black comedy became increasingly popular and prevalent in the
late twentieth century as a response to the juxtaposition between the absence and
presence of death. Black comedy seems appealing because it enables people to
wrestle with death indirectly, to play with the concept of loss. It seems that the
experience of black humour emerges from, and in turn shapes, a sense of
uncertainty surrounding death. I suggest that black comedy is part of a complex,
ongoing process of articulating perceptions of loss; it is an attempt to describe the
meaning of existence within the unique circumstances of contemporary society.

As discussed further in the following two chapters, black comedy is replete with
contrasts; it is both offensive and harmless, ridiculous and profound. In Chapter
3, I consider the structures of black comedy using the incongruity theory of

81

humour. In Chapter 4, I look at the functions of black comedy through the


catharsis and superiority theories of humour. The final chapter brings together the
key points from previous parts of the thesis. In this discussion, I work to
understand the social context of black humour and to illuminate additional black
comic texts.

82

Chapter 2 Endnotes
1

As discussed in the preceding chapter, I am cognisant of the implications of using the term
contemporary society in reference to the modern Anglophone world. I apply this phrase in order
to highlight the shared aspects of culture in the countries-of-origin for the texts I examine in the
thesis: Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and the United States. By using this phrase, I do not
suggest that each of these countries possesses a unified, identifiable, single culture only that
people within and between these national groups have in common certain aspects of their lives,
which in turn influence their perceptions of death. Kellehear notes that, in relation to death, the
"shifts in demography and epidemiology in Australia parallel [similar changes] in Europe and the
United States" (2000: 10).
2
I recognise that there are a number of issues within each of the areas of inquiry I identify in this
chapter, and that any one of these issues could be the core of another project. To contain the scope
of the thesis, I limit the discussion to a concise consideration of particular issues within each of
these questions. As with any project, I also acknowledge that there is room for additional analysis
in future research.
3
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a collective, prurient interest in death and how, in
previous centuries, people reveled in public executions. However, as executions moved away
from slow, public torture towards the ideal of a swift, private death, the theatrical representation
of pain was excluded from punishment (1977:14). This meant that death (in the form of capital
punishment) became sequestered. The privatisation of death is discussed further in this chapter of
the thesis, although the present work concentrates upon ideas and images related to natural,
accidental, homicidal and suicidal deaths rather than capital punishment.
4
Although Jallands (2006) research focuses on Australia, her work also refers to social
conditions that were present at the same time in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United
States.
5
Life expectancy is predicted to increase in the coming years, albeit at a slower rate. However,
for certain social groups within these larger populations, these statistics are not representative. For
the Indigenous people of Australia, life expectancy remained disturbingly low at the end of the
twentieth century: 56 years for men and 63 for women (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003).
This statistic was echoed in the relatively short average life span of men, especially, in some
regions of the United States. Native American men had a life expectancy of only 56 years, and
African-American men less than 60 years (C.J. Murray et al. 1998).
6
In Australia, recent efforts to develop more diverse hospice programs have led to a modest
increase in the percentage of people who receive palliative care in a home environment, usually
from family members (Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care 2000). The hospice
movement seeks to provide carers with community support and information about their roles in
the lives of the infirm.
7
For those following Islam, for example, it is generally preferable that a deceased person is
buried on the day of death and that the body is touched only by another Muslim. Cremation is not
allowed (Taylor and Box 1999). Within Judaism, death is generally viewed a natural occurrence
that requires acceptance. Like many other religions, the Jewish faith believes that the body must
return to the earth intact. Therefore, cremation is usually not permitted. In Buddhism, the body is
a sacred and spiritual whole; until recently, autopsies were not allowed. Buddhist funeral services
are to be conducted as soon as possible after the passing of an individual; these rituals are
intended to send the spirit from the body to the eternal spiritual realm (Taylor and Box 1999). In
most Christian denominations, burial and cremation are acceptable because the soul is believed to
have departed the body after death. The concept of passing from earthly life into spiritual peace is
considered to be a desirable transition from an imperfect existence. The resurrection of the Christ
figure is seen to represent the life cycle. In the spiritual beliefs of many indigenous people, there
is a significant emphasis on the natural cycle of the living world. Most indigenous cultures have
favoured burial in previous generations. Both the Aboriginal communities of Australia and the
Native American communities of the United States celebrate the symbolic stories of natural
creation and the spirits dwelling within nature that influence all facets of daily life. The
Indigenous people of Australia have a particularly complex and meaningful relationship with
ancestral spirits, which shapes their perceptions of death. The imagery and cultural practices of
Native Americans also involve a profound respect for the life cycle of the earth.

83

In 1901, ninety-eight percent of the Australian population had an affiliation with a Christian
denomination (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003). During that time, the remaining two percent
were made up of Buddhists, Hindus and members of the Aboriginal community. By 2001,
however, just sixty-eight percent of people noted a Christian affiliation, while five percent cited
other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Sixteen percent of Australians
stated that they did not have a religion; this percentage has risen steadily since the early 1970s
(ibid.). Jalland describes Australia as a secular society that tends to privatise dying and grieving
[and] minimise rituals (2006: 4). In the United States, about eighty-three percent of people
aligned themselves with one of the Christian denominations, two percent of the population were
Jewish and six percent of the population were members of another religious faith (United States
Census 1999). About eight percent of the population stated that they had no religion. These
numbers may not be entirely accurate, as federal law in the United States prohibits the mandatory
collection of this information.
9
Following the terrorist bombing in Bali in October 2002, there were public observances in
stadiums and parks across Australia. (These venues were selected partly because many of the
Australian victims were members of regional football clubs.) At a memorial event in the Domain,
a large park in Sydney, performers dressed like angels walked through the crowds as music
played on large speakers. This presentation seemed more akin to the opening ceremony of the
Olympics than to a traditional memorial service. One attendee described the location of the event
by saying, The Domain is our cathedral (Jopson and Bradley 2002).
10
This companys standard procedure is to purchase family-owned funeral homes and keep the
original name, thereby preserving the illusion that healthy competition exists between locally
owned businesses. Service Corporation Internationals anti-competitive business strategies are
difficult to detect because the company does not place its insignia anywhere within its funeral
homes (Mitford 2000).
11
For example, a company called Everest Funerals allows clients to ring for a funeral planning
meeting. The consultant then helps the bereaved plan a funeral service, select a casket, cemetery
or crematorium and notify relevant organisations. The consultant supposedly elicits the best price
for the various services associated with death; he/she also discusses a wish list with the client, so
that if there is a memorial service, the clients expectations are met.
12
In writing about new technologies at the beginning of the 1990s, Denzin does not yet anticipate
the internet. Drawing upon the work of Baudrillard, Denzin says that the ubiquitous technologies
of the late twentieth century create an ecstasy of communication which delights in the spectacle
itself and finds pleasure in the pornography of excess that flows from the medias desire to tell
everything (1991: 8). His point seems very prescient in light of the profound influence of the
internet on contemporary life.
13
Gender and age are significant variables in relation to empathy. Women and the elderly tend to
be more sensitive to the distress of other people; they place themselves in the victims
circumstances more easily and register a stronger desire to help. Men are more likely to find a
justification for the victims situation, thereby reducing the need for empathy (Hijer 2004).
14
On average, young people process ten million advertisements before they are 18 years old
(Kearl 1995). These messages tell adolescents that coolness is a way of fitting in with their peers.
Coolness is depicted in advertisements for clothes, shoes, personal care products and music.
These images often depict "youths hanging out on street corners...hurling insults, blocking our
way, daring us to pass" (Harris, 1999: 40). The process of commercialising cool - a global
marketing effort which affects even those genuinely immersed in the dangerous situations that
engender coolness - places a price tag on individual identity, on becoming someone with style and
presence, someone who stands out from the crowd. In this way, companies create trends, exploit
them and move on to the next new thing. Coolness is, by definition, elusive: once a particular
entity is deemed cool, it is mass-produced and then is no longer desirable. In this sense, there is a
kind of nihilism associated with coolness (Harris 1999).
15
The popularity of The Darwin Awards is evidenced by thousands of references on websites, a
feature film, calendars and books. Northcutt (2000) has written four volumes in an expanding
series that details these awards. Key websites include <www.darwinawards.com> and
<www.officialdarwinawards.com>

84

16

The Darwin Awards do not promulgate a scientifically accurate version of Darwins theory of
evolution; they attribute the phrase survival of the fittest to Darwin, although this was coined by
Henry Spencer.
17
The black humour in this scene exists solely for participants engaged with the text; the
characters do not perceive these situations as funny. In the following two chapters, I look further
at differences between the characters and participants perceptions of black humour in particular
texts.

85

Chapter 3 Collisions, Reversals and Repetitions: Structures in


Black Humour

Structures in Black Comedy: An Introduction

In the preceding chapters I provide a context for the analysis of black humour in
the late twentieth century. In this chapter, and the one to follow, I analyse black
humour using the concepts of structure and function. These interconnected
notions which relate to how comedy is constructed and what effects it creates
underpin much of the work in contemporary humour studies research. Palmer
(1994) devotes a chapter to each of these concepts in Taking Humour Seriously.
Numerous other scholars including Boskin (1997c), Carroll (1991), Davis
(2003), Nelson (1990) and Winston (1972) work with the concepts of structure
and/or function in connection with their selected comic examples.

In this chapter on the structures of black comedy, I consider intriguing questions


about the form and shape of this material. How does black comedy work? What
makes it potentially funny? In the following chapter, I concentrate on the
functions of black humour. How do participants engage with black humour and
what effects does this experience engender? In examining issues surrounding the
structures and functions of black humour, I apply three key theories of humour:
incongruity, catharsis and superiority. As noted previously, these three theories
are extremely prevalent in humour studies research to date (Palmer 1994).
Critchley (2002) considers these theories a distillation of multiple other
explanations of humour. He uses examples of comic material to delineate the
merits and failings of each theory. My approach is related to this style of
research, but I focus less on an explication of the three theories and more on the
way in which these hypotheses facilitate the analysis of black comedy.

This chapter works with both the concept of structure in black comedy and with
actual black comic texts of the late twentieth century. Throughout this discussion,

86

I interweave humour research and comic texts to illustrate my key points about
structure.1 In the first section below, I consider the broad concept of humour in
relation to the notion of structure. In the second section, I discuss the
development of the incongruity theory of humour. The placement of incongruity
as the first theory discussed in this thesis reflects my view that it is the most
influential of the three concepts in relation to black comedy. Every example of
black comedy, both within this thesis and in my general research experience,
contains some element of incongruity. Through laughter, participants approach
and retreat from death in surprising, disturbing ways.

My methodology in the subsequent sections of this chapter is to analyse


contemporary black comic texts based on the type of structure involved. I look
first at examples of black comedy that involve conceptual impacts, or collisions
between people, ideas and conventions. I then look at structural reversals and
repetitions. I apply the incongruity theory, which is structural in nature, to this
discussion. In the following chapter, I use the same approach to analyse black
comic texts based on the type of function involved. In that analysis, I work with
the catharsis and superiority theories of humour.

I recognise that these section and chapter divisions form useful, but not
impermeable, categories through which to develop a deeper understanding of
black humour. In creating these divisions, I am aware that the notion of structure
is linked to the idea of function. Thus, I make a distinction between these parts of
the thesis in order to enhance the clarity of analysis rather than to erect a barrier
between complementary concepts. As Nelson sees it, the relation between all
three main theories is best described as one of overlap, rather than mutual
exclusion (1990: 7). In Chapter 5, I discuss the areas of intersection between the
incongruity, catharsis and superiority theories of humour. Each of these theories
foregrounds a different, yet interdependent, aspect of the experience of black
humour. I believe that all three theories are critical to an overall understanding of
the phenomenon.

87

It Hit Me: Notions of Structure in Comedy

The concept of structure is highly influential in the analysis of humour.


According to Palmer (1994), structure is both a tangible and intangible aspect of
human existence. Structure is a facet of communication in formal interactions
(e.g. lectures, interviews, court proceedings and funerals) as well as informal
connections (e.g. conversations, jokes, and stories). Structure is also a key aspect
of social organisation, as seen in the institutions of government, business,
religion and education. Thus, Palmer (1994) believes that structure lies at the
core of humour studies. He notes that within the probably infinite selection of
things that have at one time or another evoked mirth, there may well be some
common features or some common process of meaning creation. If there are
certain shared elements within diverse examples of comic material, Palmer
reasons, then these constitute the structure of humour (1994: 93). In other
words, comedy is a style of communication that contains both a particular shape
and a set of elements that are shared and understood by participants; the structure
of comedy is about both form and content.

The title of this section, It Hit Me, relates to a commonly used phrase to denote
both the sensation of getting humour and to the structure of comic material.
When people speak of the moment in which they understand and respond to
humour, they often say that the joke hit them. Amongst writers and performers
of comedy, a punchline is said to slay, kill, or knock over the participants.
Thus, the structure of comedy produces the impression of an impact or
impingement. Thus, the concept of impact informs the thematic divisions of the
subsequent sections in this chapter; these sections revolve around the idea of
collisions, reversals and repetitions.

For the purposes of this thesis, the structure of comedy is understood to


encompass two main types of patterns. The first meaning of structure denotes
forms that exist within systems of discourse. The standard structure of a joke or
scene involves three sections: the first situation (which introduces characters and

88

issues), the second situation (which confirms, or elaborates upon, the


circumstances) and the punchline (which contradicts the participants
expectations about these circumstances). This pattern relates to the creation,
escalation and resolution of conflict between the characters and other elements in
the comic material. Comedy contains consistent patterns, although it allows for
considerable variation in the elements within this framework.

In this thesis, the second meaning of the term structure pertains to the
institutions, practices and beliefs of individuals within a social group. The
cultural, political and/or religious activities of a particular group shape
expectations and interpretations of behaviour. For instance, religious services are
predominantly serious rituals in most cultures; these events are generally devoid
of sarcastic or demeaning remarks. The intrusion of rude comments in that
context seems incongruous and therefore may be perceived as funny, offensive,
or both. This meaning of the word structure therefore points to the restraints
and allowances operating within and between social groups.

Along these lines, Waugh (1984) articulates how the process of reading
contemporary texts involves participants awareness of established social norms
as well as their knowledge of other texts. Waugh (1984) suggests that seemingly
realistic situations (e.g. a day at the office, a family holiday dinner) serve as a
platform for comic experimentation. Without this sense of familiarity for
participants, the ensuing dislocations might be either totally meaningless or
utterly confusing (1984: 18). In The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh
(1999), two adult brothers called Coleman and Valene live together in a modest
house in rural Ireland in the 1980s. The domestic setting of this play appears to
be quite conventional, like many other twentieth century stories of families on
the land. Yet in the first scene it becomes apparent that the brothers fight
constantly and ruthlessly, almost to the death. They insult each other and destroy
property. In addition, Coleman murders their father an act that Valene agrees
to conceal from the police. Following yet another violent showdown, in which

89

Valene and Coleman point weapons at each other, Valene reminds Coleman that
the local priests dying wish was for them to reconcile.
COLEMAN:
Well, did we ask [Father Welsh] to go betting his soul on us?
No Sure a fiver wouldve been overdoing it on us, much less
his soul. And whats wrong with fighting anyways? It does
show you care, fighting doesDont you like a good fight?
VALENE:
I do like a good fight, the same as that. Although I dont like
having me dog murdered on me, and me fecking dad murdered
on me.
COLEMAN:
And Im sorry for your dog and dad, Valene. I am sorryThe
same goes for your stove and your poor figurines tooMaybe
we can glue some of them together. Do you still have the
superglue?
VALENE:
I do have me superglue, although I think the tops gone hard.
COLEMAN:
Aye, thats the trouble with superglue.
VALENE:
Ah, the house insurancell cover me figurines anyway
COLEMAN:
OhDo you remember a couple weeks ago you asked me did I
go stealing your insurance money and I said no, I paid it in for
you?...Pause. I didnt pay it in at all. I pocketed the lot of it,
pissed it up a wall.
Valene, seething, darts for the gun. Coleman dashes out through
the front door.
(McDonagh, 1999: 194-196)
Throughout this text, participants encounter a dark world of patricide and
attempted fratricide. The Lonesome West invites participants to make surprising,
disturbing connections that do not follow traditional patterns of behaviour. The
bucolic setting increases the sense of incongruity in the brothers actions. As
Waugh says, contemporary texts may rupture the conventional linguistic

90

contracts that certify and/or disguise orthodox social practices (1984: 12). In
addition, the multiple cultural references contained in contemporary texts force a
kind of momentary re-reading of previous texts; these references offer both
innovation and familiarity through [the] reworking and undermining of familiar
conventions (Waugh, 1984: 12).

Drawing on Waughs work, Mamber (1991) coins the term radical metacinema
to describe the way participants read a film text in the late twentieth century. He
believes this process involves the wholesale incorporation of source materials
from outside the created fictional work (1991: 79).2 Like Waugh, Mamber
highlights the self-consciousness of contemporary film; he demonstrates how
participants apply a range of shared social and cultural references to their
engagement with a film text. Mamber also shows how extensive, repetitive
cultural references become a form of parody.3

The concept of cultural references embedded in texts and the way these
references inform participants interpretations is relevant to the study of black
comedy. This thesis is predicated on the idea that all black comedy contains
some common elements, which stem from a shared social context. I discuss some
of these cultural references (e.g. funeral homes, hospitals, memorial services) in
connection with black comic texts. This analysis works to support my previous
assertion that black humour is both personal and social in nature.

My focus on the concept of structure in black humour leads me to examine the


incongruity theory of humour. The incongruity theory refers to an apparent lack
of fit between ideas, attitudes, behaviours and social conventions; the theory
helps explain the ways in which elements are assembled within comic material.
Within the structures of black comedy, incongruity may come from verbal or
visual elements such as memorial speeches, the reading of a will, hospitals,
corpses and coffins. Incongruity may also arise with conceptual elements, like
the notion of a peaceful death. In short, the incongruity theory encompasses the
conceptual collisions that contribute to the perception of humour. One of these

91

conceptual conflicts is between an idealised concept of a particular situation (e.g.


a funeral) and an actual event containing that situation. When participants
compare the concept with the event, they may read the subsequent lack of fit as
disconcerting, confusing or funny. Characters within the text may also interpret
the situation in diverse ways. Both groups may express themselves through
laughter. Thus, black humour may exist (a) for the characters within the reality of
the text, (b) only for participants outside the text, or (c) for both the characters
and participants. In the analysis of black comic material in this thesis, I
differentiate between these different situations.

In the following section, I outline the development of the incongruity theory of


humour prior to the twentieth century. In the next three sections, I consider the
work of contemporary scholars engaged with the incongruity theory. Throughout
these discussions, I examine the notion of structure through the analysis of black
comic texts. The scholars discussed in these sections usually do not specifically
address black humour, but I apply their theoretical work to that unique
experience.

Logic of the Absurd: The Incongruity Theory of Humour

Philosophers such as Aristotle (1964), Kant (1952), Schopenhauer (1964),


Bergson (1956), Bakhtin (1968) and Koestler (1975), each of whom write about
a range of human experiences, all utilise the concept of incongruity to elucidate
humour. More recently, contemporary scholars such as Suls (1983), Davies
(1998) and Mulkay (1988), amongst others, have evaluated and enhanced the
incongruity theory in their study of the phenomenon of humour.

The incongruity theory of humour suggests that comic material is structured to


present elements that do not fit together. When participants engage with comic
material, they evaluate the conflicting information within the material; they make
comparisons between what they expect and what they find. Participants may
perceive a discrepancy between [their] ideas about the object of laughter and the

92

reality presented in comic material (Lauter, 1964: xvii). This illogical


information may be perceived as humorous. Yet when participants receive
further information from the comic material, they may recognise that these
contrasting elements relate to one another, thus creating a kind of conceptual
resolution. Participants are initially stymied by the incongruity of the punchline,
which leads to a reinterpretation of the joke material that makes it
comprehensible (Carroll, 1991: 27). Carroll believes that participants revisit the
comic material in their minds, as if they were retelling the joke to themselves,
in order to make new connections between previously disparate elements (ibid.).
This perspective relates to Suls (1983) work, in which he argues that the
incongruity theory of humour should incorporate a process of resolution. Suls
believes that participants laugh because the comic punchline makes incompatible
elements fit together. In keeping with this view, Palmer describes comic
incongruity as the logic of the absurd (1994: 96).

Although incongruity seems necessary to the experience of humour, it does not


automatically determine that a situation will be perceived as humorous. Comedy
seems to contain an infinite number of variations around a consistent conceptual
structure. As participants compare the dissimilar elements within this structure,
they try to understand the conflicts these elements generate. In this sense, the
structures within comedy affect, but do not specifically predetermine,
participants interpretations. The act of perceiving humour seems to be an
intricate process through which participants make meaning from confusing,
conflicting or controversial information.

Aristotle (1964) first describes a link between comedy and incongruity in his
Poetics. He notes that human expectations are often contradicted by experience.
The resulting sense of surprise, when it is not painful or threatening, is often
humorous. Aristotle (1984) also touches upon the notion of incongruity in The
Rhetoric, saying that the reversal of an expectation may be interpreted as funny.
In other words, participants hold a relatively stable set of expectations about a
particular issue, situation or group of people. Comedy presents information that

93

seems to be in opposition to this prediction. This conceptual confrontation may


elicit humour and it may cause participants to realign their views. Palmer (1994)
notes that, for Aristotle, the concept of incongruity is not so much a theory of
humour as an explanation of why humour is a powerful rhetorical device.
Creating humour through incongruity undercuts an opponents argument.

In Aristotles view, tragedy focuses on the emotional and intellectual journeys of


the elite, whereas comedy reflects the misadventures of the general population.
More specifically, Aristotle points out that comedy involves a juxtaposition
between the behaviours of the ruling classes and the working classes. This
juxtaposition emerges from peoples general expectations of these groups as well
as the groups capabilities and activities. In other words, the structure of comedy
sets up conflicts between expectations and eventualities. (The issue of
participants expectations, which often stem from presuppositions about
particular individuals or groups, also relates to the superiority theory of humour.
This theory is considered in Chapter 4 on the functions of humour.)

Like Aristotle, Kant (1952) focuses on the juxtaposition between expectations


and experience. He theorises that individuals who engage with a particular
situation make predictions about the relationship of two or more elements within
that situation. Through engagement with the comic material, participants receive
further information about the elements; participants may then reconsider their
perspectives. Kant believes that the shift from a negative hypothesis to a more
benign one may create the experience of humour: laughter is the result of an
expectation which is suddenly reduced to nothing (1952: 54).

Yet the feeling of surprise is not necessarily enough to generate humour. Kant
suggests that comic material must have something in it capable of momentarily
deceiving us (1952, 54). Then, when our concerns and confusions dissolve, the
mind looks back in order to try it over again and thus [the mind is] put in
oscillation (ibid.). To summarise Kants view, participants make an effort to
understand the incongruities in the comic material and this process produces

94

fatigue but also affords recreation (Kant, 1952: 55). In addition, Kant
reasons, a shift in hypothesis in the opposite direction (from a positive
perspective towards a more serious one) may generate discomfort or frustration
rather than humour.

Schopenhauer, who was influenced by Kant, also stresses the importance of


incongruity in the experience of humour. Schopenhauer believes that when
participants connect with comic material, they identify conflicting elements.
Participants then notice contradictions between what is anticipated and what
actually occurs. For Schopenhauer, humour involves a sudden perception of the
incongruity between a concept and the real objects to which the concept is
compared (1964: 355). Schopenhauer also believes in a sense of resolution
within the experience of humour.

All laughter is occasioned by paradox, and therefore by unexpected


subsumption, whether this is expressed in words or in actions.
(1964: 356)
By using the term subsumption, Schopenhauer means that disparate notions are
brought together into one overarching concept. Elements that seemed
incongruous can then be seen to fit together. In other words, comedy unites
different lines of thought.

Schopenhauer also offers a perspective on situations in which participants do not


register incongruity. In these instances, people tend to make direct, logical
connections between their expectations and the information presented. They
engage in a process of comparison, but they tend to assess the situation as serious
rather than comic. Schopenhauer (1964) sees this process of conceptual
comparison, whether or not it involves humour, as a model for learning. When
the elements within a situation seem compatible, participants tend to accept the
information as factual; when the elements seem incompatible, the process of
interpretation becomes more complex and therefore potentially comic.4 Either
way, Schopenhauer believes that the presentation of information involves a

95

process of evaluation, of sifting through possibilities and identifying areas of


alignment and friction within that information.

Similarly, Bergson (1956) draws upon Kants perspective on humour by saying


that people tend to construct, reject and reconstruct mental hypotheses about the
information they receive. On this point, Bergson is also indebted to
Schopenhauers description of a process of cognitive evaluation. Yet Bergson
takes a different angle on the incongruity theory. He proposes that human beings
need to be adaptable to a wide variety of situations.

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert


attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together
with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt
ourselves in consequence.
(Bergson, 1956: 72)

Bergson then points out that people make mistakes; they tend to be stubborn,
rigid and frail. These errors give the impression that a human being is like an
unreliable piece of equipment: the attitudes, gestures and movements of the
body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere
machine (1956: 79). Bergson describes this comparison as something
mechanical encrusted on the living (1956: 84). According to this version of the
incongruity theory, participants understand humour by applying a conceptual
template to one or more elements within a situation, then evaluating the gaps
between the template and the actual situation. On this point, Bergson
demonstrates his concern with the possibilities and limitations of the human
form. He extends this observation about the rigidity of the body, saying that
humour arises any time a person gives us the impression of being a thing
(1956: 97). Thus, Bergson believes that humour emerges from the juxtaposition
between an ideal and an interpretation of reality. This explanation is focussed on
a conceptual structure that participants apply within a process of comparison.

96

Bergson also speaks of the social structures involved in the experience of


humour. He notes that comedy is often difficult to translate from one language or
culture to another because comedy relies upon the customs and ideas of a
particular social group (1956: 65). Bergson believes that humour has a social
signification; he sees humour as an interactive experience that operates within a
social context (ibid.). In making this point, Bergson applies his template concept
to society as a whole. He uses the example of ceremonies and rituals, saying they
serve as frames that people apply to actual life experiences. Since reality rarely
fits with an ideal, these experiences may seem humorous. The ceremonial side
of social life must therefore always include a latent comic element, which is only
waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view (1956: 89). As a result,
humour has an anarchical quality. It is like a small revolt on the surface of
social life (1983: 190). This key point differentiates Bergson from theorists who
precede him. He sees humour as potentially disruptive rather than essentially
cohesive.

Each of the scholars discussed above speaks to the role of incongruity in the
structure of comedy. Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer and Bergson are particularly
concerned with how comedy presents contradictions that are based on
participants preconceptions about individuals, groups and situations. In moving
through the possible meanings of these incongruities, participants may question
their existing attitudes and practices. This process of re-evaluation is part of the
complex experience of humour.

In the following sections, I revisit the ideas articulated by these scholars and
introduce the work of contemporary researchers. More specifically, I apply
different theorists concepts of structure to the phenomenon of black humour. I
also consider individual and societal expectations surrounding loss in relation to
black comic texts. I look at participants perceptions from a theoretical
standpoint, rather than analysing actual recorded responses to these elements
when performed on stage or screen. In this discussion, I am concerned with how
ideas, actions and emotions clash within the experience of black humour. In

97

working the concept of structure in black humour, I emphasise the importance of


the incongruity theory because this perspective accentuates conceptual frictions.
It speaks to the ways in which participants may influence, and be influenced by,
social conventions about loss. Through this analysis, I consider how the structure
of comic material reveals vulnerabilities, or areas of fracturing and splintering,
between and within individuals or groups. I argue that the incongruity theory is
particularly pertinent to comedy about death, in part because the potential for
conflict is considerable in situations that are highly significant for participants.
Overall, I contend that the concept of structure is a vital perspective in the
analysis of black humour.

Structures in Black Comedy: Collisions

In response to the different structural stress points in black comedy, I have


created thematic divisions within this chapter; these are based on different types
of incongruity: collisions, reversals and repetitions. In this section on collisions
in black comedy, I consider how people experience physical and emotional
impacts, both within the diegesis and amongst participants. Through each of
these sections, I look at how death is depicted in black comedy. Although there
are areas of overlap between these divisions, these distinctions I make are
intended to highlight the diverse ways in which people respond to information
about death and dying.

In the screenplay for the film Fargo, a policewoman called Marge Gunderson
learns of a triple murder in her tiny hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. Marge is
called out early in the morning, following a huge snowstorm, to investigate the
crime scene. After she assesses the locations of the three bodies one cop and
two civilians she summarises her perspective for her colleague, Lou.

MARGE:
Okay, so we got a trooper pulls someone over, we got a
shooting, and these folks drive by, we got a high-speed pursuit,
ends here, and this execution-type deal.

98

LOU:
Yah.
MARGE:
Id be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.
LOU:
Yah.
(Coen and Coen, 1996: 42)
Because very few dramatic events occur in Brainerd, Marge assumes that the
killers have passed through town. This situation sets up the films first conceptual
collision: a rift between the perceived peacefulness of a small rural community
and the random gruesomeness of the homicides. The local police in Brainerd are
so unaccustomed to criminal investigations that they make ludicrous errors. Only
Marge has the insight to analyse the crime with rapid lucidity. In leading the
investigation, she asks her colleague to check the dead troopers ticket citation
book.

LOU:
Last vehicle he wrote in was a tan Ciera at 2:18am. Under
the plate number he put DLR I figure they stopped him or
shot him before he got a chance to finish fillin out the tag
numberSo, I got the state lookin for a tag startin DLR.
They dont got no match yet.
MARGE:
Im not sure I agree with you a hunnert percent on your
policework there, Lou.
LOU:
Yah?
MARGE:
Yah, I think that vehicle there probly had dealer plates. DLR?
LOU:
Oh. . . Geez.
(Coen and Coen, 1996: 45)

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The difference between societys expectations of a police detective and Lous


lack of insight creates incongruity. Lou seems incapable of identifying a stolen
car, much less solving a triple murder. These and other incongruities in the scene
may lead participants to experience black humour. Yet the interpretations of
participants do not match those of the characters, who take the situation
seriously. Marge corrects her colleague, but does not register his mistake as
funny. In virtually all the comic moments in Fargo, the black humour seems
perceptible only to participants, not to characters in the text.

In another key scene, the two men who have perpetrated the murders get into an
argument. The more violent of the two men, Grimsrud, rarely speaks. His partner
in crime, Carl, talks incessantly. The contrast between the two men is both
chilling and terribly comic.
CARL:
You never been to Minneapolis?
GRIMSRUD:
No.
CARL:
Would it kill you to say something?
GRIMSRUD:
I did.
CARL:
No. First thing youve said in the last four hours. Thats a,
thats a fountain of conversation, man. Thats a geyser. I mean,
whoa, daddy, stand back, man. Shit, Im sitting here driving,
man, doin all the drivingand you cant say one fuckin thing
in the way of conversation.
Grimsrud smokes, gazing out the window.
Well, fuck it. I dont have to talk either, man. See how you like
it.
Carl looks at Grimsrud for a reaction.

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Just total fuckin silence. Two can play at that game, smart
guy. Well just see how you like it.
He drives.
(Coen and Coen, 1996: 20)

The two men are hardened criminals, yet they both get upset about quite minor
issues, such as poor television reception or a bit of noise. The mens sensitivity
and impulsivity is strangely funny because they are like children. The criminals
become violent over tiny personal insults, yet take the lives of innocent people
without remorse. Carl jokes about a man he has just killed by saying, The last
guy who thought [I] was a jerk is dead now (1996: 88). This flagrant disregard
for social rules contributes to the black comedy in this scene, even though the
characters do not register any humour in their situation.

In a later scene, Carl returns from collecting ransom money for a botched
kidnapping. When he walks into the cabin where the two men have been hiding,
he sees that Grimsrud has murdered the kidnap victim: She started shrieking,
you know (Coen and Coen, 1996: 45). Carl ignores this event, even though the
dead body in the corner marks the sixth murder that he and Grimsrud have
committed in the past few days. Instead, Carl focuses on dividing the cash and
getting medical attention for the gunshot wound in his face. (This injury occurred
when he killed the man dropping off the ransom. Before dying, the man got off
one shot at Carl.) When Carl first greets Grimsrud, he points to his own face and
laughs: You should she zhe uzher guy! The one-way conversation that ensues
is obscured by Carls face wound, but the discussion involves a dispute over the
previously stolen vehicle, an Oldsmobile Ciera.

CARL:
Well, I gotta muddy. He is plunking down eight bank-wrapped
bundles on the table. All of it. All eighty gran. Forty for you,
forty for meAdiosh. You can have my truck. Im takin a
Sheira.
GRIMSRUD:
We split that.

101

CARL:
HOW THE FUCK DO WE SHPLIT A FUCKIN CAR? Ya
dummy! Widda fuckin chainsaw?...NO FUCKIN WAY!... I
WENTN GOT DA FUCKIN MONEY. I GET SHOT
FUCKIN PICKIN IT UP! I BEEN UP FOR THIRTYSHIKSH FUCKIN HOURZH. IM TAKIN THAT FUCKIN
CAR
Carl pulls out a gun.
ARE WE SHQUARE?
Grumsrud says nothing. Disgusted, Carl pockets the gun and
heads for the door.
Fuckin ash-hole...
Outside, Carl walks toward the car. Behind him we see the cabin
door opening. Grimsrud is bounding outholding an axe.
Grimsrud swings overhand, burying the axe in Carls neck.
(Coen and Coen, 1996:
100-101)
Although the community of Brainerd is overwhelmed by the bizarre violence that
strikes their town, Marge remains calm. The third interesting conceptual collision
in this text is between the mad, chaotic behaviour of the murderers and Marges
warm, sincere, balanced approach to her work. Despite the fact that she is several
months pregnant, Marge pursues each lead with energetic diligence. In the days
that follow the triple murder, Marge gathers further information and narrows in
on the two men who are responsible. While circling in her patrol car, she sees a
Ciera parked in front of an isolated cabin. She approaches on foot and sees
Grimsrud, who is in the process of putting Carls body through a wood-chipper
machine. Marge yells out Stop! Police! but Grimsrud does not hear her (105).
Finally the criminal sees Marge and starts running slowly through the deep snow.
Marge shoots and wounds Grimsrud in the leg, then apprehends him on her own.
Rather than displaying horror at what he has done, Marge seems bemused as she
drives Grimsrud to the police station.

102

MARGE:
I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper.
Grimsruds head bobs with the bumps in the road; otherwise he is
motionless, reactionless, scowling and gazing out.
And those three people in Brainerd.
No response. Marge, gazing forward, seems to be talking to
herself.
And for what? For a little bit a money Theres more to life
than a little money, you know.
She glances up in the rear-view mirror.
Dont you know that? And here ya are. . . and its a beautiful
day . . .
Grimsruds hollow eyes stare out.
Well. . . I just dont unnerstand it.
(Coen and Coen, 1996: 107)
While this scene may not seem particularly funny, it does indicate how the black
comedy works in other scenes within Fargo. Marges sincerity and equanimity
create a moving juxtaposition to Carl and Grimsruds anger and impulsivity. It is
as though Marge functions in a different plane of existence; she finds it nearly
impossible to comprehend how the criminals could be so destructive, both to
themselves and others.

This point about Marges sense of distance from the criminals relates to
Koestlers (1975) work on incongruity in humour. He applies the idea of
conceptual matrices, or planes of thought, to the process of perceiving humour.
Koestler theorises that peoples expectations of the world coalesce around
established points of reference (such as the social practices associated with
death). Participants then use these points of reference to make comparisons
between their expectations and the situations presented in a text. Koestler sees
these points of reference as associative contexts, which are like a web of
cognitive and emotional structures. The points of reference within these

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associative contexts enable participants to establish expectations in any situation,


yet also explore multiple possibilities within that situation. In other words, the
associative contexts are governed by a fixed set of rules but maintain a relative
level of flexibility. When participants encounter situations that contradict their
expectations, and when they can make sense of these contradictions, they may
experience humour.

Thus, Koestler sees the experience of humour as the entanglement of conceptual


matrices.5 He says that jokes and other comic material are like universes of
discourse colliding, frames getting entangled or contexts getting confused
(1975: 40). Koestler sees the point of realisation in humour that is, the moment
of getting the joke as a spark of energy. He suggests that this event may occur
only once (e.g. a joke), or it may be part of a longer, more complex comic
moment (e.g. a scene or routine). In the latter case, participants experience a
series of minor explosions or a continuous state of mild amusement (1975: 37).
In this regard, participants seem to engage in a repeated process of making
comparisons and drawing connections between seemingly unrelated entities.
Koestler describes this as perceiving a situation or idea in two self-consistent
but habitually incompatible frames of reference (1975: 35). Thus, the
experience of humour may occur as an effect of this clash of contexts and it may
enable participants to perceive things in multiple ways simultaneously. In
relation to black humour, participants may perceive death as awful yet natural,
terrifying yet absurd.

In Fargo, Marge Gunderson does not comprehend the murderers motivations.


Yet participants who are more exposed to issues of urban violence, abuse and
poverty-induced desperation, as discussed in the previous chapter, may have seen
this kind of behaviour before and therefore may be able to make sense of, and
perhaps laugh at, the gap between the innocence of people in Brainerd and the
transgressions of the criminal subculture. As in Pulp Fiction, the criminals in
Fargo display a decided coolness towards death. They act in a manner that is

104

ruthlessly violent, with a sense of deadened emotions and unadulterated selfinterest.

This point relates to Koestlers discussion of humour, in which he pays particular


attention to the juxtaposition between entities that are treated with reverence and
those that are considered trivial. He points out that comedy creates contrasts
between dominant-cultural and counter-cultural structures. For Koestler, comedy
tends to challenge powerful institutions by highlighting their inadequacies.
Comedy also seems to valorise the commonplace aspects of existence; it
deflate[s] hollow pretence and flattens hierarchies, such as those evidenced in
social and governmental organisations (Koestler, 1975: 69). One of the dark
comic aspects of Fargo is the way in which the murderers trivialise aspects of
existence that other people hold sacred. When a parking lot attendant charges
Carl four dollars for being inside the facility for just ten minutes, Carl hurls a
stream of abuse at the attendant. When it happens a second time a few days later,
Carl kills the young man. This action is obviously disproportionate to the
supposed offence committed by the poor employee. Yet because participants may
recognise this familiar, albeit minor frustration, they may be able to close the gap
between Carls attitude and his irrational actions.

In the final scene of the film, Marge and her husband Norm do precisely the
opposite of the situation described above. They take something that seems trivial
(in this case, a recognition given to one of Norms paintings) and treat it with
great reverence. This incongruity gives the scene a sweet, gentle comic quality.

NORM:
They announced it . . . Three-cent stamp.
MARGE:
Your mallard?
NORM:
Yah.

105

MARGE:
Norm, thats terrific!
Norm tries to suppress a smile of pleasure.
NORM:
Its just the three-cent Hautmans blue-wing teal got the
twenty-nine cent. People dont much use the three-cent.
MARGE:
Oh, for Petes of course they do! Every time they raise the
darned postage, people need the little stamps!
NORM:
Yah.
MARGE:
When theyre stuck with a bunch a the old ones.
NORM:
Yah, I guess.
MARGE:
Thats terrific. Im so proud a you, Norm.
(Coen and Coen, 1996:
110-1)
In comparison to the previous scene, this moment is full of peace and genuine
affection. Even the language these characters use creates a clear juxtaposition
from the previous scene with the two criminals, in which every second word was
an expletive. As Koestler notes, comic effects are produced by the sudden
clash of incompatible matrices (1975: 42). In Fargo, Marge Gundersons
perspective on life collides with that of the murderers and the man who plans the
original kidnapping. This experience causes Marge to consider the randomness of
death and the sickness of murder. Yet she concludes that, despite the temporary
invasion of terror, her world is alright. One of her final lines in the text is: Heck,
were doin pretty good, Norm (111).

A similar conceptual collision occurs in the darkly comic American television


series Six Feet Under (2001-2005). This series follows the lives of the Fisher
family, who operate a funeral home in present-day Los Angeles. The black

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humour in Six Feet Under emerges from the characters attempts to deal with the
constant presence of death. In one episode, an apprentice mortician called Arthur
is left in charge of the funeral home while the owners, brothers David and Nate
Fisher, are away. Arthur places the corpse of an extremely obese man on a
trestle, awaiting the arrival of an extra-large coffin. In the middle of the night, the
weight of the corpse overwhelms the trestle and the body falls to the floor. The
efforts of four people Arthur, two other members of the Fisher family and their
friend Russell are unsuccessful in lifting the corpse back onto the platform.
Dead weight is the hardest kind of weight to move, Arthur warns (2001-2005).
In their efforts to relocate the extremely heavy corpse, the Fishers and their
friends falter and drop the body on the floor again. Arthur then spends the early
hours of the morning reconstructing the deceased mans face, as the fall
dislocates his nose.

The dark comedy in this scene stems from the juxtaposition between the four
living bodies and the corpse. The characters strength and flexibility contrasts
with the immobility of the corpse (which, in turn, would have possessed these
qualities when the man was alive). This issue relates to Bergsons version of the
incongruity theory of humour, which says that participants make comparisons
between an actual body and an ideal template. When the body fails to operate
effectively, and it seems like an inadequate machine, participants may find the
situation funny. The laughable element, Bergson suggests, consists of a
certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the
wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being (1956: 6667). In this scene from Six Feet Under, the characters are aware of the problems
the corpse presents, but do not find the situation funny because they are under
considerable professional pressure; they must have the obese mans body fully
prepared for the open-casket funeral the following morning. Although the
characters take this situation seriously, participants may see it as comic because
the Fisher familys attempts to lift the corpse are awkward, uncomfortable and
ridiculous a kind of ghastly slapstick.

107

Another aspect of the comic incongruity in this scene grows out of the contrast
between the Fisher familys complacency and Russells shock. The Fishers are
accustomed to seeing dead bodies and hardly notice this nocturnal drama. They
calmly discuss different strategies for lifting the body as though it were a load of
potting soil. While they are debating what to do next, Russell stares blankly at
the crumpled corpse on the floor. Im starting to get a little freaked out now, he
mumbles (2001-2005). The stark difference in perspective between the Fisher
family and Russell evokes Koestlers concept of separate associative contexts. As
noted above, Koestler says that participants may experience humour when they
make a connection, or biosociation between two separate thought processes
(35). In relation to this scene, Russell conceives of the corpse within one plane of
thought (i.e. a frightening, foreign object), while the Fishers perceive it in
another (i.e. an object that they must prepare for display in their business). The
black humour in this scene grows through the contrast between the Fisher
familys tolerance of death and Russells squeamishness.

In another episode of Six Feet Under, the funeral home receives the body of a
baker who has died by accidentally cutting himself to pieces in a machine. When
Nate and David try to reconstruct the corpse for the funeral, they cannot find one
of the feet. The two men search their entire premises for the missing appendage.
David, speaking as though he is addressing a child, accuses his brother of losing
the foot while picking up the remains at the bakery. Come on now, Nate, is
there anywhere else you could have left it? (2001-2005).

This scene presents a juxtaposition between a very unusual item (a severed foot)
and the banal way in which David discusses it. By asking casually about the foot,
David treats an item that is normally sacred as an item that is trivial. The Fisher
brothers lack of respect for the dead bakers remains may seem incongruous,
even offensive, to participants. At the same time, this type of macabre
conversation is not unusual for these characters within the reality of the text. At
any particular time, the Fisher familys large old house contains many bodies and
pieces of machinery related to preparing corpses; it also holds boxes of ashes,

108

memorabilia from the deceased and the occasional severed limb. Thus,
participants who are familiar with the characters may perceive that, although
their actions and attitudes seem incongruous with that of society in general,
David and Nate are behaving in a manner that is consistent with their personal
and professional lives. In this way, the humorous narrative oscillates between
two frames of reference (Koestler, 1975: 38).

A severed foot is also a crucial plot element a black comic film called Funny
Bones (1995). At the beginning of the film, a man is killed when he falls off a
ship into the rotating propeller during a botched drug deal. Days later, the mans
severed foot washes up on the beach near an amusement park in Blackpool,
England. A little boy finds it, picks it up and brandishes it at local merrymakers.
The manager of the amusement park, Jim Minty, is worried about the effect of
this grisly incident on his business, so he tries to downplay the event to the press:
Its just a foot. Itll blow over. A one-off. (1995). Later, when another foot
washes up on the beach, Jim must confront the press again.
REPORTER 1:
I thought you said it was a one-off.
JIM:
Well, it is a one-off. The feet match. One person.
REPORTER 2:
Two feet, though.
JIM:
Well, obviously. Everyones got two feet. Does anyone know
anybody who hasnt got two feet?
ALL REPORTERS (in unison):
Yes!
(1995)
The reporters outwit the slippery Jim Minty by recognising that the dead man
does not, in fact, have two feet. This moment, which is indicative of much of the
wacky comedy in Funny Bones, shows how two contrasting worlds collide. The
severed feet disrupt the gleeful faade of the amusement park; they also reveal

109

the corruption of Blackpools police chief, who is involved in the drug ring. The
feet generate momentary black humour for a few people, including the reporters,
the little boy who finds the first foot and a young local vaudeville performer,
Jack Parker, who was a relative innocent in the drug deal. Other characters,
however, do not find the lopped limbs funny. These individuals tend to express
disgust, fear or grief. (The latter is strongly articulated by the dead mans family.)
Yet participants who engage with this scene may enjoy the juxtaposition between
an amusement park and a dismembered corpse. The feet are so out of context, so
disconnected from their original purpose within the body as a whole, that the
scene is brutally ridiculous.

The scenes discussed in this section show how diverse ideas about death collide
within black comedy. In these texts, characters articulate their various
perspectives on some of the common elements in black comedy: corpses,
funerals, homicide and grief. Not only are the characters views different from
one another, but their attitudes and practices are also at odds with social norms.
In Six Feet Under, David and Nate are amused by a fatal accident in which a
woman accidentally electrocutes herself in the bathtub with hair curlers. In
Fargo, Marge looks at the bodies of two murdered young people and says Aw,
geezOkay. Wheres the [dead] trooper? Her colleague answers that the third
body is up the road. Marge kneels near the corpses to let a wave of morning
sickness pass, then says Now Im hungry again. (1996: 42-3).

In many black comic texts, like those discussed here, death occurs in a
ridiculous manner and is never dignified (Winston, 1972: 283). As a result, the
characters approach to the loss of life is unconventional. Unlike most people in
contemporary society, these individuals are forced into a close relationship with
death. Rubin refers to this type of comic incongruity as a clash of modes
(1997: 43.) He also says that incongruity illuminates the shortcomings of both
modes (ibid.). In other words, black comedy allows participants to question the
information they receive. This type of material may raise controversial issues
about fate and the purpose of existence. Why are innocent people murdered?

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When does death become routine? What is the meaning of life if no one misses
you when you are gone? Both Bergsons (1956) notion of a conceptual template
and Koestlers (1975) idea of associative contexts suggest that black comedy
invites participants to make comparisons between their personal death-related
beliefs and the perspectives and situations presented in a text. The collision
between these points of view that is, the areas where these concepts cause
friction and fracture has the potential to evoke black humour. As Winston
describes it, death is the ultimate disjunction in a [form of expression] that
dwells on violent incongruities (1972: 483).

Reversals

This section looks at another aspect of incongruity within black comedy: the
reversal of expectations. Within this structural theme, participants encounter
information about death that is the opposite of what they expect; there is a
switch, or inversion, of social rules about the loss of life. Participants are exposed
to surprising ideas, beliefs or behaviours that challenge convention and
manipulate stereotypes. The controversy surrounding these reversals may prompt
participants to consider the differences between the elements that have been
inverted. When participants judge the reversal to be interesting rather than
threatening, they tend to find it funny (Mulkay 1988).

Reversals appear frequently in humour about death, dying and bereavement.


Although practices associated with death vary widely, there are basic tenets
shared by diverse groups of people. These general principles include providing
comfort and dignity to the dying, respecting the corpse and sympathising with the
bereaved (Kellehear 2000). If an individuals behaviour is in opposition to these
social mores, participants may find the situation humorous.

In Richard Greenbergs play Three Days of Rain (1999), a wealthy young man
called Walker flees from New York to Europe. Even after he hears of his famous
fathers death, Walker does not communicate with his family and does not attend

111

the funeral. When he finally returns to New York, his only sister Nan is shocked
and angered at Walkers selfish behaviour. (This marks the second time Walker
has disappeared for a prolonged period.) Nan suddenly realises that a years
worth of worrying and grieving for her brother was unnecessary, even silly. The
brother she considered dead is now alive; the relationship she mourned must now
be resumed. This reversal is not funny to Nan, but Walker jokes about it
compulsively.

NAN:
I thought you were dead this time. . . I was certain of it, this
time
WALKER:
Im
NAN:
There were things to think of at the funeral other than your
absence, Walker. Did you ever consider us for a moment in the
last year? Do you have any idea what it was like? [We] hired
detectives. It cost us a fortune. We learned nothing. For such a
fuck-up youre incredibly gifted at getting lost. Where were
you?
WALKER:
Italy. Beat.
NAN:
Just Italy?
WALKER:
Yes, I know. Anything short of Jupiter must sound prosaic after
all youve been throughI know its the most obvious place
those detectives must have been quite second-rate; anyway,
well, Id been told nobody goes there anymore an enormous
lie, by the way so I decided to try it out
NAN:
You just walked out of your apartment you abandoned
WALKER:
It just happened[but] I did go to the cemetery Its nice
where [Dad] is, isnt it? Under that tree, right by the water. I
just sort of showed up with my rucksackId brought a
candle. Id decided to have a private ceremony. Luckily, it was

112

raining, the candle, the wick wouldnt light. So I just sat on that
big boulder by his grave, getting wet and chatting away like a
moron. The dead man said nothing. So like the living Now
[Im] here. Home to you.
NAN:
I could strangle you with my bare hands.
(Greenberg, 1999: 10-12,
italics in the original)
Later, on the same day, Nan discusses the situation with her lifelong friend, Pip.
Although Walker is clearly alive, these scenes reveal how his loved ones
perceive the instant reversal of fortune.
PIP:
Its the same thing all over again, Nan.
NAN:
I know.
PIP:
I mean, when Walker was gone, all I could remember was all
the great things about him which when you think about it is a
pretty meagre amount of material to be spread out over a year
NAN:
I yes
PIP:
Youd think returning from the dead would be characterimproving, but I mean: Look at him!
(Greenberg, 1999: 24)

It is difficult for Pip and Nan to understand and accept what has happened.
Without warning, the prodigal son, once presumed lost, is now found. Pip, who
had been worried about Walker for over a year, feels deceived. Neither Pip nor
Nan find the situation humorous, yet participants who engage with this text may
find it funny. Walkers Lazarus-like appearance in New York, in addition to his
attempts at conviviality, bring a farcical quality to the scene. Although farce is
not the focus of this thesis, Davis (2003) describes two key qualities of
contemporary farce that seem pertinent to these scenes from Three Days of Rain.

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First, farce from the late twentieth-century tends to move towards existential
angst and bitter black humour (Davis, 2003: 16). Second, farce seems to turn
inward upon itself to examine its own theatricality (ibid.). The character of
Walker enacts both of these qualities when orchestrating his reversal of fortune.

The structural theme of reversal is also exemplified in the character of Colin


from Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn (1975). In this play, five adults
organise an afternoon tea for their mutual friend Colin, whose fiance has
recently drowned. The black comedy in Absent Friends emerges from the
inversion of Colins quiet, modest acceptance of death and the other characters
fear of mortality. Participants are likely to expect Colin to be distraught and
reluctant to discuss his loss. Instead, Colin is cheery while the party hosts dread
any discussion of death. The characters in this text, other than Colin, epitomise
the contemporary tendency to deny or minimise death, as discussed in the
preceding chapter.

Absent Friends takes place across two hours on a Sunday afternoon. Ayckbourn
makes stage time equal to real time, a technique which contains and intensifies
the play. This structure also has a natural, accessible quality that seems to invite
participants to connect with Colin as he relates his emotional journey. Before
Colin arrives, the friends reassure each other that Colin will avoid the subject of
death. I dont think hell want to talk about Carol...Hell want to forget says
Marge (Ayckbourn, 1975: 115). The characters speculate about other possible
topics of conversation, but remain concerned that death will be on the agenda. I
dont know what to say to him, groans John. I hate death. Gives me the creeps.
Dont talk about it. His wife Evelyn laughs at him. Death, death, death, she
taunts (ibid.).

Despite their stated fear of mortality, the hosts discuss death many times as they
prepare for the party. Marge comments upon the cause of Carols demise: Id
hate to drown. Pause. I dont mind anything else. Poison, hanging, shooting
thats never worried me but Id hate to drown. You look so awful afterwards

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(Ayckbourn, 1975: 109). Other characters in this scene question the purpose of
the upcoming social gathering.

PAUL:
I cant see what good this is going to do for him. Coming round
here talking to us about it.
DIANA:
He probably wont want to.
PAUL:
Then what else is there to talk about? Its just embarrassing
isnt it? ...
JOHN:
As long as he doesnt start talking about death, I dont mind. If
he starts on about death or dying, Im off.
(Ayckbourn, 1975: 118-119)

Once he arrives and greets his friends, Colin immediately offers a complex
description of his grief, affirming both the joy of Carols existence and the
devastation her death invoked. Colin is the most balanced, articulate, peaceful
character in the play. He also shows an awareness of the boundaries of his grief.
[Just] because Ive been denied my own happiness, he states, I dont envy or
begrudge you yours (133). The other characters are shocked into silence.
Although Colin is not aware of it, they are all trapped in loveless marriages. He
therefore unwittingly highlights their unhappiness and denial. Did I say the
wrong thing? Colin wonders aloud (134).

In the following scene, Colin returns to his thoughts of Carol.

I know that shes still around somewhere...Her spirit or whatever


you call it...I mean, I know for certain in my mind that shes dead.
Theres no doubt that shes dead. I saw her lying there dead with
my own eyes
(Ayckbourn, 1975: 136)

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Colins repetition of the word dead is natural to him, but it provokes the other
characters. John, in particular, feels highly uncomfortable. In these
circumstances, the word dead becomes like a punchline, creating comic
possibilities with each utterance.

The assembled friends, given an opportunity to discuss important life issues, are
unable to explore their emotions. His friends not only fail to comfort Colin, they
seem in need of therapy themselves. The characters unravel as they recognise the
contrast between their own unhappiness and the simple peace Colin has attained.
Colins openness is surprising; he seems at peace with his situation, partly
because of the meaning that grief has brought to his life. As discussed further
below, Bakhtins work on the medieval carnival offers insight on this point.
Bakhtin suggests that death is not the end of an individuals existence, but the
moment of spiritual release (1968).

Bakhtins analysis of humour relates to the idea of reversal in black comedy.


Although Bakhtin does not specifically discuss black comedy, he uses the ideas
and images from medieval carnivals to illustrate changes and inversions in social
positions. In particular, he discusses the connection between comedy and the
circumvention of established rules. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin works
from the colourful and ribald writings of Rabelais a sixteenth-century physician
who wrote about the legends and activities of the Middle Ages in Western
Europe.6 Bakhtin describes an annual medieval festival centred on raw, frenetic
energy and coarse physicality. He describes the way in which inherited
hierarchical systems are energetically inverted and distorted, at least for a limited
time, through comedy. In Bakhtins view, most comic material depicts situations
in which peoples behaviour does not correspond with social expectations.

The community events of the medieval carnivals were earthy and vigorous; they
involved food and alcohol, games, music, pranks and sensual gratification.
Bakhtins work emphasises both the fervour and the restraint involved in
carnivals. In medieval times, as in many contemporary celebrations around the

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world, the carnivals were associated with the days before Lent (and in particular
Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday); these events provided a temporary lifting of social
barriers. During the annual celebrations, people enacted roles that represented the
converse of their traditional positions in society. These events foreground the
low, the self-indulgent, the grotesque [and] the body in all its corporeality
(Palmer, 1994: 50). In these celebrations, two commonly reversed roles were the
king and the pauper. The villagers were allowed to elect their own king and
temporarily grant this person the privileges of royalty. At the conclusion of the
carnival, the person who had been acting as king was dethroned and beaten
[and] dressed as a clown; the game was then complete (Palmer, 1994: 130). For
this limited period, the world seemed topsy-turvy, a term Bakhtin borrows from
W.S. Gilbert, the famous nineteenth century British lyricist.

For Bakhtin, the medieval carnival is a powerful symbol of peoples full and rich
engagement with fundamental life experiences. He depicts the carnival as a time
when the body became engorged and the senses overwhelmed. Bakhtin describes
the verbal comedy of the medieval carnival as completely liberated speech that
ignores all norms, even those of elementary logic (Bakhtin, 1968: 422). This
short period involved a temporary fragmentation of established institutions. By
reversing positions of power, the carnival questioned established social norms
(Morson and Emerson 1990). Bakhtin notes that these symbolic changes in status
create the potential for humour. Overall, Bakhtins analysis of carnival reveals
the ways in which social roles may be reversed, reinstated and even strengthened
through comedy.

Louis Nowras play The Precious Woman (1981) demonstrates the concept of
social reversal in the context of black comedy. In the first scene, set in China in
1920, a fictional ruler called Governor Teng is mortally wounded by a gunshot
from his angry mistress. The Governor remains alive for a few hours, fading in
and out of consciousness. To quell rumours about his demise, government
officials decide to photograph him in official dress. Two of the Governors
servants are asked to prepare the body for photographs, but while doing so they

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make fun of his limp, dying body. The servants are particularly irreverent
towards Governor Teng because he was a hated dictator.

SERVANT 1:
Hes damn heavy.
SERVANT 2:
Its like trying to dress an octopus.
They stare at him critically.
SERVANT 1:
Like a baby.
Although Governor Tengs eyes are open, he doesnt appear to be
aware of what is happening...Servant 2 moves his index finger over
his lips to make baby sounds.
SERVANT 2:
Itchie, kitchy koo . . .
SERVANT 1:
You stupid? What if he recovers? He might remember you
doing that.
SERVANT 2:
Hell never recover... Shit, I think he pissed himself.
SERVANT 1:
Just a little.
SERVANT 2:
I dont want to change him again. Grabbing a perfume bottle.
Spray this perfume on him, between his legs.
Chi Yu, a government official, enters.
CHI YU:
Smells like a brothel. Never mind. Strap him in the chair.
(Nowra, 1981: Sc.5)

In this scene, the servants actions invert the usual positions of power. Because
Governor Teng is comatose, the servants are able to toy with his body as though
it were a puppet. The servants exuberant, childlike teasing of the ruler is in sharp

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contrast to their normal behavior towards him. This interaction illustrates the
notion of topsy-turvy in black humour. According to Bakhtin (1968), a sudden
reversal in social roles creates a comic contrast; this change serves to liberate
people and engender laughter and pleasure. In this scene from The Precious
Woman, the lowly gain precedence over the powerful, creating a reversal in
hierarchy. Instead of Governor Teng shouting orders at the servants, they
verbally taunt the dictator and physically manipulate his body.

Another disruption of the established social system occurs when the unconscious
Governor loses control of his bladder and urinates in his clothes. The servants
insult his masculinity by applying a womans perfume to his body. They refuse
to show respect to the Governor, which represents a complete turnaround. The
servants, as well as the participants who engage with this text, perceive that these
behaviours do not match social expectations. Thus, both the characters and
participants may find bleak humour in the scene.

As the play progresses, a photographer enters with the Governors wife, Su-Ling
Teng, and a government official called Chi Yu. These three work to capture a
dignified expression on Governor Tengs face.

PHOTOGRAPHER:
His eyes are rolling around too much.
CHI YU:
What will we do?
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Stand behind me and snap your fingers when I tell you. It
works with babies and geriatrics. All right . . . Now!
Teng looks in the direction of the noise; the photographer takes his
picture.
Again...
MRS. SU-LING TENG:
Hes never been treated like this.

119

CHI YU:
Be patient Mrs. Teng...
Teng smiles unconsciously at some inner joke.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Do you want him like that?
CHI YU:
No, he should be earnest...Councilor Wa, just before the picture
is taken can you lean over and pinch him?
MRS. SU-LING TENG:
No, stop it. You cant treat him like this.
CHI YU:
We have to convince the rebels, Mrs. Teng.
MRS. SU-LING TENG:
...All right.
(Nowra, 1981: Sc. 5)

Chi-Yu and the photographer continue their routine of pinching the Governor
until all the necessary photographs have been taken. This scene, which ends with
Governor Tengs death, also disempowers the government officials and Su-Ling
Teng because they cannot control the situation.

As noted previously, characters may recognise these reversals and perceive


humour in their situation. In first the scene from The Precious Woman, the two
servants self-consciously create black comedy. Participants reading the scene
may also experience black humour through the servants utterances and actions.
Yet in the scene with the government officials and Tengs wife, the characters do
not perceive the situation as comic, even though participants may do so. In this
scene, as in Bakhtins (1968) discussion of medieval carnivals, oppressed
individuals relish a few moments of freedom before returning to their previous
positions in society. One key difference between these scenes from The Precious
Woman and Bakhtins concept of topsy-turvy is that Governor Teng is not a
willing participant in these chaotic moments. As a result, participants may
perceive that the sense of pathos diminishes the experience of black humour.

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Later in the play, Governor Tengs son takes control and proves to be a more
ruthless dictator than his father. The two servants return to their established roles
by serving the new Governor, who tightens the stranglehold on the countrys
working people. This return to absolute authority in is in keeping with Bakhtins
concept of the temporary nature of the carnival. In this play, the servants had
only a short-term license to tease the ruler of China. The government then
reasserts its power and enforces the social restrictions that people experienced
prior to the assassination of the first Governor. In relation to black comedy,
Bakhtins perspective on the carnival implies that humour may not be as
liberating as it seems. The conditions that facilitate social reversals, and in turn
humour, may represent a time-bound opportunity for participants to question
authority but may not instigate long-term social change.

Comedy about death often involves a strangely distant, even disrespectful,


attitude towards the deceased body. Corpses may be taunted, jabbed, stripped or
manipulated. Dead bodies may be placed in situations that the living individual
would have found humiliating. Often, corpses are treated as objects rather than
as symbols of departed individuals (Nelson 1990). In each of these instances, the
potential for black humour originates in the contrast between the presumed
sacredness of a corpse and the casualness with which it is handled. For example,
in the film Weekend at Bernies (1989), two young co-workers called Larry and
Richard are invited to visit their boss, Bernie, at his beachside mansion. When
they arrive for the weekends festivities, they find Bernie dead. Worried they
will be charged with his murder, Larry and Richard decide not to call the police.
With the addition of sunglasses and a supportive chair for the corpse, the two
men manage to convince Bernies friends that he is still alive. They use Bernies
head and arms like a puppet, making him nod affirmation and wave to
acquaintances. Larry and Richard continue this charade for two days, while
attempting to solve the mystery of Bernies sudden passing. To make the corpse
look more believable, the men carry Bernie upright and pretend that his
slouching body is intoxicated. In addition, roll him around on a lawn chair, sit

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him in a golf cart and shove him over a balcony. The corpse also appears to
dance, have sex and water ski. Weekend at Bernies makes no attempt at realism;
the corpse looks healthy after each episode of violent activity and is never
affected by rigor mortis.

The main source of black comedy in this text is the reversal between a live body
and a corpse.7 Dozens of people assume that Bernie is just busy, or perhaps in a
pensive mood, when they see him (that is, his dead body) propped up on a chair
near the pool. The comedy also stems from the unnatural flexibility and
movement of the corpse. Larry and Richard attach strings to Bernies sleeve,
thereby making it appear as though he is waving to passers-by. They also tie him
into a boat, giving the impression that hes steering around the lake. Another
form of reversal in this text is the way that Larry and Richard defile Bernies
corpse. Social mores around death would dictate that the men inform Bernies
relatives of his passing, respect the corpse and attend the memorial. Instead, the
mens self-interest exceeds their sense of duty to the deceased.

The orchestrated antics of the inert corpse represent the inverse of Bergsons
theory. Instead of something mechanical encrusted on the living, it is as
though something living is encrusted upon the dead (1956: 84). Bernies corpse
is not stiff and still; it is not at rest. Larry and Richard make the corpse seem
elastic and dynamic as it travels in various vehicles all over the estate. The
situations described above are shocking, but they are also in keeping with the
selfish desperation of the two young men. Their ambition is established in the
first scene, when Larry and Richard discuss how a visit to their boss mansion
might help their careers. In addition, the others characters are so focussed on
themselves that they do not register the fact that Bernie is decidedly out of sorts.
The dead man gag continues until the end of the film, leaving the option for an
even less plausible sequel. In short, Weekend at Bernies (1989) illustrates a
relatively common device in black comedy: a case of mistaken identity between
a corpse and a living body (Nelson 1990).

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In Funny Bones (1995), the relatives of the deceased footless man return to
Blackpool and force Jack Parker to find the severed appendages. Jack obliges by
going to the morgue with his half brother Tommy, also a comic performer.
Tommy stays in the car as a lookout while Jack tiptoes through morgue,
searching through all the drawers of bodies. Tommy then sees a policeman enter
the morgue for a routine check of the premises, so Tommy slips into the morgue
to warn his brother. At that same moment, Jack yanks on a sticky drawer in the
morgue and it falls out, thus dropping the corpse into a standing position next to
him. As the corpse begins to topple, Jack grabs it and seems to waltz with it as he
tries to work the corpse back into the drawer. Tommy walks in and sees Jack
hugging the pale, grey corpse. Tommys eyes roll back in his head and he faints
on the icy floor. Jack goes to revive Tommy, then hears the policeman, so he
places Tommys limp body on top of the corpse and slides them both back into
the morgue cabinet. Jack then hides until the policeman leaves. When Tommy
regains consciousness and finds himself inside a drawer, face to face with a
corpse, he screams. This the only vocal sound in the entire scene.

This highly choreographed scene moves at a rapid pace, like an old vaudeville
routine. The physical flexibility of the actors creates a wonderful burlesque
quality. The dead body becomes almost lifelike when it falls out of the drawer
and appears to stand up. In contrast, the live body of Tommy seems dead after he
faints. This situation raises comic questions for the central character, Jack. What
do you do with a corpse that seems movable and active? How do you hide a live
person whose body is stiff? Funny Bones sets up a perfect reversal between dead
and live bodies. As noted above, this reversal relates to Bergsons theory of
incongruity, which says that humour emerges when a body seems as inflexible as
a machine. In the moment when Tommy faints and becomes unresponsive, his
body no longer seems fully human; it is more like a corpse. Yet at the same time,
the nearby corpse has been standing like a live person. Everything is the opposite
of what it should be.

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Another comic element in this scene is the greyish-blue face of the corpse in
comparison with the red cheeks of the two men, Jack and Tommy. The skin tone
of the corpse is reminiscent of a performer engaged in mime, Japanese Kabuki
theatre, or perhaps a production of Brecht. In addition, the corpse is clearly
played by an actor, which adds another dimension to the comedy; the actor is a
live human being pretending to be a dead body, which seems like a live body. In
general, the presence of an actor playing a corpse within a text or production
makes death seem safe; it is obvious that the actor will be fine when the scene
ends. In this sense, the figure of the [dead or dying] actor becomes associated
with immortality (Nelson, 1990: 74).

Another form of reversal in black comedy occurs when dead bodies are
reconfigured as inanimate objects. Although this is not exactly a reversal, this
situation does represent an incongruous shift in the identity of a corpse. Nelson
describes this change in perspective by saying that the body, which should be
treated with reverence, is treated as an object (1990: 76). In Joe Ortons play
Loot (1993), two bank robbers try to hide their stolen funds in a coffin intended
for burial. Because there is actually a body in the casket (an older woman called
Mrs. McLeavy), the thieves have to quickly camouflage the corpse. Hal, one of
the bank robbers and also Mrs. McLeavys son, enlists the help of his mothers
former nurse, Fay, to wrap the displaced body in a plain mattress cover that is
tied with bandages. When a police investigator called Truscott arrives, the
thieves claim that the corpse is a sewing dummy.

TRUSCOTT:
You claim this object is awaiting transport to a carnival where
it will be used to demonstrate the continuity of British
needlework?
FAY:
Yes.
TRUSCOTT:
Sounds a reasonable explanation. Quite reasonable.
(Orton, 1993: 232)

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This moment seems darkly comic because of the obvious gap between the
insight a police investigator should possess and the gullibility Truscott
demonstrates. As the scene continues, Truscott again misreads the situation. This
time, he finds the deceased womans artificial eye, which has fallen out onto the
floor. Mr. McLeavy (the deceased womans husband), who is a conspirator in
the bank robbery, tries to explain the wayward eye.

McLEAVY:
Its a marble.
TRUSCOTT:
No. Not a marble. It looks suspiciously to me like an eye...
McLEAVY:
Im not sure that it is an eye. I think its a marble which has
been trod on.
(Orton, 1993: 259)
By creating a new label for the eye, the characters reassign part of the corpse to
the inanimate world. In doing so, they dismiss the traditional notion of the
physical body as a sacred representation of the living person. The body becomes
no different than any other disposable item.

In Loot, Mrs. McLeavys corpse is continuously hidden. Her body is


compartmentalised, thus reducing the significance of the whole. Mrs. McLeavys
husband, son and nurse isolate and even remove individual body parts, as well as
intimate clothing items. In the following exchange, Hal enlists Fay to help carry
the corpse out to his car.

FAY:
As she attempts to carry the corpse.
Im not taking the head end Lovely shaped feet your mother
had. For a woman of her ageThese are good teeth. Are they
National Health?

125

HAL:
No, she bought them out of her winnings. She had some good
evenings at the table last yearThe underwear you can keep.
FAY:
Your mothers underclothes?
HAL:
All good stuff.
FAY:
I couldnt. Our sizes vary.
(Orton, 1993: 224-227)

This scene again relates to the idea of reversal: a human body becomes a thing
and a thing (i.e. a huge bag of money placed in a coffin) becomes like a body.
Mrs. McLeavys corpse is not afforded the dignity due to the deceased. Instead,
her body is seen as a treasure chest to be divided up, or looted, by those who
claim it. Hal also sees the corpse as a disruption to an otherwise clean, successful
robbery. Like the young men in Weekend at Bernies, the characters in Loot
ignore social conventions about death and focus only on their own welfare.

The two old men at the centre of the film Waking Ned Devine (1998) are also
focussed on their personal prosperity at a time of death. Jack OShea and
Michael OSullivan, lifelong friends who live in a tiny village on the Irish coast,
figure out that their neighbour Ned Devine has won the lottery. Ned has not been
seen for days, so Jack and Michael assume he is keeping quiet about the big win.
Jack takes a meal up to Ned and finds him sitting alone with the television
blaring. Ned is stone cold dead with a smile on his face and the winning lottery
ticket in his hand. Jack concocts a plan: he will pose as Ned in order to collect
the winnings. He enlists Michaels support, promising a share of the money.

To make the plan work, the two old friends need Neds corpse to look less
elated. Jack and Michael reason that, given Neds usual gravity, his frozen grin
might give away the secret. So, Jack decides to push Neds face into a more

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sombre expression. The two old men stare at the dead body for a moment, then
Jack sits across the dead mans legs, preparing to reshape the corpse.

MICHAEL:
Is it necessary, Jackie?
JACK:
Well, its unnatural as it is, Michael.
Jack grabs Neds cheeks and pulls on them.
MICHAEL:
Take hold of his mouth. You wont get rid of a smile by
twistin his cheeks.
JACK:
Youre awful smart. Leave me in peace....
MICHAEL:
What expression were you thinking of?
JACK:
Be quiet, Im trying to
Neds false teeth suddenly pop out, due to manipulations of the
face.
MICHAEL:
Dear God! Here!...
He doesnt want to touch the teeth.
JACK:
Youre panicking me, man.
Jack gets tickled and begins to laugh; giggles give way to guffaws.
Michael remains serious.
MICHAEL:
Watch he doesnt bite again.
JACK:
Oh, shush!
Jack continues to laugh. He finally pops the teeth back in.

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MICHAEL:
Nah, its not naturalIts in his eyes, Jackie.
Jack pulls Neds eyelids shut.
Aye.
They both nod with satisfaction.
(1998)

This scene contains a reversal between the dead mans natural expression and
the new, artificial one. This opposition creates black comedy, which Jack
perceives during the scene. His urge to laugh probably occurs in parallel with the
perceptions of participants who engage with this text. As Jack acknowledges the
ridiculous nature of the act he is undertaking, he continues to push and pull on
the corpses face. The scene becomes brutally surprising and silly, like a black
farce.

Davis (2003) work on farce calls attention to the importance of reversal in


comedy. She identifies different meta-structures within the plotlines of
traditional and contemporary farces. Davis believes that these structures apply to
the overall shape of the action as well as individual scenes. She points out that,
within her defined subcategory of Reversal Farces, there are shifts in the power
relationship between the characters. In Waking Ned Devine (1998), Neds dead
body gets the upper hand over Jackie and Michael. The rigidity and levity of the
corpses expression threatens to thwart their plans. Davis argues that this type of
reversal moulds the [participants] expectations and perceptions and ensures
that only a controlled and limited challenge to conventional authority is made by
the joking characters (ibid.). Jack and Michael think that they can outwit the
other villagers, but find this process more difficult than expected.

When a lottery inspector plans a trip to meet Ned Devine in person, Jack and
Michael have to admit the truth and request the assistance of every villager to
pull off the hoax. The townsfolk work together and Michael, who pretends to be

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Ned, convinces the lottery inspector to hand over the cheque. Once the inspector
departs, Jack and Michael divide the winnings equally amongst all the villagers.
Davis notes that although the sense of dominance may switch back and forth
between the characters in a Reversal Farce, eventually justice prevails. The
structure forms the play-frame [for] the comic rebellion in the text (2003: 8).

Although the main characters in Loot and Waking Ned Devine are disrespectful
to the deceased, Bakhtin offers an alternate perspective on these actions. His
concept of the carnival encompasses a sense of the human being in a spiritual
context. Bakhtins idea of the body and in particular the dead body as it returns
to earthly matter is part of the continuation of humanity. In effect, this thinking
neutralises both the terror and importance of the corpse. For Bakhtin, death does
not represent the end of existence, but a meaningful transition. He argues that the
deterioration and death of the body are as important as its birth and development.
He sees the human body as the vibrant centre of an exploratory and celebratory
process which combines all of the natural aspects of human existence. Death is
the necessary link in the process of [human] growth and renewal (1968: 407).

In this sense, Bakhtin rejects any separation of bodily urges and cognitive
processes; this dichotomy categorises the actions of the body as secondary to
cognition. Bakhtin perceives each human being as integrated and independent of
the boundaries of physical body. He argues that our bodies are not the essence of
ourselves, but that the individual soul survives death and becomes part of a
communal spiritual entity.8 As a result, Bakhtin believes, an individual can
laugh at itself dying because it literally has nothing to lose (Morson and
Emerson, 1990: 226). In this manner, Bakhtins re-imagines death; he offers an
alternate perspective on what the loss of physical life means in a larger spiritual
context. He de-emphasises the finality of the physical body and reconfigures
death as natural, inevitable, liberating and eternal. Through death, the self
expands, rejoices, devours and disappears into the whole (Morson and
Emerson, 1990: 229).

129

An episode of the television comedy Absolutely Fabulous (Saunders, 1994) also


illustrates the concept of reversal in black comedy. In this series, a middle-aged
public relations executive called Edina acts in an immature manner in
comparison to her daughter Saffron. This situation creates an inversion in parent
and child roles. Saffron tries to make Edina more responsible and keep her out of
trouble; Edina tries to get Saffron to relax and become more gregarious. In the
following scene, Saffron encourages her grandmother (Edinas mother) to
announce the death of Edinas father.

SAFFRON:
Come on. Youve got something to tell Mum, havent you?
[GRAND]MOTHER:
No, you tell her, dear, youre better at these things. I dont
know why, but I have the feeling I might laugh [and] I do think
it would be rather inappropriate.
SAFFRON:
You tell her, Gran. Itll be all right.
[GRAND]MOTHER:
Edina, dear. Your father is dead.
Edina doesnt react.
SAFFRON:
Crying. Grandad has died Is that all you can do, all you can
say? What does that make you feel? And you can stop
smirking.
EDINA:
Upset, sweetheartI am upset, darling.
Tries to pull the right face.
SAFFRON:
Angrily. Mum! Just go back upstairs and dont come down
until youve really thought about it.
(Saunders, 1994: 31-32)
Edinas indifference to the loss of her father contradicts social expectations about
family relationships and grief. In addition, Edinas mother does not seem terribly

130

upset about the loss; she expresses concern that she may giggle about it on the
very day the death has occurred. Saffron, who is still a teenager, expresses a
more conventional sense of concern. She mourns her grandfathers death and
sends her mother to her room for bad behaviour. This inversion of mother and
daughter roles is a consistent theme throughout Absolutely Fabulous.

This point relates to Bergsons notion of the reversal of power in relation to


humour. He says that we laugh at the prisoner lecturing the magistrate [and] at a
child presuming to teach its parents (1956: 121). In this scene from Absolutely
Fabulous, the black comedy stems from Edinas self-obsession at a time of
family bereavement.

In the scene above, each characters behaviour is in opposition to her established


social role. Only Saffron articulates the contrast (and she does not find it funny).
Edina regularly fails to act in a manner that people expect of a middle-aged
bereaved woman and she lacks insight into the potential offensiveness of her
behaviour. When she does recognise her mistakes, she is generally unable or
unwilling to change. In contrast to the scene from A Precious Woman involving
the two servants, none of the characters in this episode of Absolutely Fabulous
text acknowledge the black comedy they create.

Another element of the comedy stems from Edinas mothers perspective. No


matter how wretchedly Edina behaves, her mother smiles and calls her
affectionate nicknames. Participants may realise how outrageous Edina is and
find humour in her refusal to comply with social expectations. Participants may
also laugh at the misplaced loyalty of Edinas mother. The matriarch of the
family means well by adoring her daughter, but this approach only encourages
Edina to perpetuate her chronic self-obsession.

In another scene from the same text, Edina contemplates the meaning of her
fathers passing.

131

EDINA:
Snuffling. Ohwell, I suppose it had to hit me sooner or later,
darling, didnt it?
SAFFRON:
Yes.
EDINA:
Actually, darling, its made me think, you know.
SAFFRON:
Good.
EDINA:
I dont want to die! I mean, I dont want to die
SAFFRON:
Mum, we all die.
EDINA:
Yeah, well, I dont want to darling. Honestly when I think of
how much Ive invested in this body, in this life, darling. I
mean, Ive had the best of everything Ive been shaved,
plucked and moisturized, sweetie. This carcass aint croaking
or Ill sue.
(Saunders, 1994: 38-9)
Rather than mourning her father, Edina perseverates on her own mortality. She
whinges like a teenager and is unable to empathise with other characters. As in
the previous scenes, the black comedy in this interaction emerges from the
incongruity between Edinas conduct and general social expectations
surrounding the death of a parent.

Edinas behaviour is clearly immature, but it is in keeping with her character. In


this sense, Edinas response to her fathers death represents a moment of
congruity, or fit, for participants who are familiar with her personality in
Absolutely Fabulous. Even though participants may predict Edinas indifference
to her fathers passing, and in that sense her behaviour is not a surprise, they may
still perceive black humour in these scenes; participants are likely to laugh at the
opposition between what Edina should do and what she always does. In other
words, the consistencies in Edinas fictional personality may contribute to, but

132

necessarily generate, the black humour in these scenes. Participants know Edina
will do something awful; anticipating her offence may therefore enhance the
humour when she inevitably disregards social mores. In each of these scenes,
Edina becomes the butt of the joke. Her inability to face the realities of adulthood
makes her seem like an ill-disciplined child. This impression forms a sharp
contrast with Saffron, who organises the entire funeral in honour of her
grandfather.

On the morning of the funeral, Edina gets ragingly drunk with her best friend
Patsy. Arriving at the conclusion of her fathers burial service, Edina stumbles
across the cemetery and falls directly into the grave. Participants who engage
with this scene are likely to posses a general understanding of a graveside service
and carry that concept in their minds. People expect a middle-aged adult to attend
the burial rites of a parent with some degree of respect and sobriety. Instead,
Edina cavorts through the cemetery while her daughter solemnly weeps. In this
particular scene, Edinas fathers funeral masquerades as an ideal funeral; many
of the signifiers of a real funeral are present (i.e. a casket, mourners, a burial plot,
flowers and a priest), but other expected elements (such as Edinas grief) are
entirely absent. The incongruity between the ideal form of a funeral and Edinas
fathers service may lead participants to experience black humour through this
text.

Critchley (2002) echoes this point, saying that the experience of humour seems to
hinge upon both incongruity and congruity. In order for participants to perceive
humour, they need to understand the social forces contained within the comic
stimulus. Boskin describes this as a culture code which is made up of the
customs, symbols and experiences of the people (1997a: 19). This shared
knowledge forms the nexus of communal awareness which underpins the
perception of humour (ibid.). In relation to black humour in particular, people
living in a culture at a particular point in time are likely to share certain
experiences related to death. For example, people may have similar perceptions
of the level of respect appropriate to a religious funeral. They use these

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references to make judgments about black comedy. This creates a sense of


congruence between joke structure and social structure, because both structures
set up expectations about the situation depicted in the text (Critchley, 2002: 10).
This shared understanding makes it possible for participants to experience
humour. (The issue of resolution is considered further in Chapter 5 of this thesis.)

In each of the scenes discussed in this section, the reversal of expectations is part
of the structure of the comic text and therefore part of the process of comparison
that leads to the experience of black humour.

Repetitions

In this section, I contend that incongruity in black comedy arises not only from
conceptual collisions and reversals, but also from repetitions. Bergson (1956)
highlights the importance of this concept by saying that the repetition of a
particular element (i.e. a word, phrase, or movement) is in conflict with natural
speech or behaviour and may therefore seem funny. Under normal
circumstances, people are able to adapt to changes in their environment. For
example, when an individual meets an obstacle (literal or metaphorical) in the
road ahead, he/she should change direction to avoid difficulty. Yet this person
may lack insight and flexibility, thereby causing a mishap.

[T]hrough a lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a


kind of physical obstinacy, [the] muscles continue to perform the
same movement when the circumstances of the case called for
something else.
(Bergson, 1956: 66)

Bergson believes that participants find this type of repetition funny because the
individual performing the actions displays minimal skill or judgment. Bergsons
perspective relates to the incongruity theory of humour because the repetitive
behaviour does not meet with expectations of natural adaptability. Yet this point
also fits with the superiority theory of humour because participants feel they

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would not make the same mistakes as the individuals depicted in the text. (The
superiority theory of receives attention in the following chapter.)

Repetition creates the surreal black comedy in Groundhog Day (1993). This film
involves a cynical television weatherman called Phil Connors who finds he is
suddenly doomed to relive the same day ad infinitum. Once he experiences the
American tradition of Groundhog Day, on the second of February, Phil cannot go
forward in time. No matter what he does during that day, he finds himself back in
precisely the same circumstances the following morning. The humour emerges
from the contrast between each of the sequential, almost identical, scenes.
Although Phil chooses to do something slightly different each day, his decisions
have no effect the following morning when he encounters the same situation. Phil
is quite confused; his life feels maddeningly familiar, yet also surprisingly
unfamiliar.

Since the expected variation in daily behaviour is missing in Phils surreal


experience, every character (except Phil) seems like an automaton; people say
precisely the same sentences and walk along the same path every day. When
people repeat themselves, make mistakes or lie, they give the impression that
they are nave, insincere and incapable of change. Bergsons perspective on rigid,
predictable behaviour suggests that participants are likely to laugh at the
characters in Groundhog Day. However, the characters themselves do not find
the situation funny. They remain unaware that they are living the same day
repeatedly; only Phil has this perception.

The black comic aspects of the text emerge when Phil realises that he may never
move on to the third of February. The time warp is so distressing that Phil
decides to kill himself. He steals a car and drives off a cliff, stands in front of a
speeding truck and jumps off the bell tower of a building. He makes another half
dozen suicide attempts, yet after each incident he wakes up unharmed on the
morning of the same day. At first, Phil does not think his situation is at all
humorous; he is desperate to end his torment. Later, he begins to revel in his

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violent actions because they lack the obvious consequences. Phils life becomes
like a Warner Brothers cartoon, where characters get into terrible accidents and
survive unscathed.

If Phil did not recover completely each day, the suicide attempts probably would
not be humorous. During the first suicide attempt, participants do not know that
Phil will be safe. When he awakes in precisely the same circumstances, however,
participants receive confirmation of the repetitive structure of Groundhog Day.
This circular pattern gives participants permission to enjoy the increasingly
creative ways in which Phil tries to die.

When Phil realises his suicide attempts will always be unsuccessful, he


experiences a sense of liberation. He starts doing dangerous activities, such as
bank robbery, knowing he will never serve gaol time. (He tires of this, however,
because he never has the opportunity to spend the money.) He also starts
applying his energy to activities he never attempted before, such as sculpting and
playing the piano. Eventually he devotes himself to charitable works because he
has an abundance of time; he is freed from the typical struggles of making a
living, becoming ill and growing old. Phil is also trapped, however, because he
can never form meaningful relationships; he only has one day in which to
become close to someone.

Eventually Phil attains a kind of existential peace. He accepts that he cannot


change this absurd situation, so he makes the most of the repetitive day he has
been given. When Phil reaches this new level of awareness, he wakes up on a
new day for the first time. He finally experiences the third of February, along
with the promise of a lifelong relationship. Phil welcomes this more authentic
version of himself, although he knows it means that now his mistakes will have
consequences. This shift back into his genuine existence also means that Phil will
eventually die. Phil seems to acknowledge, and welcome, the vexing futility of
life. He realises there is a certain degree of acceptance necessary to achieve

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happiness. At this moment of transformation, the repetition in Groundhog Day


ceases and Phils existence becomes thrillingly unpredictable.

Theres also a sense of repetition in the overall structure of Groundhog Day. The
text creates energy not by following a traditional narrative structure where one
scene leads into another, but by forging an unusual dramatic arc through all the
repetitive scenes put together. Phil does not necessarily progress in his
understanding within each scene, but through a series of almost indistinguishable
scenes, he gains insight on his existence. This pattern gives Groundhog Day a
unique structure, like that of a normal human life.

This representation of the life cycle also relates to Bakhtins notion of carnival.
As noted previously, the medieval carnival gave people an opportunity to
temporarily alter their circumstances. They lost or gained authority and indulged
their senses. In many ways, these experiences mirror Phils attempts to accept his
fate. As he enacts all the possible variations in his monotonous day, Phil learns to
live in a more conscientious manner. Like the participants in medieval carnivals,
Phil resumes his previous life and finds all the inequalities and institutions of
power that existed before his surreal experience. By this point, however, Phil has
a greater capacity to deal with the challenges he faces.

As demonstrated in Groundhog Day (1993), black comedy may come from


scenes in which characters face repetitive circumstances or discussions related to
death. In this text, black humour erupts through Phils ineffectual efforts to
commit suicide (as well as his failed attempt to murder the groundhog). Repeated
suicide attempts also play a significant role in other black comedies. For
example, in Better Off Dead (1985), a high school student called Lane Meyer
loses his girlfriend to the school skiing champion, Roy. Consumed by the breakup, Lane decides to kill himself. First, he uses a rubber extension cord to hang
himself in the garage. Just before jumping off the stone step, however, he has
second thoughts. Hang on, this is death were talking about here he mumbles
to himself (1985). Lane is about to remove the noose when his mother opens the

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door to the garage and pushes him (unnoticed) into a hanging position. Saved by
his family, Lane heads back to school where he is taunted by Roy and other
classmates. He contemplates suicide again while standing on the narrow railing
of a bridge over a road. Just before jumping, Lane sees his friend Charles, who
talks him out of suicide. Charles then pats Lane on the back for reassurance,
which knocks Lane off the bridge and into the bin of a giant rubbish truck.

In both these scenes, black humour arises from the fact that Lane does not intend
to commit suicide at the moment when his life is in danger. He makes inept
attempts at self-harm, then cannot get himself out of the situation. Because other
characters show concern for Lane, and counsel him about his persistently bleak
mood, they do not register the black humour in these scenes; only participants
potentially read the scenes in this way.

The repeated suicide attempts in the black comedy Harold and Maude (1971) are
different than those described in the preceding texts. In this film, an unusual and
lonely young man called Harold Chasen acts out a range of gruesome charades in
which he appears to have committed suicide but has not actually harmed himself
(except in the case of a staged hanging, through which he gives himself a sore
throat). Harold also appears to cut his wrists with a razor blade in the bathtub,
burn himself alive, chop off his head and shoot himself in the face. After the first
incident, Harold reveals to a psychiatrist that he does it because he wants to see
his mothers reaction to his supposed demise. (He can barely endure her cold
attempts to control his life.) Because Harold is completely safe after every
dramatic event, participants may laugh at his repeated and increasingly
complicated attempts to depict suicide.

Harold has another hobby besides creating images of his own death: attending
the funerals of strangers. He regularly sits alone in the back row and leaves
quietly in his black hearse. It is not until Harold befriends an old woman called
Maude, who has infectious energy and insight, that he begins to think about

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living instead of dying. Without knowing that Harold owns a hearse, Maude
hijacks the vehicle and gives her new friend a lift in it.

Maude is driving Harolds car at great speed.


MAUDE:
What a delight it is, Harold, to bump into you again. I knew we
were going to be good friends the moment I saw you. You go
to funerals often, don't you?
Harold is more intent on Maude's reckless maneuvering of his car
than on conversation.
HAROLD:
Yes.
MAUD:
Oh, so do I. They're such fun, aren't they? It's all change. All
revolving. Burials and births. The end to the beginning and the
beginning to the end - the great circle of life. My, this old thing
handles well. Ever drive a hearse, Harold?
HAROLD:
Petrified. Yes.
MAUD:
Well, it's a new experience for me. Good on curves. Shall I take
you home, Harold?
HAROLD:
Managing to speak. But this is my car.
(1971)
This comic scene contains the structural theme discussed in the previous section:
a reversal of expectations. In this scene, an eighty-year-old woman drives with
wild abandon while a twenty-year-old man sits terrified in the passenger seat.
Another reversal occurs when Harold rejects his mothers gift of a brand-new,
racing green MG sports car. Instead, he uses a welding iron to refashion the car
into a mini-hearse. These two scenes reveal that Harold is not a typical young
man.

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A later scene in Harold and Maude presents another structural theme discussed
in this chapter: conceptual collisions. Harolds mother, Mrs. Chasen, invites a
young woman to visit Harold in the hopes of sparking a romantic relationship
between the two. Harold sees this as an opportunity to perform yet another mock
suicide stunt. Upon witnessing the violent act, which involves self-immolation,
Mrs. Chasen rolls her eyes in disgust and remains perfectly calm. In contrast, the
young woman collapses with fright. Mrs. Chasen sees the apparent suicide
dramas as part of her sons fascination with morbidity and desire for attention.
The young woman, however, does not have a context for Harolds actions and
believes they are real.

Thus, Harold and Maude (1971) contains each of the structural themes described
in this chapter collision, reversal and repetition often within the same scene
or in quick succession. Each of these aspects of structure relates to the notion of
incongruity in black humour. It seems as though people enjoy experimenting
with the gap between ideal and actual behaviours associated with death. In
essence, the structure of comedy makes it possible for people to speak of the
unspeakable at least for a limited period of time.

Things of Everyday Can Be Refashioned: Conclusion

The notion of structure is crucial to black comedy. First, black comedy contains
literal structures, or patterns, related to the presentation of information about
death. These patterns involve three main parts: the set up of a situation, the
escalation of conflict, and the punch line or summary of the scene. Within this
structure, seemingly incompatible elements are juxtaposed against each other: a
living body is set against a corpse, a bereaved individual opposes an indifferent
one. The overarching structure described within the examples in this chapter
appears quite consistently within black comedy, as it does in comic writing in
general.

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The three structural themes discussed in this chapter collisions, reversals and
repetitions - reveal the various ways in which information about death may be
communicated in a comic form. All three themes hinge on the incongruity theory
of humour. As discussed above, Koestlers (1975) work on incompatible
matrices relates to the idea of collisions, while Bakhtins (1968) analysis of the
medieval carnival conveys the notion of reversals. Bergsons (1956) concept of
an ideal template for human behaviour helps explain the theme of repetitions.

To summarise, the incongruity theory of humour illuminates the structures and


possible interpretations of black comedy. It helps explain how the experience of
black humour emerges from disparate ideas about death. Through engagement
with black comedy, participants are invited to compare information presented in
the texts with social attitudes, practices and institutions surrounding loss. The
resulting incongruities prompt participants to examine their expectations about
the issues and experiences in the text. This process may highlight both the
benefits and limitations of the social structures that shape participants
understanding of death.

By experiencing black humour, participants may come to a new perspective on


death; they may feel that they understand loss in a broader context. As Nelson
writes in relation to The Playboy of the Western World (Synge 1997), black
comedy allows the things of everyday to be taken up and refashioned (1990:
143). Through this process, both participants and characters may undergo a
transformation of reality (Nelson, 1990: 143). Alternatively, the situations
presented in black comedy may not be entirely resolved; the texts may prompt
participants to ask additional questions instead of closing down the potential
meanings of death and grief. As a result, I do not conceptualise black humour as
a contained experience, but an ongoing endeavour an attempt to understand the
most permanent and profound of changes.

While this chapter focuses on the structures in black comedy, the next chapter
concentrates on the functions of black humour by investigating the catharsis and

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superiority theories of humour. These perspectives help articulate how


participants use black comedy and how it influences their perceptions of death.
One of the main reasons for analysing the functions of humour is to ascribe a
place for humour in a particular process, by bringing it into relationship [with]
the social structure (Palmer, 1994: 67).

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Chapter 3 Endnotes
1

As noted previously, this thesis incorporates research on humour and death from a range of
scholars in difference time periods and disciplines. However, the black comic texts are all
selected from the latter third of the twentieth century and, in the case of a few examples, the
beginning of the twenty-first century.
2
Mamber develops the concept of radical metacinema from Waughs notion of radical
metafiction. For further discussion, see Waugh (1984) pages 1-20.
3
The issue of embedded cultural references is complex and could generate more extensive
discussion, but within the scope of this thesis I cannot explore additional critical writings on the
subject. As noted, I focus on shared cultural references associated with death.
4
Schopenhauer (1964) sees the creation of comedy, which he terms wit, as an intentional act.
He contrasts this with folly, which is unintentional, and involves a ludicrous mistake.
5
Koestler uses the terms associative contexts and matrices interchangeably. He does this to
avoid monotonous repetition of the word matrix (1975: 40).
6
Bakhtin originated his theory of carnival in the years prior to World War II and submitted the
work for his doctorate in 1941; the work was not published in English until 1965. Bakhtin
revisited his theoretical work in the latter 1960s and early 1970s and altered his position on some
key issues. These changes in perspective do not greatly influence his analysis of humour.
7
I do not contend that a corpse is automatically funny, nor that it is funnier than other elements
that commonly appear in comic material. I simply suggest that a dead body may be funny in
particular contexts. I argue that corpses create a different kind of funniness, - one which
involves simultaneous connection and disconnection to the deceased. (This point receives further
attention in subsequent chapters.)
8
Bakhtins own physical body he lost his right leg to a bone disease may have fuelled his
pre-occupation with the idea of a collective of souls. The trauma may have shaped his theory of
the imperfect body and the spiritual life he believed extended beyond the physical self (Morson
and Emerson 1990). Bakhtin seemed to find comfort in the belief that the physical body is made
new and whole by the continuing life cycle. (For further discussion of this facet of Bakhtins life,
see Morson and Emerson, 1990: 444 452.)

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Chapter 4 Contusions, Ruptures and Dislocations: Functions of


Black Humour

Functions of Black Humour: An Introduction

In this chapter on the functions of black humour, I consider issues related to how
participants connect with the characters and situations in a black comic text.
What changes do participants experience through black humour? Do these shifts
in attitude or behaviour endure? The discussion in this chapter focuses on the
processes through which black humour influences emotions and cognitions
associated with death. I examine these issues through two key theories of
humour: catharsis and superiority. Each of these perspectives speaks to the
complex ways in which black humour engrosses and challenges participants.

In the first section below, I work to define the notion of function in relation to
humour. This discussion canvasses the work of various researchers who have
contributed to current thinking in this area. I first touch upon Radcliffe-Browns
(1965) development of functionalism and how it pertains to the study of
humour. In the section that follows, I examine the work of scholars such as
Aristotle (1964a), Hobbes (1994), Schopenhauer (1964), Freud (1960) and
Bakhtin (1968) who originated or enhanced the catharsis and superiority
theories. I look at different aspects of the theories through the work of these
influential thinkers as well as through contemporary humour studies researchers
including Davies (1982, 1998), Lewis (1997) and Moran (1997) who have
questioned and augmented these key perspectives on humour.

In the subsequent sections of this chapter, I use thematic divisions to explicate


the functions of black humour. Through this method, which parallels the
approach taken in the last chapter, I analyse contemporary black comic texts
based on particular aspects of the function of black humour. I look at scenes that
involve a shift in an individuals perception, a dissipation of energy or a fracture

144

in an interpersonal relationship. The three thematic divisions I create in this


chapter contusions, ruptures and dislocations speak to the ways in which
black humour forges and disrupts emotional connections between people. The
examples I present illustrate how the experience of black humour affects both
characters and participants, although not necessarily in similar ways. Throughout
this discussion, I work with the catharsis and superiority theories in order to
tease out the functions of black humour.

It Moved Me: Notions of Function in Humour

The notion of function has been extremely prominent in humour studies


research. Palmer states that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that humour is in
fact used in various ways, in various circumstances and [therefore] has functions
(1994: 88). He adds that the experience of humour seems to be part of our
species adaptation to its environment (1994: 57). Boskin argues that humour
acts as both a personal and social force; it organises and correlates experiences
(1997a: 19). In this sense, the experience of humour creates a communal
consciousnesswhile at the same time enabling each person a singular
connection (ibid). Boskin believes that humour empowers both individuals and
social groups to make meaning from their existence.

The title of this section, It Moved Me, stems from a phrase used to describe the
process through which participants engage with, and are affected by, the
experience of humour. People may describe a comic text as provocative,
overwhelming or exhilarating; they may also convey the sense that they
relate to the text. Thus, the various functions of humour seem linked to the
process of engaging with characters, making connections and attempting to
understand the situations depicted in a text. In other words, the experience of
humour seems to involve being moved.

Within the limited body of research on black humour, there is considerable


emphasis on the notion of function, or how humour helps people understand,

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manage and accept challenging circumstances. Many influential scholars draw


upon the catharsis theory of humour in articulating the functions of black
humour. Lefcourt and Martin purport that humour plays an important role in the
maintenance of both psychological and physiological health and well-being
(1986: 1). Moran suggests that laughter enables emergency workers to reduce
their stress levels and thus [create] conditions which facilitate performance in
a rescue or resuscitation situation (1997: 38). Similarly, Winston contends that
the experience of black humour has a liberating effect because it acknowledges
the pains and fears of life and transcends them (1972: 270). Black humour may,
therefore, stimulate an emotional release or catharsis.

Other researchers cite the relevance of superiority theory to black humour.


Zolten notes that the perception of black humour makes people aware of their
pain, whether it is their own or someone elses distress (1992: 309). He believes
that jokes about tragedy can be acts of symbolic hostility because they create a
hierarchy where we are always better than they (ibid.). Similarly, Lewis
argues that jokes about criminal death allow us as they allow [the perpetrator]
to stand above human beings, laughing at their woe (1997: 277, italics in the
original). Dundes (1987) contends that sick jokes are a collective hygienic
defense mechanism that allows people to cope with the most dire of disasters
(1987: 73). In other words, the experience of black comedy seems to heighten
participants view of themselves in relation to others.

Scholars who study black humour draw upon both the catharsis and superiority
to help articulate the functions of this phenomenon. At the same time,
researchers acknowledge the ambiguities involved in identifying and describing
these functions (Lefcourt and Martin 1986, Lewis 1997, Moran 1997). Before
analysing the catharsis and superiority theories and applying these theories to
contemporary black comic texts, I touch on two broad issues associated with the
concept of function in humour research: the functionalist perspective and the
tendency towards the polarisation of functions.

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Functionalism and Humour

Radcliffe-Brown (1965), anthropologist and early researcher in the field of


humour studies, helped establish functionalism in the social sciences. The term
functionalism refers to a school of thought that analyses social practices in
relation to the continuation of the group from which these practices emerge.
Through functionalism, the beliefs, behaviours and institutions of a particular
social group are seen as part of a complex system that has evolved to ensure the
survival of that group. Since humour seems to be an integral part of human
social life across cultures, a functionalist analysis of humour therefore assumes
that there are psychological and social benefits to the experience of humour.
Palmer says that a functionalist perspective demands that humours existence as
a phenomenon should be understandable entirely and exclusively by showing
how it enables an organism to continue to exist in the form proper to it (1994:
88). According to this line of argument, the experience of humour increases an
individuals chances of survival and enhances the cohesion of a social group.
Radcliffe-Brown and other advocates of the functionalist perspective hold that
comedy enables participants to discuss and process emotions (e.g. anger, sadness
and frustration) that may seem threatening to social unity. Comedy permits the
expression of these impulses without fear of sanction. In this way, comedy helps
define boundaries and therefore potentially strengthen group identity.

Radcliffe-Browns analysis of humour stems from early twentieth century


studies of highly integrated, remote, oral cultures.1 Understood within this
context, his work seems less applicable to the more fractured, dispersed,
multicultural, literate cultures of the early twenty-first century. In contrast to
Radcliffe-Brown, contemporary social science research tends to conceive of
society as a variety of communities and individuals within changeable national
and cultural entities. This position rejects the assumption that any broad social or
national group has a unified, predictable effect upon its members.

147

Despite contemporary criticisms of functionalism, key aspects of the theory


remain relevant to the issues in this thesis.2 In particular, Radcliffe-Browns
recognition of the complex uses of humour the way humour contributes to
individual and group identities and interactions informs the study of the
possible functions of humour in contemporary society.

In responding to Radcliffe-Browns work, Palmer argues that if we choose to


explain [humour] by giving it several functions, then we must admit that such an
explanation demands extension (1994: 88-89). Palmer (1994) adapts RadcliffeBrowns functionalist perspective to fit a contemporary context. Palmer adds a
middle step, a position between the individual and his/her social group. Instead
of assuming that humour affects society as a whole, Palmer argues that humour
affects the processes through which individuals interact with society. This
perspective makes the study of the functions of humour more flexible and
therefore better suited to a pluralistic view of complex, industrialised societies
such as those analysed in this thesis. I work from the understanding that humour
has a range of complex functions that resonates at both the personal and social
levels.

Dichotomies in Humour Research

Until recently, theoretical writings on the function of humour tended to be


separated into dichotomies. One of these divisions concerns a split between the
psychobiological and psychosocial functions of humour. Some researchers, such
as Fry (1971, 1994), Lefcourt and Martin (1986) and Weaver and Zillmann
(1994), have focused on the way in which humour helps individuals maintain a
sense of equilibrium. This approach foregrounds the psychobiological aspects of
the experience of humour (i.e. reduction in symptoms of stress and pain, fewer
health problems, higher levels of perceived optimism). Other researchers, such
as Davies (1982), Dundes (1987, 1997) and Ziv (1988) have emphasised how
humour affects individuals and social groups through cultural practices and
conventions of language (i.e. the creation and continuation of group stereotypes,

148

the maintenance of cultural expressions and beliefs). This latter perspective is


more psychosocial in nature.

According to the psychobiological perspective on humour, the creation and


appreciation of comedy are techniques for human survival. Silberman (1987)
frames the perception of humour from an evolutionary standpoint, suggesting
that laughter and humour are advantageous responses to difficult circumstances.
Along these lines, Miller links the function of humour to survival, saying that
any activity that has "so much pleasure associated with it, like sex, must [have] a
biological pay-off" (cited in Palmer, 1994: 57). Fry, in summarising a wide range
of research in this area, states that physiological research into humour
demonstrates complex, intimate and extensive interrelationships existing
between physiologic behaviour associated with mirth and the functioning of
most of the bodys vital physiologic systems (1994: 121). For researchers in
this area, the functions of humour revolve around the improvement of peoples
physical and emotional state.

Scholars who concentrate on the psychosocial aspects of humour emphasise that


this phenomenon is a powerful social process. The experience of humour seems
to enable participants to examine challenging subject matter without fear of
censure. Barrick (1997) argues that popular jokes reveal difficult and unresolved
issues in contemporary culture, such as the treatment of the seriously ill, the
disabled and the marginalised. Davies advocates a similar view, saying that jokes
define the moral boundaries [of] values that are in conflict (1982: 387). This
view of humour also holds that comedy shapes personal and collective identities;
it serves to identify traits that [participants] wish to remain on the moral
periphery of their culture (Davies, 1982: 386). These researchers believe that
the experience of humour influences peoples self-concept, as well as the
parameters and priorities of the groups to which they belong.

Berger, Coulehan and Belling (2004) bring the psychobiological and


psychosocial perspectives together in their recent research on humour in health

149

care. They note that humour in a medical setting may reduce the power
imbalance between health service providers and patients, thereby facilitating the
interpersonal relationship between these individuals. Humour may also help
patients feel more comfortable and positive about their treatment, which may in
turn improve health outcomes.3 In this sense, Berger, Coulehan and Belling
diffuse the dichotomy between the psychobiological and psychosocial functions
of humour. They argue that humour makes an impression upon participants in
complicated and integrated ways. This type of research heralds a more unified
perspective in humour studies.

Another dichotomy in humour studies research exists between those who believe
comedy is fundamentally radical and those who think it is ultimately
conservative in nature. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Feibleman argues
that comedy improves the truth of an ideal society by jesting at things which, in
the current society, have come to be taken too seriously (1964: 464). The role
of the comic text, Feibleman continues, is to criticize customs and institutions
which are no longer viable [as well as] those which are still effective (465).
From this perspective, comedy has a corrective, instructive function; it points out
the limitations of current attitudes and practices. In this sense, Feibleman
believes, comedy has an inherently revolutionary nature (472).

Cook (1964) takes the opposite view: that comedy is essentially a conservative
force. Cook believes that comedy provides approval, not disapproval, of present
society (1964: 494). Although it appears to criticise established institutions or
powerful individuals, comedy eventually reinforces the strength of these entities
because it depicts the rationalism of social norms (ibid). From this standpoint,
the purpose of a comic text is to provide a distraction, and perhaps to chide, but
not to overtly attack the society from which the text emerges.

Eidsvik (1991) makes this debate more complex by noting that one persons
challenging, radical joke is another persons boring, conservative jest. He points
out that in regions such as Eastern Europe, which have been defined by

150

socialism in the latter half of the twentieth century, the contradictions of


Marxism spawned comedy (1991: 103). Yet following the political
transformations in this region over the past decade, comedy emerges from
capitalist notions that, from an Eastern European perspective, seem equally
ridiculous (ibid.). Eidsvik (1991) points out that a comic text may have a range
of purposes for different participants who engage with the text under different
circumstances. These variations mean that the effects of humour on participants
may be diverse, compelling and contingent. Seen in this light, the previously
polarised perspectives on the function of humour psychobiological versus
psychosocial, radical versus conservative do not need to be mutually exclusive.
Palmer agrees, saying that a description of the various functions of humour is not
the same as a claim for a total explanation of humour (1994: 67).

In this chapter, my purpose is not to contribute to polarised debates, but to tease


out the possible functions of black humour by analysing key theories along with
contemporary black comic texts. The following sections of this chapter look at
ways in which various scholars articulate the functions of humour. In studying
the processes and purposes of humour, it is difficult to avoid engaging with the
functionalist stance. My analysis of the catharsis and superiority theories
acknowledges and intersects with a functionalist perspective, although I
recognise that the functionalist stance does not fully encompass these two
explanations of humour. The following two sections investigate the catharsis and
superiority theories and how these concepts inform the analysis of black humour.

Although scholars writing prior to the mid-twentieth century do not specifically


address black humour, the catharsis theory seems especially relevant to the
analysis of this experience. As discussed previously, death is obviously one of
the most confronting realities human beings face. Thus, black comedy references
areas of life in which people hold some of their strongest, most entrenched
beliefs. As a result of its energy and vibrancy, black comedy may be more likely
to offend, but also more likely to delight, distract and demand attention.

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Relieved of the burden of pity and fear: The Catharsis Theory of Humour
From a contemporary humour studies perspective, the catharsis theory is highly
significant in understanding the functions of humour. While Aristotle originated
the catharsis theory in relation to both comic and tragic material for
performance, Freud modified and expanded upon the concept of catharsis in
connection with comic material. In the latter decades of the twentieth century,
scholars have dissected and developed the catharsis theory; they have also
applied this concept to a myriad of research projects in the arts, social sciences
and biological sciences. 4 Some researchers (Nelson 1990, Berger 1998) devote
attention to Aristotles theory of catharsis and his explanation of how
participants engage with comic texts. Others (Horton 1991, Palmer 1994)
emphasise Freuds notion of catharsis and its account of participants emotional
involvement in the experience of humour. In the discussion below, I outline
Aristotelian and Freudian notions of catharsis, attempting to distinguish between
the two, where relevant. I then analyse contemporary black comic texts in light
of the catharsis theory.

Aristotle and Catharsis

Aristotles theory of catharsis proposes that participants become absorbed in a


text, then experience emotions that are very similar to those expressed by the
characters.5 The emotions of both the participants and the characters are
heightened by the events in the text, then discharged, or purged, through the
perception of either tragedy or humour.

Because Aristotles writings did not survive in their entirety, his work is both
complicated and enlightened by centuries of subsequent interpretation. A
considerable body of scholarship, particularly over the past half-century, focuses
on Aristotles descriptions of tragedy; considerably less is known about his
perceptions of comedy. In the Poetics, Aristotle (1964) discusses catharsis in
connection to tragedy. A more complete manuscript on comedy, probably

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another part of the Poetics, did not survive intact. Many scholars believe that
Aristotle wrote the fragments of text known as the Tractatus Coislinianus.6
These writings, although incomplete, discuss the catharsis theory in relation to
comedy.

There are various translations of Aristotles famous passage on catharsis.


Halliwells (1987) version is one of most respected and commonly cited
translations.

Tragedy is a representation of an action which is serious, complete,


and of a certain magnitude in language which is garnished in
various forms in its different parts in the mode of dramatic
enactment, not narrative and through the arousal of pity and fear
effecting the katharsis of such emotions.
(Halliwell, 1987: 37)
The final phrase of this passage has received considerable scholarly attention.
Cooper interprets it as "relieved of the burden of pity and fear" (1922: 65).
Elsewhere, Cooper uses the term "purgation" (1922: 64). In more recent analysis,
Orgel makes an important distinction in his analysis of Aristotles terminology:

The word catharsis itself is made to carry a good deal of


philosophical and spiritual baggage when it is translated
purgation, as it generally is in English. But in Greek, the words
basic meaning is simply cleaning... it can imply any sort of
purification from the most elementary and practical to the more
profound and complex...
(1995: 138)
Along these lines, Ford calls for an awareness of multiple meanings of the term
catharsis in different sections of Aristotles work. Ford suggests the terms
"cleaning," "cleansing," "purging" and "clarification" at different points in the
treatises (1995: 110-111).

Through

many

interpretations

of

Aristotles

writings,

one

particular

preoccupation emerges: emotional and cognitive balance. He argues that

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catharsis tempers pleasant as well as painful emotions. For Aristotle, both an


exceedingly euphoric mood and an overly depressive state may compromise
judgment. The process of catharsis is seen to restrain levity and purge anxiety,
thereby allowing individuals to see issues and experiences in a more impartial
manner. Although his theory sounds restrictive, Aristotle holds that catharsis is
pleasurable and that individuals feel better when their emotions are in an ideal
state of proportion.

This point links to another central aspect of Aristotles catharsis theory: the
"assertion of a social utility for drama" (Orgel, 1995: 141).7 Aristotle (1964)
argues that the strength of dramatic texts lies in their ability to awaken, release
and balance peoples passions. He conceives of catharsis as a remedy for natural
human weaknesses that, without mediation, could prove debilitating. Aristotle
believes that when participants purge excess tension through catharsis, they
achieve a more balanced emotional state a kind of equilibrium. Aristotles
theory of the social utility of drama is based upon his understanding of the
function of texts in peoples lives. Aristotle believes that the emotional benefits
of comedy and tragedy emerge through an individuals identification with
characters and issues presented in a text. As the characters engage with ideas and
emotions, participants feelings become aligned with those of the characters.
These emotions build in intensity until they almost overwhelm both the
characters and the participants. Aristotle views this emotional peak as an
undesirable and disproportionate state. Therefore, it is positive for both
characters and participants to release their excess emotions through the
resolution of the conflict depicted in the text. In Aristotles view, tragic or comic
material does not let our emotions remain enflamed within us, but calls them
forth and expels them; this process gives the emotions "moderate and harmless
exercise, thereby bringing [participants] nearer to the mean in their emotional
responses (Janko, 1987: 61).

Orgel (1995) points out that contemporary scholars tend to disagree about the
specifics of catharsis. Some scholars interpret Aristotles writings to mean that

154

catharsis cleanses emotions that are analogous to those enacted within the comic
or tragic material. In the case of tragedy, the purged emotions may be pity, envy
and fear (Cooper 1922, Halliwell 1987). Aristotle seems to espouse this view
when he writes, catharsis cures evil with evil(Janko, 1987: 60). Other
scholars argue that catharsis creates a broader effect, releasing a variety of
emotions that are associated with, but not identical to, the emotions portrayed in
the comic or tragic material. This perspective stems from Aristotles statement:
...through the arousal of pity and fear affecting the katharsis of such emotions
(Halliwell, 1987: 37). In relation to tragedy, this may relate emotions such as
anger, hatred and selfishness. Janko points out that Aristotle includes other
painful and disturbing emotions in various passages of the Poetics (1987: 83).
Both perspectives on catharsis lead to the same overall result: a process of
emotional cleansing for participants.

In the Tractatus Coislinianus, Aristotle invokes a similar curative model to


explain catharsis in relation to comedy.

Comedy is a representation of an action that is laughable and


lacking in magnitude...[represented] by people and [not] by
narration; accomplishing by means of pleasure and laughter the
catharsis of such emotions. It has laughter as its mother.
(Janko, 1987: 44) 8
Janko says that "both Plato and Aristotle are prone to equate the physical effects
of an emotion with that emotion" (1987: 169). For example, Aristotles phrase
"laughter as its mother" suggests that comedy begets pleasurable emotions
(Janko, 1987: 162). In the Poetics, a similar phrase implies that tragedy elicits
pain. In the sections to follow, I consider the catharsis theory of humour in the
light of black comedy, which seems to involve both pleasure and plain. I also
revisit some of the other questions raised in this discussion.

Freud and Catharsis

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In the late fifteenth century, Aristotles writings were published in Latin, which
re-awakened interest in his theories. Scholars from different fields of study
examined and interpreted Aristotles work in the following centuries. In the early
twentieth century, Freud developed the notion of catharsis in relation to
individual and social phenomena. In Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious, Freud (1960) focuses upon the role of catharsis in the creation and
appreciation of comedy. His theory of catharsis sets forth a process through
which individuals accrue emotional tension regarding important ideas and
experiences, most of which are inaccessible to the conscious mind. Freud argues
that by perceiving and enjoying humour, participants release accumulated energy
in ways that are both tangible (laughter, smiling) and intangible (psychological
relief). Furthermore, Freud believes that these expressions reveal repressed
thoughts and feelings that would not otherwise emerge into consciousness. Thus,
the process of creating and enjoying humour seems to disinhibit participants.

Freuds version of the catharsis theory of humour emphasises two issues not
directly addressed by Aristotle: intellectual stimulation and emotional repression.
First, Freud believes that part of the pleasure derived from the perception of
humour stems from intellectual activity. Jokes, puns, riddles and double
entendres require cerebral energy to decipher. Freud argues that this type of
comic material elicits pleasure through the cognitive challenges it presents.
Through verbal wit, seemingly unrelated elements are connected via surprising,
clever links. Freud describes this connection as part of a psychic economy in
which intellectual energy is the denomination.9 In this metaphor, participants
release excess cognitive energy when they perceive a short cut between two
points and thus no longer require the same mental effort make sense of the
information. Participants then release the excess energy through a physical
expression, such as a chuckle or smile. According to Freud, this response is in
proportion to the amount of energy released: the "yield of pleasure corresponds
to the psychical expenditure that is saved" (1960: 167).10

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Second, Freud (1960) focuses on tendentious comedy, or material that intends to


provoke through potentially offensive subject matter. Freud believes this type of
comedy stems from the repression exerted by social conventions. Sex, bodily
functions, money, prejudice, disabilities and institutions are listed as the
"primary possibilities of enjoyment" through tendentious comedy (1960: 145).
This subject matter tends to be considered taboo, so people expend considerable
energy repressing their impulses associated with these controversial subjects.
Yet when these subjects are discussed in comedy, participants do not need to
hide the information; they can release the energy required for repression. Freud
suggests that the cleverness of comic material the way it manages to make
sense of the nonsensical serves to protect its subject matter from criticism
(Palmer 1994). In other words, comic material is given a special license because
pleasure wins out over censure.

Freud cautions that after participants enjoy the momentary experience of


humour, the previous social forces regain dominance. Freud sees humour as an
enjoyable experience because of the temporary alleviation of the burden of
repression; the voice of authority is momentarily quieted.11 Through comedy,
participants are able to be childlike and play with different possibilities. Freud
suggests that individuals purposefully use comedy to address topics not
sanctioned by society. [Jokes] make possible the satisfaction of an instinct,
whether lustful or hostile (1960: 144). Freud implies that comedy creates an
acceptable space for the articulation of difficult ideas and experiences; it serves
as an alternative to traditional discursive forms. In this sense, comedy allows
participants to subvert the norms of adult rational thought (Palmer, 1994: 80).

Aristotle and Freud: A Concise Comparison

The differences between Freud and Aristotle, in regard to the catharsis theory,
inform broader questions around the functions of humour. To reiterate, Freud
(1960) conceptualises catharsis as a process that emerges from the participants
subconscious desire to obviate social norms. He believes that participants

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unconsciously yearn to break taboos and do so through the framework of


comedy. In contrast, Aristotle sees catharsis as a more of a conscious process of
emotional connection between participants and the characters portrayed in
comedy.12 According to both Aristotle and Freud, participants who connect to
characters feel emotional tension, followed by the pleasurable dissolution of that
tension. Freud sees this as a largely unconscious and predominantly individual
experience. Aristotle sees it as a more of a conscious and collective encounter.
According to both scholars, participants who perceive humour experience
emotional change through catharsis, yet this change may not be permanent in
nature. Overall, Freud and Aristotles views on catharsis are not incompatible;
these thinkers advocate alternate origins for catharsis, but they delineate similar
emotional processes through which participants experience humour.

Although neither the catharsis nor superiority theories were developed in relation
to black comedy, these influential concepts help explain the process of laughing
about death. In the discussion to follow, I apply these theories to contemporary
black comic texts. To further explore the functions of black humour, I divide the
remainder of the chapter into three thematic sections; the first two sections focus
on the catharsis theory, the third on the superiority theory. In these sections, I
consider how participants relate to black comedy. I use medical metaphors
including contusions, ruptures and dislocations to describe the ways in which
participants forge conceptual and emotional connections with characters in black
comedy. These metaphors also illustrate the ways in which the experience of
black humour influences participants. While I recognise the interrelatedness of
the issues discussed in each of these sections, the thematic divisions are intended
to help identify and articulate the functions of black humour.

Contusions and the Site of Catharsis

As discussed in the previous chapter, there are two main ways in which
participants perceive black humour in a text. First, there are comic scenes in
which characters intentionally create and appreciate black comedy that

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participants comprehend at the same point in the text. In this type of comic
moment, the site of the cathartic experience is located both within the characters
and within the participants. Second, there are scenes in which characters do not
find their situation funny, but participants do. In this situation, participants
engage with characters but do not follow the same cognitive and emotional line.
Thus, the site of catharsis is within the participants; they own the cathartic
experience.13

In this section, I differentiate between these two types of cathartic moments to


draw attention to the site of the cathartic experience. I apply the metaphor of a
contusion to the idea of catharsis at a particular moment, or location, in a text.
At the point catharsis occurs whether it is experienced by participants,
characters, or both there is a sense of emotional dissolution. Both Aristotles
and Freuds views of catharsis theory state that participants release tension
through the experience of humour. In relation to black humour, I propose that the
tension surrounding bereavement seems to bleed away, to bruise under the
surface, at the moment of catharsis. These emotional contusions sometimes
cause subsequent pain to characters, and perhaps to participants, but the process
of bruising also may assist in healing.

Aristotles (1964) theory of catharsis is more applicable to the first type of comic
moment, in which the emotions of characters and participants run in parallel. He
believes that emotional purgation occurs when both characters and participants
reach an analogous emotional peak, then release their tension through humour.
This theory works well when characters and participants follow similar
emotional trajectories through the text. Yet in the second type of comic moment,
participants and characters may not reach an emotional crescendo at the same
time, or one group may not perceive humour at all. When only one group
perceives black humour, only that group experiences catharsis. In these types of
comic moments, Aristotles parallel-processing model for catharsis does not
adequately explain the complexities of the experience of humour.

159

In contrast, Freuds theory of catharsis seems to apply to both types of scenes.


His concept of tendentious humour helps explain why participants enjoy
controversial material such as black comedy. In contemporary society,
participants are not usually encouraged to discuss death, so encountering this
type of information is likely to provoke strong emotions (Bauman 1992, Mellor
1993). By processing information about death within a comic context,
participants may alleviate their sense of repression about this subject matter.
Freud argues that these powerful thoughts and feelings are dissipated through
humour, thus reducing the participants levels of discontent. In describing this
process, Freud does not stipulate that the perceptions of the characters and
participants must match. Thus, Freuds version of catharsis theory seems to
allow the site of catharsis to exist for both characters and participants, or solely
within one group.

Beth Henleys play Crimes of the Heart (1982) contains both types of black
comic moments discussed in this section. In some scenes, the site of catharsis
exists simultaneously in characters and participants; in others, only the
participants perceive the black humour. The play follows the lives of the
McGrath sisters in rural Mississippi. In the first scene, Babe, the youngest of the
three sisters, has just been released on bail for the attempted murder of her
husband. This incident brings the middle sister, Meg, back to her hometown after
several years stint working on the west coast. Babes crime prompts the sisters
reunion and forces them to reevaluate their lives.

Prior to the point where the play commences, the three sisters endure a difficult
childhood: their mother commits suicide and their father deserts them. The eldest
sister, Lenny, stays in the family home and serves as full-time carer for their
ailing grandfather. When Old Granddaddy enters a deep coma from which he is
unlikely to recover, Lenny and Babe wonder how to tell the middle sister, Meg,
about his condition. Meg, who has returned home impoverished, announces that
she is going to visit the opinionated Old Granddaddy and tell him the truth about

160

her failures: And if he cant take it, and if it sends him into a coma, thats just
too damn bad! Suddenly, Lenny and Babe burst out laughing.

BABE:
Youre too late.
Babe laughs hysterically.
LENNY:
Oh, stop! Please!
Lenny continues laughing.
MEG:
What is it? Whats so funny?
BABE:
Still laughing. Its not Its not funny!
LENNY:
No, its not! Its not a bit funny!
MEG:
Well, what is it, then? What?
BABE:
Trying to calm down. Well, its just thatOld Granddaddy
he hes in a coma!
Babe and Lenny break up again.
MEG:
My God! Thats not funny!
BABE:
Calming down. I know, I know. For some reason, it just struck
us as funny.
LENNY:
Im sorry. Its its not funny. Its sad. Its very sad. Weve
been up all night long.
BABE:
Were really tired.

161

MEG:
Well, my God. How is he? Is he gonna live?
Babe and Lenny look at each other.
BABE:
They dont think so!
They both break up again.
LENNY:
I dont know why were laughing like this. Were just sick.
Were just awful!
(Henley, 1982: 84-85)
In this scene, Lenny allows the laughter to erupt; she embraces the
uncontrollable silliness of the scene. Following Megs defiant comment, Lenny
and Babe generate black comedy to dissipate their stress and anxiety.
Participants who engage with Crimes of the Heart may connect with the sisters
and follow their emotional arc through this scene, thereby releasing similar
emotions to those displayed by the characters. This interpretation of the scene
fits with Aristotles version of catharsis theory.

In other black comic scenes in this text, the characters do not find their situation
amusing, nor do they consciously use black comedy to address their concerns.
For example, at one point Meg asks Babe why she shot her husband. Babe
replies: I just didnt like his looks. (Henley, 1982: 14). Instead of condemning
her sister, Meg concurs: "I don't like his looks either.". Meg does not appear to
be making a joke; instead she voices acceptance of Babes actions, however
misguided. In relating this incident to Lenny, Meg adds: "There are plenty of
good sane reasons to shoot a person, and I'm sure Babe had one" (Henley, 1982:
14). When participants register black humour in this scene, their perceptions
diverge from those of the characters. Janko (1987) suggests that Aristotles
concept of analogous emotional processes in catharsis does not encompass this
type of comic moment.

162

In a subsequent scene, Babe tries to kill herself using the familys small gas
oven, but Meg comes home and rescues her. Still terrified that she will face a life
term in goal, Babe tries to hang herself from a bedroom light fixture. Her weight
pulls the fixture completely out of the ceiling. Babe then walks dejectedly down
the stairs with the rope still around her neck, trailing a chandelier and bits of
plaster. This bizarre moment may enable participants to release the tension they
developed surrounding Babes suicidal intentions. Participants may also replace
a solemn image with an absurd one; the idea of a woman attempting suicide is
supplanted with the vision of Babe, disappointed but decidedly safe, in her
sisters living room. When Meg interrogates Babe about why she tried to kill
herself twice in twenty-four hours, Babe simply replies: I dont know, Meg. Im
having a bad day (Henley, 1982: 100). This example illustrates a potential
discrepancy between the perceptions of participants and characters. Freuds
perspective on catharsis helps explains the black humour in the scene; he
contends that participants enjoy the opportunity to engage with a taboo subject
(in this case, death) within a protected context. Because Babe is safe with her
sisters nearby, participants have permission to laugh at her nave, inept attempts
at self-harm.

In the final scene of the play, the sisters reunite over Lennys belated birthday
cake. They look at photos in a family album and speak calmly about their
mothers suicide. In this interaction, the characters again use black comedy to
release the stress associated with their losses. Through engagement with Crimes
of the Heart, participants may perceive black humour in parallel with the
characters, but also may interpret black humour separately from the characters.

In Louis Nowras play Radiance (1993), the characters are active players in their
grief, using black comedy to examine their experiences of loss. This text features
three sisters, Indigenous Australians from Queensland, who generate black
comedy to help them manage the aftermath of their mothers death. The sisters
come together for the first time in several years to attend their mothers funeral.
The reunion forces the sisters to evaluate their relationships and carve out new

163

identities. They must also struggle with long-standing resentments and jealousies
stemming from the poverty in which they grew up and from which only one of
them has escaped. When the play begins, Mae, the middle sister, is exhausted
from her role as caregiver for her senile mother. Upon her mothers death, Mae
arranges a simple funeral and cremation and invites only her two absent sisters,
Cressy and Nona. The two women arrive in town the day of the funeral, bringing
with them memories and hopes associated with their family of origin.

Nona, the youngest of the three, initiates a discussion of her mothers death:
What did [mum] die in? When I die, I want to look a beautiful corpse. The sort
that turns every man into a necrophiliac (Nowra, 1993:

Act 1, Sc. 1).

Following a chastisement from her more mature siblings, Nona asks: Where did
she die?...What were her last words?. Gurgle, gurgle replies Mae (ibid.).
Despite her weariness, Mae generates humour in this situation. This quip shows
Maes willingness to look at her mothers passing from a nontraditional
perspective; it also indicates that Mae sees the death as both horrible and natural.
Her use of black comedy seems to dissipate tension in this situation.

Later in the scene, the other two sisters joke about their mothers forthcoming
funeral. In dressing for the event, Cressy dons a distinguished hat and boasts:
Well kill em at the funeral (ibid.). Nona tries on a number of sexy dresses for
the service, hinting that she will feel better if she looks better. However, due to
hasty packing, Nona lacks the suitable undergarments for the service. Her
revealing attire distracts the Catholic priest who conducts the funeral. The
awkwardness of the funeral combines two tendentious subjects: sex and death.
Yet Mae, Cressy and Nona talk about these subjects in a way which is
surprisingly informal and direct. The scenes black humour arises not only from
the sisters open discussion of the restricted topics, but also from the
inappropriateness of the two topics together; this combination means that the
sisters violate more than one social rule simultaneously.14

164

By engaging with Radiance, participants may experience black humour at the


same time as the characters. As in Crimes of the Heart, the three sisters
consciously create black comedy to express and ease their grief. Participants
who connect to these characters may also be able to release emotional tension
surrounding death. This process of transformation may stem from participants
perceptions of the losses depicted in the text, their own personal experiences, or
a combination of the two. This point is considered further in the following
section on emotional identification in catharsis.

Mae, Cressy and Nona are the sole participants in their mothers funeral. The
priest has little meaningful to say, as he hardly knows the deceased and he is
nervous around the provocative Nona. The church is nearly empty, there are no
memorial flowers or gifts and the guests have mixed feelings about the deceased.
These failings are not the sisters fault, but simply factors associated with the
fragmentation of their family and their mothers disengagement from the
community. As a result, the sisters take their mothers ashes back home and
create their own memorial - full of humour and affection - in the hours following
the church service. After a few glasses of wine and the recounting of childhood
stories, Nora raises the practical issue of their mothers remains.

NONA:
What should we do with mum?... Bringing out a vase. What
about this? We can see them... Come on, lets stick her in the
vase. She liked vases.
MAE:
Youre going to put her in there?
NONA:
No, too creepy. You or Cressy will do it.
CRESSY:
Why do you want to put her in there?
NONA:
Because, its so much better than the box. When we take her to
the island [to scatter her], think how good shell look.
(Nowra, 1993: Act I, Sc. 3)

165

The women argue about the proper place for the ashes, each grabbing at the
container. As they wrestle with it, they accidentally spill the contents all over
themselves and the floor. The three sisters are covered in ashes. There is a
stunned silence.

NONA:
Youve spilt mum on the floor...Oh my God, look what weve
done to mum...
She bursts into laughter.
MAE:
Weve scattered her.
CRESSY:
What are we going to do, shes everywhere?...Looking at her
dress. Im going to have to explain to the laundry: Thats no
stain, thats my mum.
They all burst into laughter, then stop.
NONA:
We cant leave her on the floor. We have to clean her up.
CRESSY:
We cant pick her up, its impossible
(Nowra, 1993: Act I, Sc. 3)
Finally, the three women agree to use a vacuum cleaner to gather the ashes. They
then deposit the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag into an empty licorice tin
labeled with the brand name Radiance. I bet you half mums ashes is lint and
dust, Nona complains. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, responds Mae (ibid.).

The Radiance label on the tin is a symbol for the strength and warmth that
emanates from these women. As they talk through the night, both terrible and
wonderful stories emerge. Cressy eventually admits to being raped at age twelve
and giving birth to Nona (who was raised to believe Cressy was her older sister).
This revelation is horrific, but it opens up the possibility of renewal and

166

development in the relationship between the two sisters. As these stories unfold,
so do the womens skills for surviving loss. Black comedy serves as a unique
form of discourse; it is a method for dissipating anger, relinquishing grief and
reestablishing identities.

Faced with giving up their mothers old house (she was in debt to a dishonest
lover), and sensing their mothers ghostly presence, the sisters burn down the
house on the night of the funeral. They laugh triumphantly as it glows and
crumbles. The fire gives them control over their circumstances and justice
against their mothers oppressor. Through the twenty-four hour period depicted
in Radiance, the three women go through a process of self-examination and
rejuvenation. The characters use of black comedy is a key part of this process;
their jokes reveal a willingness to consider alternate perspectives on death. Both
Aristotles and Freuds versions of catharsis theory help explain how the
characters make peace with their losses by releasing the stress associated with
grief. The black humour in this text may assist participants to move through a
similar process.

Like Radiance, Shelagh Stephensons play (1997) The Memory of Water


involves three sisters gathering for the funeral of their mother. The three women,
all in their thirties, have taken different paths in their lives. The structure of this
play is similar to both texts discussed in this section: one sister (Teresa) has
stayed at home to run a small business, while another sister (Mary) has left town
to become a successful, urbane doctor. Catherine, the youngest of the three, has
followed various boyfriends around the world and has not been working. For the
past several years, Teresa has been caring for their mother, who had Alzheimers
disease. This unrelenting responsibility leads Teresa to develop anxiety and mild
depression. When she learns that her that her mother has passed away in a nearby
hospital, Teresa experiences a peculiar moment of black humour.

TERESA:
[They] said, shes worse, youd better get up to the hospital. I
said, shes dead isnt she, you dont phone at three in the

167

morning unless someones deadI know I should have phoned


you, but I had this idea, this flicker she might not be dead, even
though I knew she was really, but they wouldnt tell me over
the phone, and Id have woken you up, and what would be the
point anyway, you were miles away
MARY:
Its OK. Stop worrying about it
TERESA:
And the doctor was about twelve, and embarrassed. Eventually
we had to say it for him. He kept fiddling with his pen and
giving us a rundown of everything that had happened, until
eventually Frank said, Are you trying to tell us shes dead?
And he said, More or less, yes. And I said, what dyou mean,
more or less? Shes either dead or she isnt, you cant be a bit
dead, for Gods sake. And then I looked at my feet and I was
wearing odd shoes. A black one and a brown one. Not even
vaguely similar. So I started to laugh and I couldnt stop. They
had to give me a sedative
(Stephenson, 1997: 17)
The absurdity of the situation strikes Teresa as funny. She recognises that the
news that her mother is gone, in addition to the loss of sleep, has made Teresa
behave as though she too has dementia. By retelling the story, Teresa releases
tension through black humour.

Mary then recounts how Teresa rang her to report their mothers passing. Teresa
was nervous and suddenly blurted out: Guess what?! Mary dissects the
conversation in front of Teresa.

MARY:
There should be a set form. Like those books on wedding
etiquette. Sudden Death Etiquette. Lesson One. Breaking the
news. Phrases to avoid include: Guess what?
TERESA:
I was distraught, I wasnt thinking properly
MARY:
I thought youd won the lottery or something.
(Stephenson, 1997: 11)

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In this scene, the characters acknowledge social rules surrounding death and
grief. They both have a sense of the ideal responses at the time of death and Mary
uses this information to create black comedy. This eases her own frustrations,
though not necessarily Teresas. (Teresa seems to feel more shamefaced than
amused.)

In these scenes from The Memory of Water, the characters intentionally create
black comedy to ameliorate their distress, but their efforts at humour are not
always appreciated by other characters. This makes the connection between
characters and participants more complex. Participants have to choose a character
with whom to identify; participants cannot simply follow the emotional line of all
the characters in the scene. If a participant relates to the sister who is creating
black comedy in that scene, then the participant may experience laughter and
catharsis. If a participant empathises entirely with the sister who is insulted, the
scene may not seem funny. Neither Aristotle nor Freud comment on this type of
comic moment in relation to catharsis theory, yet both versions of the theory state
that, when a participant connects with a character, that character serves as a
conduit for the experience of catharsis. Thus, the cathartic process is possible if a
participant engages with the character who enacts black comedy; this may occur
regardless of whether other characters register the humour in that scene. The
above examples from The Memory of Water reveal subtle influences on the site
of the cathartic experience.

In contrast to the scenes discussed above, Absurd Person Singular by Alan


Ayckbourn (1977) involves scenes that do not seem funny to any of the
characters, but which may be read by participants as black humour. In this play,
a dysphoric housewife called Eva decides to kill herself, yet her efforts are
repeatedly thwarted by well-meaning friends who accidentally save her life. The
characters are oblivious to the suicides attempts, but participants who engage
with the text are fully aware of Evas situation. In the opening scene of Absurd
Person Singular, Eva sits down at her kitchen table to compose a suicide note.
Weary of an adulterous, self-obsessed husband and denied opportunities to

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pursue her own interests, Eva decides to jump out her kitchen window just
before a Christmas party at her home. While she is on the ledge, a well-meaning
friend guides her back down. Eva then tries to stab herself by running onto a
large kitchen knife protruding from a drawer. When this fails, Eva sticks her
head in the oven. She is about to turn on the gas when one of the party guests,
Jane, enters the kitchen and presumes Eva is cleaning the oven.

JANE:
Are you alright?...Now you sit down here. Dont you worry
about that oven now...No point damaging your health for an
oven, is there?... Never say Im not a good neighbour - shall I
have a go at it for you?
(Ayckbourn, 1979: Act 2)
Jane finds the cleaning substance and puts her own head in the oven to scrub. In
the process, she becomes blind to Evas needs. Still determined to kill herself,
Eva swallows a handful of sedatives. She drops the bottle, however, and loses
most of the pills down the kitchen sink. As she probes the drain with a utensil,
Janes husband Sidney enters. Unaware of Evas motivations, he quickly offers
to fix the problem.

SIDNEY:
Now then. Ill show you [what to do for a clogged drain].
Always useful to know. Paper?
He picks up Evas latest suicide note.
Nothing vital, is it . . .? Now then.
He glances curiously at it, then turns it over and starts to draw his
diagram on the back.
(Ayckbourn, 1979: Act 2)
While Sidney works on the blocked sink, Eva decides to hang herself. Unseen by
other characters, she ties herself to the kitchen light fixture and accidentally pulls
it out of the ceiling. Another party guest, Ronald, comes in and offers to repair
the damaged electrical connection, not realising Evas plight. Ronald shocks
himself and slumps unconscious on the floor. Finally, after five failed suicide

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attempts, Eva gives up. The few sedatives she managed to swallow make her too
sleepy to concoct any further plans.

In this scene, the characters never acknowledge the potential for black humour.
They eventually realise Eva is suicidal, but they view the situation very seriously
and express concern about her well-being. Thus, participants may follow a
different emotional trajectory through this text. Participants are likely to accrue
tension in response to Evas desire to harm herself, but may subsequently feel a
sense of relief when they recognise that she is secure.15

The black humour in this scene raises an interesting question in regards to


catharsis theory: how can participants laugh at Evas distress when they are not
yet certain of the outcome? It may be because Eva appears to be insulated by her
ineptitude as well as her house guests. In connecting with this text, participants
become increasingly convinced that Eva cannot succeed in committing suicide.
As discussed in the previous chapter, ineffectual self-harm is a common event in
black comedy. Participants may be aware of other comic texts involving
repeated suicide attempts and these cultural references inform the participants
responses to comic material (Mamber 1991). Participants may be able to laugh
because they feel protected from the ramifications of Evas actions. As may be
predicted by the giddy, frenetic tone of the play and by Ayckbourns other work,
Eva remains unharmed; her husband improves his behaviour once he realises the
extent of his wifes unhappiness. At the same time, the marriages of the other
characters deteriorate and become fuel for further dark comedy in Absurd Person
Singular.

Each of the texts analysed in this section highlights an important issue in


understanding the functions of black humour: who experiences catharsis? As
discussed above, the process of catharsis occurs in different ways, depending
upon the type of comic moment involved. Catharsis through black humour
seems to occur through an analogous emotional process for both characters and
participants, or through the divergent perceptions of these two groups. This point

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speaks to another influential issue in understanding the functions of humour:


which emotions are involved in the process of catharsis?

Ruptures and Emotional Identification in Catharsis

To understand how participants experience catharsis, it is important to consider


the nature of emotional identification, or the thoughts and feelings involved in
black humour. Aristotles theory of catharsis purports that participants engage
with the characters in a text, build up tension about the situation depicted, then
release the same emotions as the characters. This is evidenced by the famous
phrase from the Tractatus Coislinianus: through pleasure and laughter effecting
the purgation of like emotions (1964: 21). As discussed above, Aristotles
writings are not clear on whether participants experience the exact emotions that
the characters express in a particular situation, or whether participants recruit
related emotions that are not precisely depicted within the text. Either way,
Aristotle suggests that catharsis involves a parallel emotional experience for
characters and participants. Although Freud does not focus on this particular
question, his explanation of the process of catharsis suggests that participants
emotions are related to, but not necessarily the same as, those evidenced by the
characters. In this section, I look at the process of emotional identification in
catharsis and how this process illuminates the analysis of black comic texts.

The previous section demonstrates that a participant and a character may respond
differently to the same situation in a black comic text. This divergence implies
that participants do more than shadow the emotions of the characters. It seems as
though participants perceive black humour not only when their emotions
replicate those of the characters, but also when participants make unique
connections between their own experiences and those of the characters. In
relation to black comedy, participants may personalise the subject matter by
remembering their own bereavement. They may also generalise the death-related
subject matter, seeing the greater social implications of the losses depicted in the

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text. In this sense, the experience of catharsis through black humour seems to
engage a variety of concepts and emotions related to death.

I have chosen the metaphor of ruptures to describe certain types of black comic
moments involving emotional identification. This term speaks to the pain that
black comedy calls forth, both for characters and participants. As discussed in
previous chapters, death intervenes in peoples lives, often without warning, and
causes rips and splits in the fabric of existence. Black comedy reminds us of
these traumatic ruptures, perhaps even reopens the wounds, yet it may also offer
an opportunity for cleansing and healing through catharsis. This section on
emotional identification in catharsis includes texts in which characters lives are
torn by terminal illness. By engaging with these dark comic moments,
participants may generate different feelings from those expressed by the
characters. In some cases, participants may not have direct experience with
terminal illness, but they may still perceive black humour in characters jokes.
This type of emotional identification in which participants seem to understand
the characters situation but may not react to it in the same way suggests that
catharsis involves more than a collinear emotional process. In making
connections with the characters, participants may recruit emotions that exist
around the text but are not depicted in it. Participants seem to do this by holding
various situations the ones in the text and the ones they understand or have
personally experienced in their minds simultaneously. It seems as though
catharsis gives participants the opportunity to see death within a larger context.

Margaret Edsons Wit (written as W;t) follows the life of a fictional literature
professor called Vivian Bearing who contracts terminal cancer.16 This illness
causes an irreversible rupture in Vivians life; it marks the end of her academic
career as well as the realisation that she will be alone in her death. In a series of
monologues and flashbacks, Vivian describes her oncology treatment as well as
her childhood, university years and teaching experiences. One of Vivians
strategies for coping with the radical change in her life is to create black comedy
about her condition.

173

In one scene, Vivian is subjected to a humiliating exam by a group of medical


students. Vivian previously the expert and interrogator must learn how to be
vulnerable as a patient.

VIVIAN:
Once I did the teaching. Now I am taught. This is much easier.
I just hold still and look cancerous. It requires less acting every
time.
(Edson, 1999: 37)
The journey from professor to patient is painful for Vivian, both physically and
emotionally. She expresses irritation when the medical staff ask How are you
feeling today? when she is obviously terminally ill. Im waiting for the
moment when someone asks me this question and Im dead, she remarks. Im
a little sorry Ill miss that (Edson, 1999: 5).

Yet the process of becoming vulnerable is also enlightening for Vivian. By


interacting both with her mentor and former pupil in the course of the play,
Vivian comes to see herself as part of a continuum of people who teach and who
later are taught: a worthy progression. This gives Vivian a fresh perspective on
her lifes work. At one point Vivian pretends to write her own dark comic
epigraph: Vivian Bearing Published and Perished (33).

After a difficult round of tests, Vivian comments on her cancer treatment. Her
self-conscious comments reveal a keen awareness of the gravity of her illness.
VIVIAN:
My next line is supposed to be something like this: It is such a
relief to get back to my room after those infernal tests. This is
hardly true. It would be a relief to be a cheerleader on her way
to Daytona Beach for Spring Break. To get back to my room
after those infernal tests is just the next thing that happens.
(Edson, 1999: 53)

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Vivian jokes about this situation to distract herself from the trauma of her
treatment, yet she also draws attention to herself as a participant in a challenging
scene from her own life. It is clear that Vivian devises black comedy for personal
purposes; no other characters hear her remarks. This bleak humour seems to help
Vivian cope with imminent death. The humour also enables Vivian to articulate
the loneliness that invades the closing scene of her life. As she faces the moment
of death, Vivian remarks that she can no longer narrate the play and has to defer
to the doctors, for whom she holds little regard. These are my last coherent
lines, she admits. Ill have to leave the action to the professionals (72). These
jests serve to minimise Vivians distress. She seems to experience catharsis
through black humour; this process appears to dissipate her fear and anger
regarding her fate. Nelson says that, when we laugh about our own death, the
laughter returns us to childishness, which brings with it a fresh perspective on
life (1990: 87). He adds that it is exciting to cast off, for awhile, our adult,
mature attitudes to these eternal human concerns. [This] temporary release leads
to a new acceptance (1990: 88).

Vivians self-conscious references to various stages of dying also invite


participants to attend to her story. Participants who engage with this character
may experience the purgation of emotional tension by relating to the loss
depicted in the text. If participants are facing imminent death themselves, or
perhaps caring for someone in this position, then participants emotions may be
very similar to the feelings Vivian portrays. These participants may believe that
the character of Vivian embodies the statement What it is like to know that I am
dying.17 If participants are not currently in this situation, they may have more of
an analogous emotional connection to the character. These participants
emotional connection to Vivian may envelop questions such as What is it like to
learn that you have a terminal illness? In either case, participants engagement
with the text presents the possibility of catharsis through black humour.

The process of emotional identification through catharsis is also at work in Tony


Kushners Angels in America (1993). This text is the first in a pair of plays about

175

the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in the United States. At the
centre of this intense play is young man called Prior who, like Vivian in W;t,
uses black comedy to banish the terror of terminal illness. When he discovers a
purple lesion on his arm, Prior quips that he has Lesionnaires Disease instead
of AIDS.

PRIOR:
Im a legionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion
LOUIS:
Stop.
PRIOR:
My troubles are lesion
LOUIS:
Will you please stop.
PRIOR:
Dont you think Im handling this well?
(Kushner, 1993: 21)
Priors sense of humour allows him to voice his resilience to his illness. Yet
other characters do not often laugh at Priors improvisations. (In this sense,
some of the comic moments in Angels in America are similar to The Memory of
Water. When there is disagreement between characters regarding black humour,
participants have to choose a character with whom to identify.)

As the disease progresses, Prior still cracks jokes, but there is a darker tone to
his list of symptoms. In the following scene, he gives a medical summary to
Emily, a nurse.

PRIOR:
[Im a] pharmaceutical miracle. Lazarus breathes again.
EMILY:
Looking good. What else?

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PRIOR:
Ankles sore and swollen The nauseas mostly gone with the
little orange pillsMy eye doctors says everythings OK, for
now, my dentist says Yuck! when he sees my fuzzy tongue,
and now he wears little condoms on his thumb and
forefinger My glands are like walnuts, my weights holding
steady So, I guess Im doing OK. Except for of course Im
going nuts.
EMILY:
We ran the toxoplasmosis series and theres no indication
PRIOR:
I know, I know, but I feel like something terrifying is on its
wayI am generally known, where I am known, as one cool,
collected queen. And I am ruffled.
(Kushner, 1993: 97-8)
When his partner Louis leaves him, Prior is home alone throughout the process
of dying. On the night he dies, Prior sees an angel with huge silver wings burst
into his bedroom through the ceiling. The angel masks everything in bright light.
Prior takes in the spectacle and says: Very Steven Spielberg (Kushner, 1993:
118).

Prior generates black comedy from the time he becomes ill until the end of his
life. He intentionally uses this form of expression to try to close the ruptures that
AIDS creates in his life (e.g. his broken body, his lost relationships). Participants
may not relate directly to Priors losses, but may nonetheless experience
catharsis through their connection to this character. Participants may empathise
with Priors desire to push death away, to confirm the capabilities he possessed
before he became ill. They recognise the desperation and frustration Prior feels
when facing death at a young age. In this sense, participants responses to
Angels in America are shaped by Priors journey, but their feelings may not be
precisely the same as his.

To reiterate, emotional identification is a notable issue in texts where the


characters joke about their own impending death. Participants who have not
personally faced death (either their own or that of a loved one) may still find

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ways to relate to these characters. Participants may connect with Prior and other
characters in Angels in America, then may experience and discharge their
emotions related to loss. Yet what is the nature of the emotional identification in
these scenes? Do participants feel precisely the same as Prior? It seems unlikely,
unless participants have personally experienced the same situation.18 By
engaging with the text, however, participants may evoke related emotions.
Freuds version of catharsis theory seems broad enough to explain these
variations within the process of catharsis. By contrast, a strict interpretation of
Aristotles version that catharsis involves the purgation of the same emotions
as depicted by the characters offers less flexibility.

Although the catharsis theory of humour predates the development of black


humour, both Freuds and Aristotles versions of this concept help explain why
people engage with comedy about death. In particular, Freud emphasises how
people repress contentious issues, then allow these concerns to resurface through
comedy. It seems as though the experience of black humour provides a
temporary period of conceptual and emotional freedom. The scenes discussed in
this section indicate that participants may perceive black humour even though
they do not necessarily identify with the precise emotions depicted in the text. I
advocate an open and encompassing view of catharsis in black humour; I suggest
that the process of catharsis allows participants to engage a range of emotions.19
Participants then have the opportunity to use the experience of black humour to
wrestle openly and freely with death.

The Inferiority of the Real Identity: The Superiority Theory of Humour

The investigation of the functions of humour in this chapter leads to the third
influential theory of humour: superiority. The notion of superiority considers the
way individual participants feel about themselves in relation to others; it also
encompasses the way participants within social groups regard people from
different groups. More specifically, the superiority theory of humour suggests
that a statement, idea or action is funny when it inflates our perceptions of

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ourselves and diminishes our view of others. Palmer describes this notion as the
inferiority of the real identity, meaning that people may attempt to cover or
enhance their sense of self by making themselves seem dominant over others
(1994: 102). The discussion of the superiority theory in this section follows the
approach taken above in the analysis of the catharsis theory.

The superiority theory of humour helps explain why most comic material is, to
differing degrees, caustic and critical in nature. This theory also provides insight
into why there is usually a butt, or victim, of a joke. By engaging with comedy,
people often glorify themselves and vilify others; they may also employ selfdeprecation. This relates to Palmers comment that comedy always involves
belittlement [and] may be used for egotistical purposes (1994: 103). In this way,
comedy serves to reinforce participants perceptions of themselves as discerning,
elevated individuals. In essence, the superiority theory says that participants
actively use comic material to support or enhance their perceptions of
themselves.

In the discussion below, I touch upon historical contributions to the superiority


theory as well as contemporary humour research in this area. I discuss how a
sense of superiority may affect participants views of the dying or deceased. I
also consider how participants use black comedy to gain a sense of control over
death itself. As with the previous sections, the theoretical discussion informs the
subsequent analysis of black comic texts.

Although Aristotle (1964) does not specifically articulate the superiority theory,
he does state that comedy serves to educate participants by demonstrating how,
and how not, to act. By conforming to the models presented in a text, and by
releasing emotions through the process of catharsis, individuals who engage with
comedy become more like the ideal citizen: a balanced, rational human being
whose behaviour fits defined moral standards (Aristotle 1964). In general, Greek
comedy of the fourth century B.C.E. focuses on the fallibility of individuals in
the lower socioeconomic strata. The targets of this comedy are usually people

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who are inept or uneducated rather than villainous. In this sense, Greek comedy
supports the social hierarchy of the time by depicting the superiority of the upper
classes. The comic drama of the Roman Empire also focuses on the adventures
of servants and others without privileges. In Roman comedy, however, slaves
often outwit their masters. Plays like Plautus (1971) Pseudolus and The
Menaechmus Twins show that intelligence is more important than birthright.
This emphasis on innate talent represents a shift away from the character types
of Greek comedy (Cohen 1997). In Roman comedy, laughter emerges from a
sense of superiority, but this perspective is based more upon the qualities of the
individual rather than his/her place in society.

Hobbes (1997) is credited with setting forth the superiority theory of humour
more than three centuries ago in Leviathan. Since then, contemporary humour
studies researchers, including Davies (1982) and Dundes (1987), have developed
the theory further and applied it to a range of projects. Currently, the superiority
theory attracts less analytical attention than either of the other two main theories
of humour: catharsis and incongruity (Palmer 1994). In this chapter, I attempt to
demonstrate that the superiority theory, although seemingly less complex than
the other two theories, offers insight into the phenomenon of black humour.

In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that the perception of humour, including the


response of laughter, occurs when individuals have an apprehension of some
deformed thing in another [and] by comparison thereof they suddenly applaud
themselves (1997: 52). Hobbes suggests that participants are motivated by selfinterest in creating and appreciating humour. Ultimately, participants seek to
inflate their views of themselves and their social groups. Hobbes elaborates by
saying that people who are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves [are]
forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the imperfections of
[others] (ibid.). Thus, the superiority theory proposes that comedy allows
participants to take precedence over the individuals, entities or elements targeted
by the text. Because comedy often reveals peoples flaws, participants may
perceive themselves to be better human beings those depicted in the text.

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Hobbes version of the superiority theory suggests that a feeling of dominance is


desirable; it serves the opinions and objectives of the participants. On the whole,
Hobbes perspective on humour paints a picture of human beings as malicious
and exclusionary (Nelson 1990).

Baudelaire also advocates the superiority theory of humour, saying that laughter
is born of [humanitys] conception of [its] own superiority (1956: 117). He
believes that the perception of humour involves selfish attitudes toward other
human beings. By laughing at someone who has slipped on the footpath,
Baudelaire notes, people demonstrate a lack of concern for that persons welfare.
Even though they know the fallen individual may be injured, laughter burst[s]
forth from the spectator, sudden and irresistible (1956: 116). Baudelaire reasons
that in the mental attitude of the one who laughs, [there is] a certain
unconscious sense of pride (ibid.). It seems to be part of human nature to
document superiority over individuals who seem less capable.20 The superiority
theory holds that people purposefully erect and maintain a gap between
themselves and others because they enjoy the sense of security this disparity
provides. Furthermore, people may engage with comedy to reinforce this
division and create a clear, enduring hierarchy.

Although

Hobbes

and

Baudelaires

theoretical

observations

predate

contemporary notions of black comedy, the superiority theory is a cogent


concept in understanding this unique style of writing. The following section
gives further consideration to the relationship between superiority theory and
black humour through the analysis of scenes from contemporary black comic
texts.

Dislocations and the Distancing of Superiority

In this section I suggest that participants use black comedy to assert their ability
to survive. Participants laugh at less fortunate individuals who succumb to death.
They also joke about death in order to minimise the power that their mortality

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wields. In applying the superiority theory to black comedy, I purport that


participants yearn to feel like healthy, capable, clever human beings who are less
susceptible to loss than other individuals. I suggest that, through the experience
of black humour, participants remove or distance themselves from those who are
dying or deceased; people prefer the illusion that they will not endure the same
fate. For this reason, I apply the metaphor of dislocations to this function of
black humour. I argue that participants seek to increase the sense of space
between themselves and the spectre of death.

As discussed previously, one way in which people distance themselves from loss
is to make death seem specific and contingent (Bauman 1992). Although people
recognise the inevitability of death, many believe that they can play a role in the
timing and nature of that event. Because black comedy often involves mistakes
and ineptitude in relation to the physical body, participants are able to identify
the precise, and sometimes preventable, causes of death. In this sense, black
comedy is defensive; it reinforces participants perceptions of self-determination
and exorcises their general fear of mortality. Some examples of black comedy,
such as those discussed below, draw heavily upon a sense of superiority. In these
texts, participants are likely to feel more capable and cogent than the characters;
some participants may relish that sensation. Overall, the superiority theory of
humour points to an unflattering human motivation for the creation and
appreciation of black comedy.

The following scene from Alan Ayckbourn's (1982) Seasons Greetings


illustrates the superiority theory in relation to black comedy. This play is set in a
crowded family home on Christmas Eve, where various members of an extended
family have gathered for the holidays. Yet the family gathering lacks the
expected festivity and emotional warmth of the festive season. Bernard, an inept
medical doctor, admits that he is haunted by a series of personal and professional
disappointments. His sister Belinda reveals the unhappiness in her marriage.
Their Uncle Harvey, retired from the military, is recalcitrant and anti-social.
Convinced that burglars will try to steal the Christmas gifts, Harvey decides to sit

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in a chair near the front door on Christmas Eve, holding a gun. Eventually, he
falls asleep in this position. On Christmas morning, a young family friend called
Clive decides to leave the home due to embarrassment over his improprieties the
previous evening. Noticing a thick layer of snow just outside the window, Clive
dons a woolly balaclava and gloves. As he opens the front door to depart, Harvey
awakens and suddenly shoots Clive. The whole family rushes downstairs.
Bernard, citing his medical training, takes control of the situation.

BELINDA:
Is he alive, Bernard, that's what we want to know. Is he alive?
BERNARD:
Please would you stand back? Well clear. Thank you.
He examines Clive.
NEVILLE:
I'd better phone [the ambulance] anyway. Oh God, what's the
number?
RACHEL:
Well?
BERNARD:
I'm afraid this man is dead.
NEVILLE:
Oh dear heaven...
BERNARD:
I'm sorry.
He moves away. There is silence, then a moan from Clive.
NEVILLE:
No hes not [dead], hes still alive...
BERNARD:
Dear God, what a failure. I can't even get that right.
(Ayckbourn, 1982, scene 7)
In this scene, Clive's unexpected but welcome outcry allows participants to
release tension over what appeared to be a terrible situation. Yet the characters

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do not laugh at this time; they are still shocked and concerned about Clives
possible injuries. Bernards propensity for misdiagnosis explains the otherwise
implausible scenario of a dead man coming back to life.

While Seasons Greetings shows the ineptitude of a character assessing death,


Out of Sight (1998) depicts a character whose incompetence causes his own
demise. In this screenplay, an overweight hit man is secretly ensconced in a
mansion, awaiting the arrival of his victim. He decides he is hungry and wanders
into the victims kitchen, where he loads up on cold fried chicken and other
snacks. He then attempts to carry the food (and his loaded gun) back to his
hiding place. The chicken grease drips onto the stairs below him and he
stumbles; the gun goes off in his face and kills him instantly. The black comedy
in this moment relates to the incongruity theory of humour because the hit mans
stupidity is surprising. Like Vince in Pulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994), the hit
mans behaviour does not fit with expectations of an efficient, professional
killer. Yet the scene is also funny because participants feel superior to the hit
man; they sense that he could have avoided death had he not been awkward and
esurient. In addition, participants have no background on the deceased and no
opportunity to develop sympathy for him. Thus the death has less impact on
participants and therefore becomes comic rather than tragic (Nelson 1990).
Many deaths in the contemporary media are like this scene from Out of Sight.
The deaths are depicted either in the news or in entertainment with no history
and no follow up; they are isolated incidents to which participants may safely
remain indifferent (Bauman, 1992: 30).

This point relates to the Darwin Awards, discussed in Chapter 2. The superiority
theory of humour implies that people laugh at the winners of these awards
because they cannot imagine killing themselves accidentally in such obtuse and
abasing ways. There is a sense of cruelty to the Darwin Awards; every death is
accompanied by a conceptual accusation, as though the victim is on trial for
imbecility after his/her demise. In order to perceive this as black humour,
participants have to suspend their concern for the families and friends of the

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winners. Too much contemplation of the consequences of death serves to


undermine the comic effect. The Darwin Awards seem funny when the deceased
are nameless, faceless people whose unfortunate actions do not affect anyone but
themselves.

Nicky Silvers Raised in Captivity also involves a freak accidental death. In this
play, a young man called Sebastian returns home for the funeral of his mother.
Standing alone in a cemetery, he muses about the cause of his mothers passing.

On Tuesday, my mother was taking a shower, when the


showerhead, which was obviously loose to begin with, flew away
from the wall and, propelled by water pressure, hit her in the head
and killed her. Odd, as I knew her to be a person who primarily
took baths.
(Silver, 1995: 7)
In engaging with this text, participants may see this deadly incident as highly
unusual and therefore unlikely to affect them. Participants perceive themselves
to be relatively insulated from bizarre events of this nature. By categorising this
as an unlikely twist of fate, participants may distance themselves from the
deceased.

A sense of superiority over death and corpses is also central to Bea Christian's
play Fred (2000) in which a young woman called Pam finds a dead man in her
back yard. The man is carrying no identification and is not missed by friends or
family members in the ensuing weeks. During the process of identifying the
body, Pam names the corpse Fred. This act signifies her refusal to
depersonalise the corpse. Instead, she endows the deceased man with qualities of
the living. He looks so lonely, so sadHe has kind eyes and [a] puzzled little
frown (Christian, 1998: 13). Conversely, Pams sister Monica dislocates herself
from the body. Monica visually dissects and critiques his physique and refuses to
call him by the name Fred.

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PAM:
I think hes really handsome.
MONICA:
Well
PAM:
He is.
MONICA:
Yeah, but hes really short.
PAM:
ish.
MONICA:
Not ish He gets his nails manicuredTiny, ickle hands
(ibid.)
The other characters, including a police investigator and a doctor, perceive the
corpse as an object rather than a sacred entity. When they make degrading
comments about the deceased man, Pam insists that he was one of us
(Christian, 1998: 3). The other characters feel protected from loss by their youth,
health and success. Yet Pam reminds the other characters that death could just as
easily strike them at any time.

The police autopsy involves dividing the corpse into dozens of tiny parts. In this
manner, the body is destroyed twice: once by death and once after death. Since
no one comes forward to identify the man, the little bags of body parts are placed
in a coffin. Pam insists that her friends gather together to farewell Fred. These
characters debate whether a segmented corpse is a genuine representation of a
deceased individual.

BARRY:
I like the bags, somehow I feel closer to him than ever before.
MONICA:
Thats if hes in the bags

186

DR:
Of course he is; theyre meticulously labeled.
ANT:
Are you sure this is hygienic?...
MONICA:
Its probably someones laundry.
PAM:
He is so in the bags. He is. I looked.
DR:
You opened the bags of Fred?
ROD:
Oh for heavens sake what next.
PAM:
I had to, I had to see.
(Christian, 1998: 75-6)
Unlike the other characters in this scene, Pam refuses to feel superior to the dead
man because he was murdered and abandoned. Pams attempts to give the man
an identity are touching, yet comic in their futility.

This scene also illustrates how Pams friends use black comedy to define their
social group. They create the sense that they are witty, urbane and untouchable;
they do not allow themselves to become connected to Fred. As a result, Pam is
excluded and must quietly contemplate the meaning of this loss. She eventually
acknowledges that death can be untimely and anonymous. Yet Pams dedication
to Fred seems to reconstruct his death into a loss that is meaningfully mourned
by a stranger.

Comedy frequently raises issues that define social groups: attitudes towards
relationships, families, education, money, religion, food, alcohol/drugs, clothing,
bodily functions and sex. The comedy of a particular group addresses the
features of [that] value system (Palmer, 1994: 62). Davies (1982, 1998)
research looks specifically at how participants use comedy to define themselves

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and the boundaries of their social groups.21 He believes that comic material
about a particular social group reveals a collective awareness of the
characteristics valued by that group. Drawing on Bergsons (1956) ideas about
the social censure associated with comedy, Davies shows how ridicule helps to
maintain group identity. He argues that members of a social group use comedy
to define their interests and to create a sense of superiority over other individuals
and groups. By mocking peripheral and ambiguous groups, [participants]
reduce ambiguity and clarify boundaries or at least make ambiguity appear less
frightening (Davies, 1982: 400). In this manner, comedy serves to reinforce the
beliefs, practices and institutions of the group that generates the material.

According to Davies (1982, 1998), comic material contains similar themes,


purposes and effects across a wide range of social groups, despite variations in
detail and expression. The qualities that preoccupy people in different parts of the
world include issues of prosperity and generosity, ability and intelligence, family
dedication and community involvement. Davies notes that social groups in close
proximity often insult one another, basing their comic material on one of more of
the above areas of contention. In some cases, one group is targeted by several
different groups. This relates to Palmers (1994) contention that comedy serves
as a check on aberrant behaviour. Comedy operates at points of great sensitivity
in the collective consciousness of modern society (Palmer, 1994: 62). Similarly,
Davies notes that jokes police social boundaries (1982: 384). By pointing out
problems in the attitudes and actions of outsiders, comedy identifies desirable
qualities and also contributes to negative stereotypes. Davies (1998) argues,
however, that prejudices are more of a by-product of comedy than the reason for
its creation and presentation.

As discussed above, a sense of superiority originates in a participants belief that


his/she is more insightful and capable than another individual. In applying the
superiority theory to black comic texts, I contend that participants enjoy feeling
better than characters who mishandle death-related situations, or who cause their
own demise. In The Big Lebowski (Coen and Coen 1998), two middle-aged men

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called Walter and Dude face the unexpected death of their close friend Donny.
The three mates, who have spent many years avoiding work and bowling
together, become unwittingly embroiled in a criminal scheme. Their
misadventures lead them to be ambushed in a car park by four angry nihilists.
Walter dispenses with the attackers, but the shock of watching hand-to-hand
combat gives Donny a fatal heart attack. Since Donny has no immediate family,
Walter and Dude must handle the funeral arrangements. They arrange a simple
cremation, then visit the mortuary to collect the ashes. In the austere office of the
funeral director, Walter and Dude negotiate the cost of services.

FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
I assume this will be credit card?
WALTER:
Clears his throat upon seeing the price. Points at one item on
the bill. What's this?
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
That's for the urn.
WALTER:
Don't need it. We're scattering the ashes.
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
Yes, so we were informed. However, we must transmit the
remains to you in a receptacle.
WALTER:
This is 180 dollars.
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
It is our most modestly-priced receptacle.
WALTER:
180?
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
They range up to 3000 dollars.
DUDE:
Can we rent it from you?

189

FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
Sir, this is a mortuary, not a rental house.
WALTER:
Look, just because we're bereaved doesn't make us saps!
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
Sirs, please lower your voices.
DUDE:
Don't you have something else that we can put him in?
FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
That is our most modestly-priced receptacle.
WALTER:
Shouting. God dammit! Realising he is in a mortuary and
speaking more quietly. Is there a Ralphs [grocery store]
around here?
(Coen and Coen 1998)
In the next scene, Walter is in a car park holding a large coffee tin full of ashes.
His method of capturing Donny's remains from the avaricious funeral director is
not depicted, but Walter and Dude clearly operate at the periphery of mainstream
society. They do not have jobs and their only focus in life is bowling; they tend
to fail at almost everything except their pastime. In this manner, the scene
pinpoints the parameters of acceptability. In comparison to Dude and Walter,
participants may perceive themselves to be more enlightened, resourceful and
respectful than these characters. The participants sense of superiority may cause
them to laugh at the two misfits.22

After securing the ashes in the coffee tin, Walter and Dude travel to the seashore
in Southern California. There, Walter delivers a eulogy while Dude looks on in
silence.

Donny was a good bowler and a good man. He was one of us. He
was a man who enjoyed the outdoors and bowling... And so,
Theodora Donald Karobotsas, in accordance with what we think
your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final

190

remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so


well. Goodnight, sweet prince.
(Coen and Coen 1998)
Walter is unable to ascribe any meaning to Donnys life other than his good
bowling scores. He makes inappropriate comparisons and combines clich with
genuine feeling. In this way, Walter seems to parody a proper eulogy. Even
though the content and style of the speech are consistent with Walter's
behaviour, the words do not match general social expectations about what a
eulogy should entail. Thus, participants may feel more intelligent and eloquent
than Walter and may therefore experience black humour through this scene.

Following the eulogy, Walter attempts to scatter the ashes. A strong coastal wind
carries them backwards onto Dude. Covered from top to toe in remains, Dude
stares at Walter.

WALTER:
Oh shit. Dude, I'm sorry. God damn wind.
He tries to brush the ashes off Dude.
DUDE:
Dammit Walter, everything's a fuckin' travesty with you, man.
WALTER:
I'm sorry.
DUDE:
What was that shit [you said]?
WALTER:
Dude, I'm sorry.
They hug.
... Let's go bowling.
(Coen and Coen 1998)
Throughout The Big Lebowski, Walter and Dude seem feckless, almost
ridiculous. They cannot pull off a simple memorial service without a colossal
gaffe. Yet Walter and Dude do not intend to be disrespectful to the deceased;

191

they are simply caught in unfamiliar and difficult situations. Thus, participants
may distance themselves from the characters without feeling disdain for them.
Walter and Dude seem outlandish, inappropriate and pitiable, yet also
sympathetic. This multifaceted relationship between participants and characters
suggests that black comedy often involves more than a sense of superiority.
Participants may feel better than the characters, but may also understand and
respond to the text in other ways. Thus, I believe that each of the three theories of
humour resonates strongly with black comedy. (This point is discussed in the
following chapter.)

As in The Big Lebowski, the characters in Last Orders (2001) are likable but
fairly incapable when asked to memorialise a departed friend. In this film, three
old men from South London drive to Margate Pier to scatter the ashes of their
lifelong friend, Jack. After driving and reminiscing for hours, Ray, Vic and
Lenny arrive at the pier and climb out of the car with the box of remains. In their
nervousness and inebriation, they fail to notice the strong sea breezes. The ashes
are blown backwards onto them, sticking to their clothes, skin and hair. Despite
their best intentions, these characters like the bowling buddies in The Big
Lebowski and the sisters in Radiance make a mess of their loved ones final
request. Participants may feel superior to the characters in Last Orders because
the old mens haphazard attempts at reverence seem inadequate. This perception
of superiority contributes to a dislocation, or divide, between the participants and
the characters. Yet in the moments after the ashes are dispersed, the men realise
their mistake and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. In this part of the scene,
participants may feel a sense of relief, in parallel with the characters, as both
groups recognise the black humour.

The superiority theory of humour is also relevant to the analysis of other black
comic texts discussed in this thesis. The sisters in Crimes of the Heart and
Radiance, with the exception of Cressy, are amusing partly because they are
nave. In Pulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994), Vince is funny because his dim wit gets
him into continuous trouble. Eva in Absurd Person Singular (Ayckbourn 1975)

192

and Lane in Better Off Dead (1985) are too inept to take their own lives.
Participants may see themselves as more skilled and less vulnerable than these
characters; participants may therefore feel empowered to laugh at the
misfortunes of others. The texts discussed in this section illustrate that black
comedy is variable and complex; it does not operate in a single dimension. In
relation to this phenomenon, the three theories of humour may be best
understood in concert rather than in isolation.

Healing and Disrupting: A Conclusion on the Functions of Black Humour

Both the catharsis and superiority theories of humour help explain how
characters in a text, as well as participants who engage with that text, use black
comedy as a technique for coping with death. These two theories also reveal the
ways in which the experience of black humour moulds, enhances and disrupts
peoples relationships.

The catharsis theory helps articulate how black humour reduces emotional
tension, both for participants and characters. Although the site of the cathartic
experience is an issue for interpretation, it seems that participants and characters
may experience black humour either separately or simultaneously. In this sense,
the participants responses to black comedy are not yoked to the responses of the
characters. This point is also relevant to the issue of emotional identification in
catharsis. When engaging with a black comic text, participants may recruit
emotions that are very similar to those depicted by the characters. However,
participants may also bring a range of experiences, ideas and emotions to the
text. These personal and social histories enable participants to connect to the
characters through emotions that are analogous, but not necessarily identical, to
those enacted in the text.

The superiority theory reveals how black humour heightens participants selfregard by critiquing the behaviour of others. The sense of superiority that black
comedy produces may make participants feel impervious to death. As noted

193

previously, black comedy tends to make death seem specific and contingent
because the deceased are presented as stupid or unsophisticated. Another aspect
of the superiority theory emerges in how characters use black comedy to mock
death itself. For participants, this function of black humour is less about feeling
better than other individuals and more about feeling superior to fate, God or
some other representation of the cosmos. Through black humour, both characters
and participants assert their courage in the face of mortality.

To summarise, the catharsis theory, which I discuss through the metaphors of


contusion and rupture, helps explain how the experience of black humour
releases peoples emotions surrounding loss. The superiority theory, which I
consider through the metaphor of dislocation, identifies the gaps and disparities
between participants and characters in black comedy. The catharsis theory
suggests a more healing or bonding quality; the process of catharsis seems to
bring participants to a state of equilibrium. Yet the superiority theory suggests a
more divisive quality; it maintains a sense of separation between participants and
other individuals. The complimentary and contradictory aspects of these theories
indicate that there is no one specific process or singular effect that defines the
experience of black humour. Overall, I contend that black humour is an active
encounter: a way of influencing mood and perspective, reducing stress and
shaping perceptions of the self and others.

Each of the three key theories of humour incongruity, catharsis or superiority


makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how comedy is
structured and how it functions in peoples lives. Yet when considered in
isolation, none of the theories provides a sufficient explanation of the
complexity, flexibility and variety in black humour. In the next and final chapter
of this thesis, I offer a brief discussion of how the three theories interrelate. I also
consider different physical metaphors for black humour and how these
perspectives illustrate the phenomenon. Lastly, I consider how participants use
black comedy to articulate their beliefs and emotions surrounding death.

194

Chapter 4 Endnotes
1

Radcliffe-Browns (1965) work demonstrates that individuals within these particular social
groups form special connections called joking relationships; this refers to a time-limited but
intense social familiarity. These joking relationships permit unusual communication including
but not limited to bold personal statements, bodily functions and sexualised physical actions as
part of accepted cultural practice.
2
The breadth and complexity of the debate on functionalism, and the field of social theory more
generally, is beyond the scope of this thesis. This brief discussion is intended to highlight the
influence of the functionalist school of thought without distracting from the main issues in this
chapter.
3
Berger, Coulehan and Belling (2004) do not attempt to measure health outcomes in a
quantitative manner, but instead provide qualitative descriptions and guidelines for the types of
humour that emerge from interactions between health care providers and patients. The
researchers emphasise that comic material created within a medical setting should focus on
connecting with, rather than avoiding, issues that are difficult for the patient.
4
Humour studies research on the catharsis theory is so extensive that it is not possible to canvass
that body of work thoroughly in this chapter. As noted, my focus is the functions of black
humour.
5
Although the dramatists of Ancient Greece transcribed their texts, Aristotle and his
contemporaries received drama almost entirely through stage performance. As discussed in
Chapter 1 (see especially references to Susan Bennett) contemporary scholars use the notion of
text to refer to written works as well as performances of written or unwritten works.
Participants read written texts as well as live and recorded texts. In this thesis, I analyse written
texts intended for performance. I recognise that there are important differences between the
written and performed works, yet I assume that both offer an opportunity for significant
emotional connections. The differences between these experiences are not the focus of this
thesis.
6
Although some scholars (Ford 1995) express caution about interpreting Aristotles ideas about
comedy and catharsis given only a short segment of writing, other scholars argue that the
fragments in the Tractatus Coislinianus are entirely compatible with the Poetics and therefore
offer a convincing version of Aristotles views (Cooper 1922, Janko 1987).
7
Aristotles view that comedy and tragedy have a clear purpose directly refutes Platos belief
that drama is unrealistic and non-rational (Janko 1987). Plato believes that drama appeals to the
expressive, instinctual elements of human experience instead of the intellectual aspects, which he
values highly.
8
Jankos translation utilises brackets to indicate potential replacements for words missing from
the treatise.
9
I use Freuds notion of psychic economy in a metaphorical, psychological sense as opposed to
a literal, physiological sense. In this thesis, I do not enter the debate about how, or whether, to
measure physical changes that may occur during laughter. Instead, I conceive of catharsis theory
as an influential and useful perspective in understanding black humour.
10
In this regard, Koestlers (1975) version of the incongruity theory, as discussed in the previous
chapter, is indebted to Freuds catharsis theory. Both concepts centre on the notion of the
conservation of mental energy through the experience of humour.
11
Freuds theoretical emphasis on repression was clearly shaped by the social structures of
Austrian society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The strict proprieties of the
Victorian era convinced Freud that the enjoyment of comedy originates in its capacity to evade
social rules. [Jokes] draw pleasure from a source which [an] obstacle has made inaccessible
(1960: 144). Freud believes that the relative force of the obstacle, or repression, is equal to the
amount of energy released upon the removal of this obstacle. Thus, the more controversial the
subject matter in a joke, the more exhilarating and hilarious it is.
12
It is anachronistic to seek the notion of the unconscious in Aristotles work because the
Ancient Greeks did not conceive of the human mind in this way. Aristotle describes a more
straightforward relationship between participants and their perceptions of the characters and
situations in a text.

195

13

A variation on this second type of comic moment occurs when the characters enjoy black
humour within the reality of the text, but participants do not find the situation funny. This creates
a bifurcation between participants and characters. In this type of scene, catharsis seems to occur
for the characters, but not the participants. I do not analyse this type of scene in this thesis
because the situation may stem from issues of performance rather than from qualities within the
style and structure of the text. As noted, the discussion of issues associated with the production
or performance of comic texts is beyond the scope of this thesis.
14
Both the incongruity and catharsis theories of humour apply to this scene from Radiance
(Nowra 1993). The subject matter contradicts social expectations about funerals, which may lead
to the perception of black humour. This humour then may help to release the characters and
participants stress. (As noted, the following chapter looks at areas of overlap between the three
main theories of humour.)
15
Freuds (1973) notion of the death instinct is relevant to the interpretation of black comedy
about attempted suicide. Freud argues that the death instinct is present in every vital process
and is characterised by an organisms desire to reestablish the inorganic [non-living] state
(1973: 140). Freud does not claim that death is the entire focus of life, only that the inevitability
of death informs and shapes human existence. He believes our awareness of death is inextricable
from our connection to life. Freud describes the death instinct as a kind of aggressiveness that
has been internalized (1973: 142). By this, Freud implies that individuals have a powerful
predisposition to enact their frustrations upon themselves. He argues that self-destructive
behaviour reveals an unconscious sense of guilt about continued survival (ibid). Although
individuals may recognise their own unhappiness and therefore contemplate suicide, they do not
necessarily realise the motivations behind their self-destructive thoughts. Freuds theory of the
death instinct, although it sheds light on the possible functions of black humour, is not as
influential as the catharsis theory.
16
The plays title seems to refer to Vivians area of expertise: the poetry of John Donne and his
acuity in working with the most confounding of human questions. In addition, the word wit
reflects Vivians need to keep mentally sharp while undergoing humiliating, excruciating cancer
treatments. Finally, the title highlights Vivians dark sense of humour, which she believes
mirrors Donnes comic tone in his sonnets. This humour leads Vivian to a sense of acceptance
regarding her death.
17
In 1999, the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney produced W;t with the actress Sandy Gore as Vivian.
In my informal interview with Ms. Gore (18 May 2000), she told me that a significant number of
terminally ill cancer patients and their families attended the production. Several of these
individuals spoke with her afterwards about what the play meant to them, and their loved ones, as
they attempted to cope with their illness and/or grief.
18
The notion of an analogous emotional connection is also relevant to Peter Nichols play A Day
in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) about a couple trying to cope with their severely disabled child.
The play is mentioned here because it was quite influential at the time of its premiere and
publication in 1967 (Hiley 1978). (The end of the 1960s coincides with the beginning of the time
period considered in this thesis.) The play is not discussed in detail in the thesis because it does
not involve a dead or dying individual, although it does involve attempted murder. In this play, a
school teacher called Brian and his wife Sheila develop peculiar patterns of behaviour that help
them cope with the strain of their daughter Joes disabilities: they create and perform comedy
routines, which are like old vaudeville stage shows. These private scripts focus upon Joes
delayed development and inadequate medical care. Brian and Sheila take on the voices of
numerous doctors and social workers who have interacted with Joe over the years. The parents
also create a fictional life for Joe outside her crippled existence. They write dialogue for her,
pretending that she is adventurous, rebellious and studious. The title of the play carries a double
meaning: it represents both the symbolic normal day that Joe will never enjoy, as well as the
actual day on which the play occurs. The setting of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg regional
England in the mid 1960s implies that Brian and Sheila may not have had an opportunity to
articulate their emotions over Joes condition. The constraints of English middle-class culture
force the couple to devise their own strategies for coping in the absence of close friends,
relatives, neighbours or counsellors to assist them. Following the performance of one of these
sketches, Sheila directly addresses participants: I join in these jokes to please him. If it helps

196

him live with her I cant see the harm, can you? (Nichols, 1967: 44). In this moment, Sheila
reveals that Brian needs the emotional catharsis that these repetitive performances provide. Later
in the play, Brian tries to euthanise his daughter through an overdose of medicine. To hide his
actions from Sheila, Brian carries Joe throughout the house, hiding her in different rooms, then
moving her again. The scene becomes a shocking black farce, with doors opening and slamming,
as well as characters disappearing, re-emerging and yelling at each other. Joe comes close to
death, but is revived following a trip to hospital. A few hours later, Brian claims to be going out
momentarily, but he deserts his wife and child. The final scene suggests that, for Brian, the
process of catharsis through black humour is an insufficient coping strategy. The comic material
he creates serves to manifest and dissipate his stress to a certain extent, but the final scene reveals
that catharsis through black humour is not a panacea. It is relevant to note that Peter Nichols
created this play in response to the personal experience of raising a disabled child. Nichols says
the writing process went very quickly because the subject matter was so powerful (Hiley,
1978: 15).
19
See endnote 9 for clarification of my perspective on the notion of catharsis.
20
Baudelaire also links laughter to the notion of sin. He believes that the sense of infinite
grandeur that humour provides is yoked with the infinite wretchedness of human beings in
comparison to God (1956: 117).
21
Davies primary research interest is jokes rather than texts for performance. Although he does
not write specifically about black comedy, his findings are applicable to various types of
material. Due to the specific focus of this thesis, as well as the breadth and volume of Davies
research, his work cannot be fully detailed here.
22
Most examples of black comedy may be analysed using more than one of the three key
theories of humour. In this scene from The Big Lebowski, black humour stems not only from
superiority but also from incongruity. The supposed sanctity of the mortuary is juxtaposed
against Walters blasphemy, while the funeral director's ornate urn sits in contrast to the plain red
coffee tin. In addition, the black humour in this scene may be partially explained by the catharsis
theory. Participants may generate emotional tension in the scene involving Donnys death, then
may release these feelings through the subsequent scenes with Walter and Dude. As noted, the
next and final chapter of this thesis touches upon the interrelationship of the three theories of
humour.

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Chapter 5 Resolutions and Dissonances: Making Meaning from Black


Humour

To recapitulate, the first two chapters of this thesis investigate ideas about black comedy
and black humour, as well as contemporary attitudes towards, and depictions of, death. In
these chapters, I consider the questions: What is black humour? Why is it popular and
resonant at this time? In Chapter 1, I provide an overview of the development of the
form of expression known as black comedy. I differentiate between the terms black
comedy and black humour in order to focus my analysis. I identify black comedy as
the written, visual or auditory texts that deal with death in a potentially amusing manner.
I reserve black humour for the experience of perceiving and appreciating these texts.1
This distinction helps pinpoint the difference between structural and functional issues in
my analysis.

In Chapter 2, my key point is that black humour is a complex cognitive and emotional
experience that is shaped by, and in turn influences, contemporary attitudes and practices
associated with death. I argue that there is a powerful juxtaposition in late twentieth and
early twenty-first century Western societies between the unspoken absence and overt
presence of death. In many ways, the end of human life is private, sequestered and
secularised. Yet at the broader social level, it is also communal, publicised and
mediatised. I believe this set of circumstances fosters the creation and proliferation of
black comedy as a unique, intricate and controversial form of expression.

These first two chapters of the thesis set the stage for the analysis to follow. The third and
fourth chapters examine structural and functional issues related to the phenomenon of
black humour. In this work, I apply the three key theories of humour - incongruity,
catharsis and superiority to black humour. Interwoven through these chapters are
analyses of a range of scenes from black comic plays, scripts and screenplays. These
discussions address the questions: How does black humour work? What does it do for
participants? In Chapter 3, I discuss the ways in which information about death is
198

structured within comic texts. I look at different types of incongruity conceptual


collisions, reversals and repetitions that lead to the perception of black humour. In
Chapter 4, I consider how the experience of black humour is shaped by, and in turn
affects, participants attitudes and emotions associated with death. Applying the catharsis
theory to black humour, I work with the notion of emotional contusions and ruptures to
understand how the experience of laughing at death disrupts, and sometimes mends,
peoples relationships. (This process may involve the characters and participants
connections with other individuals or with aspects of themselves). Drawing on the
superiority theory, I consider how black humour causes dislocations and enhances a sense
of separation between people.

The central argument from these two chapters is that the incongruities, uncertainties and
anxieties surrounding death generate and configure the experience of black humour.
These conflicts around loss spark a process of evaluation for participants a process that
may have a variety of effects. Black humour may create resolution, heighten emotional
pain, release tension, shift perspectives, deepen disconnections, reinforce beliefs or have
little impact at all; it may also merge some of these effects, so that the experience seems
strange and ambiguous, even if it is pleasing. The three theories of humour incongruity,
catharsis and superiority help illuminate the process through which people experience
black humour, although none of the three theories in isolation offers an entirely
satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon.

In this final chapter, I seek to integrate my primary points from previous chapters. The
first section below speaks to the areas of overlap between the three key theories of
humour. To this end, I analyse a black comic scene using all three approaches. In the
section that follows this discussion, I consider the ways in which black comedy may
facilitate resolution and yet create dissonance for participants. The third part of this
chapter reviews the physical metaphors that scholars employ to describe humour and,
more specifically, black humour. Lastly, I discuss how participants seem to use the
experience of black humour to make sense of death. As in the preceding chapters, my
research combines theoretical discussion with the analysis of black comedy texts. I bring

199

together the excerpts in this thesis firstly because they help illustrate my theoretical
argument and secondly because, to my knowledge, there is currently no published
collection of texts of this type.2 I believe these black comic scripts, drawn from theatre,
film and television in the late twentieth century, deserve focused analytical attention.
Finally, my main purpose throughout this thesis is to develop a richer picture of black
humour in the late twentieth century.

Areas of Overlap: Three Theories of Humour in Relation to Black Comedy

Most examples of black comedy may be analysed through either the incongruity,
catharsis or superiority theories of humour. Humour studies scholars often use only one
theory exclusively, or use the theories successively to analyse different texts. Yet these
three theories overlap and therefore seem complementary rather than mutually exclusive.
In this section, I apply each of the three theories to the same black comic text in order to
highlight the interrelatedness of these concepts.

As in many of the texts discussed in previous chapters, there may be more than one
explanation for the bleak hilarity in Mairtin McDonaghs A Skull in Connemara (1999).
The play stimulates powerful questions about death. What rules apply to the handling of a
buried corpse? If faced with the sight of a loved ones skeleton, how would we respond?
How can people cope when they are repeatedly exposed to the macabre? A Skull in
Connemara is disturbing, yet there is also a haunting emotional resonance a kind of
cold truth about the brevity of life which this material exposes.

The following scene offers a dark comic frame through which to view the characters
attitudes towards death. In their conversations about corpses, the characters employ
language and images that are fractious, rebellious and merciless. At the same time, the
excerpt below reveals how the characters use black comedy to cope with the stress of
their charnel work. This scene also allows participants to feel more knowledgeable and
capable than the characters. Given these complex and numerous areas of conceptual and

200

emotional conflict, I apply all three theories of humour to this play and work with the
areas of intersection between the theories.

A Skull in Connemara follows two Irish gravediggers called Mick and Mairtin as they
exhume corpses from an overcrowded church cemetery. (The parish has a process of
rotating burial plots, so that every corpse is dug up after seven years to make room for a
new one.) Mick, the older of the two gravediggers, has been doing this work for years.
Mairtin is on his first day at the job. In the following scene, Mick is particularly tense
because his deceased wifes burial plot is due to be dug up imminently. As the scene
begins, Mick is standing waist-deep inside a dark grave, lifting out loads of dirt with a
shovel. Mairtin is resting against a headstone.

Sound of Micks shovel hitting the rotten wood at the bottom of the
grave.
MAIRTIN:
Are you through to him?
MICK:
Pass me the sack down.
Mairtin jumps up from where he is and looks down into the grave.
Sound of Mick jimmying rotten wood apart with his shovel
Mairtin moves around a little to get a better view of the corpse.
MAIRTIN:
Ah yi yi, look at that one. Who is he? Glances behind [at the
headstone]. Daniel Faragher. Never heard of him.
MICK:
I knew him to say hello to.
MAIRTIN:
Would you recognise him? (Mick looks at Mairtin as if hes
stupid.) Not from his bare skull, no, of course. Although he still
has a lock of hair there, now. He looks like a big dolly.
MICK:
A what?

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MAIRTIN:
A big dolly. Like girls do play with.
MICK:
The girls wont be playing with this dolly.
MAIRTIN:
I know that, sure. Im only saying
MICK:
And pass me the sack for the fiftieth time.
Mairtin goes off mumbling behind the headstones.
MAIRTIN:
Ill pass you the fecking sack . . .
[He] returns with a large, dirty cloth sack half-full of the bones
and skulls of two corpses.
MAIRTIN:
Pass your skull to me, Mick. Just to compare, now.
Mick tosses Mairtin the skull with the lock of hair on it, then starts
placing the bones from the grave into the sack, keeping a quiet eye
on Mairtin as he idles around with the skulls, placing them against
his chest like breasts at one point, kissing them together at another.
MAIRTIN:
Sure skulls are great oul things. Its hard to believe you have
one of these on the inside of your head.
MICK:
Its hard to believe you have one of them anyways, and the
brain to go with it Kissing skulls together. Like an oul
schoolgirl.
MAIRTIN:
Pause. When do oul schoolgirls kiss skulls together, sure?
MICK:
Pause. Im just saying, like.

MAIRTIN:

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Oul schoolgirls cant get ahold of skulls at all. He pokes a


finger in the skulls eye sockets. You can stick your fingers
right in their eyes
Mairtin hands the skull back to Mick, who places it in the sack.
Mairtin then quietly crouches down and looks into the grave.
MAIRTIN:
Hey Mick!
MICK:
What?
MAIRTIN:
Where does your thing go?...When you die, I mean. None of
them have had their things at all. And Ive looked.
MICK:
I know well youve looked. And the womens too! I think
thats why you came on this job, to have a good look. You
dont see many living ones.
MAIRTIN:
I see my share.
MICK:
Of willies, now, Mairtin?
MAIRTIN:
Of the other, and you know well!
MICK:
Do you really not know where they go? Have you never been
told?
MAIRTIN:
No.
MICK:
They dont tell you in religious studies?
MAIRTIN:
No. I do skip a lot of religious studies. Its just a lot of stuff
about Jesus.

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MICK:
Thats the reason you dont know, so. Isnt it illegal in the
Catholic faith to bury a body with the willy still attached? Isnt
it a sin in the eyes of the Lord?
MAIRTIN:
Incredulous. No . . .
MICK:
Dont they snip them off in the coffin and sell them to tinkers
as dog food?
MAIRTIN:
Horrified. They do not . . .
MICK:
And during the famine didnt the tinkers stop feeding them to
their dogs at all and start sampling the merchandise
themselves?
MAIRTIN:
They did not now, Mick.
MICK:
You would see them riding along with them, munching ahead.
MAIRTIN:
No . . .
MICK:
Thats the trouble with young people today. They dont know
the first thing about Irish history.
(McDonagh, 1999: 84-86)
By engaging with this scene, participants are likely to perceive a gap between how the
characters should handle the skeletons, and how they do treat these remains. This
juxtaposition between expected and actual behaviour invites participants to make
comparisons and judgments about social mores related to death. According to the
incongruity theory, participants experience humour when they acknowledge, appreciate,
and possibly resolve, apparent incompatibilities within a text. In relation to the scene
above, participants may perceive black humour by comparing their expectations about the
treatment of human remains to Mairtins antics with the skulls. Participants may also

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laugh at the gap between Micks preposterous story and actual church practices. In
considering these juxtapositions between social norms and the characters actions,
participants may form the view that they are superior to Mairtin and Mick (e.g. more
intelligent, successful and judicious, less nave, nescient and impulsive). Thus, inherent in
the comparisons participants make is a set of judgments about abilities of the characters.
While the incongruity theory suggests that participants compare social norms to elements
within a text, the superiority theory implies that participants compare themselves directly
to the characters. In both cases, participants align their idealised expectations with their
perceived realities. Thus, both the incongruity and superiority theories of humour involve
a process of evaluation. Although the focus is slightly different, the two theories may be
seen as complementary. From this perspective, participants who engage with A Skull in
Connemara may understand and appreciate the silly irreverence of Mairtins macabre
mime, while at the same time feel disdain for him.

The process of comparison described above also overlaps with the catharsis theory. As
discussed previously, Freud (1960) distinguishes tendentious comedy from innocent
comedy, as potentially offensive material. He believes that tendentious comedy is created
in order to provoke; it presents ideas, actions or situations that break social rules.
According to Freuds version of the catharsis theory, participants who engage with
tendentious comedy build up emotional tension surrounding the subject matter. This
tension may then be released through laughter and other manifestations of humour. Yet
how do participants determine whether tendentious comic material is funny? This seems
to occur through a process of comparison that is analogous to the process articulated in
the discussion of the incongruity and superiority theories of humour. Participants engage
with a text, then assess whether the information presented matches with social norms and
personal expectations. If not, the material may be perceived as controversial and therefore
potentially funny, offensive, or both. This gap between the ideal and actual may lead
participants to a heightened emotional state, which then dissipates through the experience
of humour. In this respect, all three key theories of humour rely upon a process of
comparison.

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In A Skull in Connemara, Micks explanation of the corpses missing genitals defies


social conventions regarding respect for the human body, the sanctity of religion and the
avoidance of cannibalism. Participants may feel uncomfortable upon hearing Micks
detailed fabrication, but they may release this tension when they realise it is only a tall
tale. This story gives participants an opportunity to laugh at disgraceful material that they
know is untrue. In this sense, all three theories of humour incongruity, catharsis and
superiority require participants to weigh information, to consider alternatives and
perhaps to change their perceptions.

In addition, participants may find that Micks gruesome guile allows them to feel better
about themselves in relation to the foolish Mairtin. Participants may feel assured, and
perhaps less anxious, when they compare their lives to those of the characters. For
example, participants know it is unlikely that they will be confronted with the awful task
of exhumation; they know they are likely to have better ways to make a living. In this
sense, the superiority theory allows for the dissipation of emotional tension, which marks
an area of overlap with the catharsis theory. Participants may enhance their sense of
control, at least in the short term, by feeling superior to people who are facing death or by
releasing anxiety about death or by doing both simultaneously.

However, one of the differences between the three theories is the extent to which each
perspective allows for, or predicts, a sense of resolution. The incongruity theory implies
that black humour may involve the resolution of a conceptual gap between conflicting
elements within a text. According to this perspective, elements that seem impossibly
linked (e.g. the Catholic Churchs policy on removing genitalia from a corpse) may
eventually seem reasonable (i.e. when seen as a ploy to tease the miscreant Mairtin). The
catharsis theory, on the other hand, suggests that participants release tension through
black humour and thereby achieve a kind of emotional equilibrium. In relation to A Skull
in Connemara, Freuds version of catharsis theory suggests that participants may feel
uncomfortable with Micks grotesque story, but may discharge this anxiety by laughing at
how the tale challenges taboos about death and religion. Participants may also relate to
Micks desire to joke his way through a gory evening of work. Both of these

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interpretations of the text point to a process of emotional balancing. In contrast, the


superiority theory implies that black humour does not reduce conflict; it forges a gap
between participants and characters. In the scene above, Mairtins ignorance and
credulity may encourage participants to feel superior to him. The perception of black
humour separates participants from Mairtin rather than enhances their empathy for him.

Although these differences seem to render the theories incompatible, the concepts do not
address the same aspects of the experience of humour. The incongruity theory looks more
at how participants comprehend black humour through the conceptual structures within a
text, whereas the catharsis and superiority theories relate mainly to how participants
process the emotional aspects of black humour. Thus, the three theories are compatible in
certain respects, even though they speak to different factors within the experience of
black humour.

Taken together, the three key theories of humour represent the best conceptual tools
researchers currently have for analysing the phenomenon of humour. More specifically, I
argue that these three theories also enlighten the experience of black humour. Yet the
theories do not necessarily answer the question of whether participants perceive the
experience of black humour as more resolved, close-ended and finite, or more
disintegrated, open-ended and continuous. In the following section, I consider how black
humour may create both these sets of effects.

Resolutions
The notion of resolution is influential in humour studies research (Bergson 1956, Dundes
1987, Koestler 1975, Suls 1983). This concept suggests that the process of getting a joke
involves the comprehension of confusing or challenging information. With black comedy,
this process often involves confronting the physicality of the corpse and making sense of
disparate notions of loss.

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As discussed in Chapter 3, Bergson (1956) theorises that understanding a joke is related


to the formation and replacement of a hypothesis, or hypotheses. He believes that
participants make predictions about a particular situation based on initial information and
preconceptions. When they find that their original hypothesis does not fit the situation,
participants adjust their perspective on the situation presented in the comic text. In
Bergsons view, humour involves various kinds of conceptual resolution. Along similar
lines, Koestler (1975) contends that humour involves more than the awareness of a
contradiction between elements; humour is also reliant upon meaningful resolution that
shapes a comic text into a unique, coherent entity. This resolution seems both
unexpected and perfectly logical but of a logic not usually applied to [that particular]
situation (1975: 35). The resolution unites elements within a comic text, yet maintains
certain aspects of the original contradiction between the elements. In other words, a
conceptual resolution does not completely transform the elements, but synthesises them in
a way that is both natural and surprising. Koestler describes resolution as a single point
of culmination between two separate conceptual planes (37).3 He suggests that
participants find this resolution interesting and pleasurable.

A scene from David Williamsons (1980) play Travelling North illustrates the concept of
resolution in black comedy. In this moment, an elderly orchestral conductor called Frank
dies from a heart attack while sitting in his favourite chair. Half an hour later, as his
family and friends gather around to discuss the funeral arrangements, Franks chair shifts
and his feet suddenly move. His friend Saul and wife Frances are shocked. The characters
then realise that the chairs footrest has slipped down. They burst into laughter. Saul
identifies the mistake and also honours Frank by saying: My God. I thought for a second
that the old boy had come back. Much as I loved him, I couldnt have taken another three
years (Williamson, 1980: 88).

In this scene, the apparent movement of Franks body is incompatible with his death.
When the characters and participants learn that the chairs faulty footrest was to blame,
they comprehend that both scenarios can logically co-exist. In addition, those who loved
Frank acknowledge that it is possible to grieve his death, while at the same time feel

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slightly relieved that the old curmudgeon is gone. As noted previously, Koestler describes
this moment of insight as bisociation, meaning that two conflicting notions fuse
together, while retaining aspects of their original meaning (1975: 35).

Suls (1983) also emphasises resolution in his description of humour perception. He


describes incongruity as a discrepancy between two mental representations (1983: 41).
Like other scholars, Suls suggests that the process of resolving incongruity requires
participants to navigate a conceptual gap between conflicting elements. The closure of
this gap is a form of cognitive resolution. Similarly, Palmer (1994) says that comedy
creates the impression that a situation is simultaneously highly implausible and a little
bit plausible (1994: 96).

In the American television series Monk (2002-2006), a police detective called Adrian
Monk suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This condition irritates his colleagues
immensely but contributes to his forensic insights because Monk has an incredible ability
to recall minute details. Despite his previous dismissal from the police force for
psychiatric reasons, Monk is brought back as a consultant to solve murder cases.

In one episode, Monk attends the funeral of political candidates bodyguard who was
killed in the line of duty. The case is less than straightforward, so Monk slips into the
church balcony in order to observe the funeral guests. In leaning forward for a better
view, he drops his house keys and they fall into the open coffin of the bodyguard. Since
Monk is deeply attached to the key ring it was a gift from his late wife he is desperate
to retrieve the keys before the coffin is sealed at the end of the service. He hesitates to
interrupt the funeral because the politician, the media and hundreds of bereaved guests are
in attendance. So, the obsessively clean Monk opens a container of dental floss that he
carries at all times. He unravels several meters of it, attaches a bent paper clip and lowers
it from the balcony towards the open coffin. When he believes he has captured the keys,
he gives the line a strong tug. Instead of grabbing the keys, however, Monk hooks the
dead mans sleeve and jerks his entire arm up out of the coffin into full view. For a

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moment, it looks as though the dead man is waving. The guests are understandably
shocked; the funeral crumbles into disarray.

The explanation for this bizarre incident is similar to the scene from Travelling North: a
deceased persons body is moved by an external force. As in the previous scene with a
moving corpse, the comic moment in Monk requires resolution; two seemingly
incompatible concepts a dead man seems alive again are reduced to one reasonable
explanation. This scene also has the potential to precipitate catharsis. Participants may
have accumulated emotional tension surrounding the death of the bodyguard and may feel
relief and pleasure at the dissipation of these feelings through laughter. In addition, the
scene may generate a sense of superiority. Participants may feel themselves to be more
insightful and less gullible than the characters who assumed the dead man was waving.
Participants may therefore enjoy the characters mistakes and bask in the heightened selfregard this perspective provides. Thus, all three theories of humour incongruity,
catharsis and superiority shed light on this scene from Monk.

Thus, a conceptual resolution seems to contribute to the perception of black humour, but
it is not the sole process shaping that experience. Because resolution involves the
evaluation of various elements within the comic text, the connections participants make
may dissolve and reform. An incongruous situation may appear to be resolved, yet may be
disrupted again by a subsequent interpretation. Palmer suggests that cognitive resolution
does not entirely eliminate incongruity. Instead, he contends, the perception of humour
involves a bifurcated logical process through which participants are aware of both the
inconsistencies and the connections between juxtaposed elements (1994: 96). Thus, the
sense of resolution involved in black humour seems somewhat tenuous and unstable. This
point leads into the next section on dissonances, which looks at how black comedy resists
resolution.

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Dissonances
Winston argues against the ubiquity of comic resolution. He says black humour is
opposed to simplistic thinking (1972: 270). Instead, he suggests that black comedy
works by verbally yoking disparate concepts without attempting to reconcile them
(ibid.). He suggests that participants who engage with black comedy are uneasily
suspended between disgust and amusement, between emotional involvement and
detachment (1972: 284). For Winston, the perception of black humour involves
conceptual and emotional flexibility. Through the process of evaluating dark comic
material, participants encounter multiple viewpoints on the issues and situations involved.
Participants expectations about death may change as they gain additional information
through a text. As a result, participants may not resolve the incongruities found in black
comedy; they may instead embrace a kind of energetic, vacillating perspective on death
and the social conventions surrounding it.

Nelson (1990) points out that participants may resolve the conceptual incongruities in
black comedy, but still not find the text funny. For these individuals, personal and social
sensitivities towards the subject matter may outweigh the pleasure involved in perceiving
black humour. Nelson suggests that individuals who have been least successful in
mastering [a] particular fear may find it impossible to laugh (1990: 8).

Morrow (1987) argues that although participants may understand black comic material,
they do not necessarily accept the implications of the joke. People may feel very
concerned about the social conditions, institutions and practices that relate to the deaths
described within the material. Morrow says that black comedy, and in particular jokes
about terminal illnesses and fatal disasters, do not lead to resolution. Black comedy may,
however, help people to process tragedy more effectively, in both a psychological and
social sense. Through the experience of black humour, participants may move from the
anger of disillusionment to the resigned adaptation of living with our very fallible
systems (1987: 264).

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The John Wayne Principle by Tony McNamara (1997) is a challenging black comic text
that resists resolution. In this bleak, satirical Australian play, two siblings lose their moral
fortitude when tempted by the inheritance of a massive fortune. Robbie and Serena, both
in their late twenties, take over a large company from their father after he attempts
suicide. Neither of the siblings hold any affection for the older man, who is a powerful,
self-obsessed corporate tycoon. The play begins on the day their father tried to shoot
himself in the head. He does not die, but the resulting injury sends him into a coma.
Robbie and Serena then visit their father in hospital.

ROBBIE:
How is he?
SERENA:
Comatose with half his face missing, and yet weve never got
along so well. Have we Dad? They say he might be able to hear
us, so be as rude as possible.
ROBBIE:
I cant believe hes alive.
SERENA:
Yeah, for a perfectionist he really botched this one.
ROBBIE:
Any chance hell come out of it?
SERENA:
Itd be a miracle, but the devil works in mysterious waysThis
is about as charming as he gets, so enjoy it while it lasts. Dad,
the prodigal sons come back with his wife. Finally, you two
are face to face again and hes missing his.
ROBBIE:
Give it a rest, Serena
SERENA:
Poignant moment is it?
ROBBIE:
No, not really. But if he flatlines Id like to hear it
(McNamara, 1997: 3-4)

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Later in the play, a colleague tries to express sympathy to Robbie: My condolences on


your fathers ... ah (McNamara, 1997: 11). The co-worker struggles to find the right
euphemism for attempted suicide. Robbie promptly interjects: Were going with the
term head implosion (ibid.). Through comments like this, Robbie and Serena use black
comedy as a way of deflecting emotions about their family situation and coping with the
stress of their professional obligations. In general, these characters articulate the crisis
largely through dark, cynical jokes.

In subsequent scenes, Robbie and Serena wrangle for control of their fathers enormous
business interests. They argue bitterly, but realise that they both want to succeed where
their father assumed they could not. This is the essence of the plays title, which stems
from the clich attributed to John Waynes cowboy persona: A mans gotta do what a
mans gotta do. Ultimately, the siblings agree to share the ownership and management of
their fathers corporation, HEL. They realise that the only way to proceed with their
aspirations is to ensure their father will not return from his unconscious state, so they go
back to visit him in hospital.

ROBBIE:
I have no hard feelings, I guess thats what Im here to say.
And that Ive got a problem only you can help with. Think of it
as working together, a new experience, our first father-son
thing. We probably shouldve done some fishing Dad, might
have helped.
Serena enters as he says the last sentence and stands beside him.
Robbie turns off the [life support] machine. They watch as he
flatlines.
SERENA:
Hed be so proud.
(McNamara, 1997: 53)
In this final scene, Robbie and Serena euthanise their father. The characters defy social
mores (and the law) in refusing to show concern for their father. This deathbed scene is
devoid of sentimentality, which reveals that in the weeks since their fathers attempted
suicide, Robbie and Serena have become more like him. They devolve into the person
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they most detest. Thus, the black comedy in this play is created by Robbie and Serena, but
also operates at the expense of these two characters.

The John Wayne Principle highlights challenging issues in contemporary culture. What
drives peoples rampant materialism and narcissism? What makes people callous about
the loss of life? In this play, the characters actions reveal a socially aberrant perspective
on death. At the same time, the characters perspective seems consistent with the
coolness of contemporary culture. The siblings are pragmatic and unsentimental; they
believe it is logical to put their deceptive father out of his misery in order to simplify their
situation and enhance their assets. Yet they forget that, by taking this path, they may die
in the same circumstances as their father: moneyed but despised.

Robbie and Serenas egocentrism seems representative of the strident individualism


Giddens (1991) describes as characteristic of many people, particularly young adults, in
the late twentieth century.4 Seen in this light, the actions of various characters in The
John Wayne Principle as in other texts analysed in previous chapters are not entirely
shocking. The characters behave in ways that seem consistent with people living and
dying at the end of the second millennium. The John Wayne Principle demonstrates that
black comedy can be ambivalent and antagonistic; it is not necessarily a tidy form of
expression. There may be multiple interpretations provoked by this material. The comic
texts analysed in this thesis reveal that there is no single way to perceive death as funny.

To summarise, black humour may involve a conceptual resolution, which in turn leads
participants to a different, and relatively coherent, perspective on death. Black humour
may also agitate and interrogate notions of loss without offering clear conclusions; this
may leave participants with a sense of dissonance and disequilibrium. Either way, the
perception of black humour involves an ability, and willingness, to continuously reassess
beliefs, attitudes and experiences associated with death. Seen in this light, the experience
of black humour opens up a kind of conceptual and emotional space that is less
vulnerable to social criticism; this experience permits experimentation at least
temporarily.

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In addition, participants who appreciate black humour seem able to juggle various
possibilities, to withhold judgment and to allow incompatibilities to co-exist. Participants
operate in this liminal space even when the potentialities presented appear to be mutually
exclusive. The experience of black humour prompts compelling questions and
evaluations that, at the very least, place death in the foreground at both the personal and
social levels. I suggest that the experience of black humour is active and affecting for
participants, yet also equivocal and fleeting.

Physical Metaphors for Black Humour

In attempting to explain the phenomenon of humour, scholars frequently employ spatial


and geographical tropes to illustrate how participants engage with, and respond to, comic
material. Although most of these physical metaphors for humour are not specifically
designed to address black humour, they have interesting implications for that form of
expression. In analysing these metaphors as a group, the familiar themes are structure and
movement; they attempt to make sense of humour through the images of kinetics. In this
way, the metaphors help to assemble, orient and represent different symbolic strands of
the experience of humour. They describe the manner in which participants escape, stretch,
break and reinstate conceptual boundaries around the elements in a comic text. In the
section below, I revisit certain theoretical issues in this thesis through the collection and
comparison of a range of physical metaphors. These metaphors are not comprehensive
theories of humour, but rather applications of multi-dimensional spatial concepts to the
process of perceiving and appreciating humour. I then look at two overarching
perspectives on black humour: the safety valve viewpoint and the passport theory. This
discussion of physical metaphors and overall perspectives is intended to both unify
threads of the preceding argument and open up issues for future research into black
humour.

One common physical metaphor involves the concept of stretching or reshaping


boundaries (Palmer 1994, Nelson 1990). This metaphor conceptualises humour as a force

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exerted upon a taut barrier of convention. This conceptual battle may result in increased
resistance (that is, the reinforcement of established conventions), or it may result in
change (the redefinition of boundaries to include new experiences). This metaphor
implies that black humour involves a degree of flexibility in the repositioning of personal
and social boundaries surrounding death.

Bergson (1956) also employs the notion of flexibility in his analysis of humour. He notes
that formal institutions (such as hospitals, schools, government departments and religious
organisations) engage in routinised activities and rituals, yet these entities often lack the
flexibility to serve the diversity and unpredictability of peoples lives. Bergson believes
that these inadequacies make institutions susceptible to ridicule. By highlighting frailties
within the establishment, black comedy offers the opportunity for a re-evaluation of
attitudes and practices associated with institutions. In addition, black comedy highlights
the breakdown of the human body. As noted previously, Bergson espouses the idea that
the human body [is] laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere
machine (1956: 79). When applied to black comedy, this notion suggests that death
makes the body seem like a broken machine. Therefore, the corpse can be funny because
it is unresponsive and stiff. (This relates to the discussion in Chapter 3 of the unmovable
obese corpse in Six Feet Under.)

Bergson (1956) applies a more active physical metaphor in his description of humour as a
transformation related to music and sound. The perception of humour is possible,
Bergson believes, by transposing the natural expression of an idea into another key
(1956: 140). In this metaphor, Bergson sees keys, or musical subsystems, as different
ways of presenting the same essential elements. This metaphor sets cognitive and
emotional elements into particular positions that can be adjusted while maintaining the
relationship between these elements. The notion of transposition points to changes in the
tone and feeling of an entity, but not its crucial elements.

Another physical representation of humour involves a circular, progressive pattern of


movement a coil metaphor. Berger (1998) uses this concept to explain the way in which

216

participants continually re-examine their perspectives on the information presented in a


comic text. He suggests that participants move at independent rates along a kind of
experiential coil; each circle within the coil represents a process of re-evaluation. When
participants reach a particular level of insight about the subject matter, they may
experience humour. Participants may then be in a new conceptual place at the end of this
circular but progressive journey. Berger (1998) also works with a metaphor of forward
movement to describe how participants relinquish a sense of seriousness and heighten an
attitude of openness. Berger does not see this altered perspective as permanent, but as a
series of instantaneous jumps back and forth, departing from and returning to a more
traditional position.

In keeping with this notion of forward movement, Winston (1972) uses a corridor
metaphor as a physical representation of black humour. According to this view, the
experience of black humour invites participants to travel up and back along a onedimensional line between disinterest and engagement. As participants advance, retreat,
and advance again, they gain information about the death-related elements in the text.
According to Winston, participants are unlikely to hold a static, stable conceptual
position when engaging with black comedy because this form of expression tends to
encourage, then discourage, involvement. This metaphor speaks to the textual unfolding
of information in a black comic text. The resulting stop-and-start feeling involved in the
experience of black humour creates a kind of psychological slippage: previous positions
wear away and new perspectives are entrenched. Winston suggests that this conceptual
erosion is accompanied by a sense of uncertainty and disorientation. Black humour
prompts shifts in participants beliefs and emotional states; it disturbs our certainty of
moral and social values and challenges our sense of a secure norm (Winston, 1972:
273).

Along these lines, Bergson (1956) and Koestler (1975) use the physical metaphor of
oscillation. They describe a sense of movement back and forth between two incompatible
poles, or entities. In relation to black comedy, the metaphor of oscillation suggests that
participants may be attracted, then repulsed, as they interact with the death-related

217

element in a comic text. This push-pull tension is arguably more pronounced in black
comedy than in other forms of expression because death is so confrontational. According
to the oscillation metaphor, black humour represents a way of being both engaged with,
and disengaged from, ideas about death.

Lauter (1964), on the other hand, uses the physical metaphor of a rigid surface or plate
that is fractured by the variation of everyday experience. "Comedy answers to [the]
human condition by breaking through the mechanical, stiff crust, restoring the flexibility
which is life" (1964: 376). Lauter employs a related metaphor centering on dissolution.
He believes that the perception of humour causes a softening or weakening of established
rules. These two metaphors, of breakage and dissolution, imply that comedy creates and
contributes to a sense of cognitive and emotional freedom. Lauter argues that this
openness allows "even hostile events [to be] perceived as amusing and passing" (1964:
376).

Bakhtin (1968) uses a multi-dimensional physical metaphor to describe the perception of


humour. He invokes the imagery of doubling, like a string pulled back against itself.
This doubled imagery highlights the sense that comedy is simultaneously credible and
fraudulent; comedy has a subversive quality. In addition, Bakhtins doubling metaphor
speaks to the potentially temporary nature of the experience of humour. This metaphor
suggests that black comedy, though it questions the establishment, may allow
circumstances to return to their previous state.

The perception of humour is also frequently described through violent metaphors. These
comparisons invoke the terminology of war with words like attack, destroy, slay,
kill, level, explode and murder; these are all considered highly positive slang
descriptions of the effect comedy has upon participants. The performance of comedy also
recruits the language of weaponry with the terms hit, bombard and rapid-fire. In
keeping with this perspective, Berger (1998) employs an invasion metaphor in which
comedy threatens participants sense of comfort. The invasion metaphor suggests that
participants must be forced, rather than charmed, into challenging their established beliefs

218

and behaviours. The aggressive language of this metaphor highlights the conflict between
participants perceptions and the information presented in comic material.

Overall, these metaphors tend to depict humour, and more specifically black humour, as
an active encounter a way of traversing an area or shaping an environment. Each of
these metaphors is useful in understanding the phenomenon of black humour. Perhaps the
most important aspect of this discussion of metaphors is the idea that black humour
posses the potential to move, or affect, participants and their society. Yet how extensive
and enduring are these influences? Humour studies researchers tend to endorse one of
two viewpoints on this issue. The first perspective is often referred to as the safety valve
effect (Zijderveld 1983). The second perspective, which does not have a consistent label
within humour studies research, is what I term the passport effect.

Zijderveld (1983) applies the metaphor of a safety valve to describe how the perception
of humour releases participants anxieties. According to this perspective, participants
who connect with comic material are able to wrestle with attitudes and practices that are
not part of their normal existence. For a limited period of time, social barriers are lifted
and participants are allowed to laugh at controversial subject matter. Following this
liberating encounter, however, previous social conditions are reestablished and rules are
reinforced (Lauter 1964, Zijderveld 1983).

Several other contemporary scholars advocate the safety valve perspective on humour.
Polan (1991) argues that, in general, humour is not a revolutionary force; it is primarily
concerned with entertainment and diversion, so it poses no challenge to existing
institutions and class structures.5 Berger (1998) says that humour seems to grant
participants temporary license to act outside of mainstream social practices. He does not
necessarily believe that comedy has the power to change established beliefs and practices.
Lauter (1964) cautions against assigning too much reformative power to the process of
humour perception. It seems unlikely, he states, that humour can "eliminate the very
foibles which it makes capital" (1964: xxiv). Similarly, Horton suggests that although
comedy may appear to alter social conditions, eventually order is restored and the rules

219

of society are maintained" (1991: 11). According to the safety valve perspective, humour
permits anarchy only within a limited temporal structure; participants test social
boundaries rather than modify them.

The safety valve perspective suggests that black humour is an appealing experience
because it permits the evasion of social taboos and the dissipation of uncomfortable
emotions.6 Yet this release of energy does not seem to alter the conditions that caused the
initial tension to accumulate. After the safety valve returns to its initial position,
participants are faced with the residual pains and tensions of their existence. Therefore,
this interpretation of black humour represents a provisional rather than permanent
solution to the difficulties that death and grief elicit.

Other scholars (Paul 1991, Dundes 1987) offer a different perspective on the longevity of
the effects of humour. They describe the experience as more of a passport, or a
passageway allowing movement from one conceptual position to another. According to
this interpretation, the experience of humour instigates a process through which people
question themselves and their society. This process may lead to significant and sustained
changes in participants beliefs and behaviours. Paul (1991) acknowledges that powerful
individuals, and the institutions to which they belong, are often apprehensive about the
anarchic qualities of humour. However, he believes this fear is a sign of the power that
humour exerts.

The passport perspective suggests that the experience of black humour may allow
participants to reshape attitudes and practices associated with mortality and may enable
them to cope more effectively with their losses. The passport imagery invokes a sense of
discovery, of finding new possibilities beyond old assumptions. In this sense, the passport
viewpoint is more optimistic and less conservative than the safety valve interpretation. In
an attempt to reconcile these two positions, Horton says that humour can be "conservative
or subversive or even both at once, depending on the audience and context" (1991: 4).
Horton also notes that, due to the constantly shifting nature of social attitudes and

220

practices, it is difficult for researchers to establish whether, or how, the experience of


humour changes peoples beliefs and behaviours over time.

Although the majority of humour studies scholars seem to advocate the safety valve
perspective, I suggest that the passport perspective deserves further attention, particularly
in relation to black humour. Through this thesis, I argue that the popularity and
pervasiveness of black comedy in contemporary culture highlights the relevance and
influence of this form of expression. I believe that black comedy has grown from a style
that simply highlights death and breaks taboos into a form that criticises social mores and
evokes alternate perspectives. Furthermore, I suggest that black comedy influences
individual beliefs and social rituals associated with death; these changes are then
expressed through black comedy.

The next and final section of the thesis looks at how people attempt to make meaning
from loss and how the experience of black humour may influence this process.

Black Humour and Making Meaning from Loss

Facing death, whether it is ones own demise or that of a loved one, is a devastating and
demanding experience for most individuals. Bereavement is usually characterised by an
attempt to make sense of the loss, to place it in some kind of meaningful context.
Neimeyer emphasises that bereaved individuals often engage in a protracted and painful
quest for meaning (2005/6: 37). Drawing on extensive scholarship in this area,
Neimeyer (1996) says that the process of coming to terms with death occurs
predominantly through narrative schemata. People tend to use stories, ideas and images to
understand themselves as well as the social and cultural plot of which [they] are a part
(1996: 361). Maeve (1998) points out that it is not only the dying and bereaved that need
to make sense of death, but also the health professionals who care for them. Maeve
describes nurses attempts to deal with constant death as weaving a fabric of moral
meaning through stories of individual patients (1998: 1140). Neimeyer (1996)

221

demonstrates how death causes disruption to these narratives, leaving people feeling
fragmented, bewildered even dissociated from their own existence.

One solution to the disintegration of personal narratives is for bereaved individuals to


work to integrate and emplot new experiences (e.g. widowhood) into their existing
narratives. Research by Caplan et al. suggests that the communication and development
of narratives may play a crucial role in successfully adapting to, and coping with, loss
(2005: 233). Similarly, Neimeyer argues that the public and private narration of tragedy
and transition is a crucial component of posttraumatic repair and transcendence (2004:
53). There are various discursive activities involved in the process of working with
narrative structures around death: one-on-one conversations, discussion groups, published
articles and diaries are some of the ways in which the bereaved document their losses
(Caplan et al. 2005). I suggest that black comedy is another strategy for the articulation of
crucial issues surrounding death. Black comedy seems to give participants another outlet
through which to express their challenging views and feelings about bereavement.

Extant humour studies research in the area of black comedy suggests that people use this
form of expression to cope more effectively in situations where death is present or
implied. Emersons (1969) research reveals that health practitioners utilise black comedy
in their hospital rounds, both with patients and other medical staff. The health
practitioners purposefully engage in black comic jokes and stories in order to raise
sensitive topics and release tension. Emerson argues that black comedy shifts the
boundaries of acceptable conversation and thereby opens the door to concepts that were
previously constrained. Health practitioners and their clients share complicity for rule
violations which potentially can be extended to allow for forthright discussions about
death (Emerson, 1969: 180). Similarly, Schulman-Green (2003) cites humour as one of
the strategies physicians use to cope with the constant discomfort and distress that
accompanies the care of fatally injured and terminally ill patients. Lefcourt and Shepherd
(1995), working in a related area, consider how black humour affects peoples
receptiveness to discussions of mortality. The researchers suggest that that the experience
of laughing at loss moderat[es] the emotional responses of those who are anxious about

222

death (1995: 135). Lefcourt and Shepherd believe that black humour enables people to
embrace alternatives around death (e.g. organ donation) that previously seemed too
distressing to contemplate. Thus, the experience of black humour may initiate a process
of negotiation that opens up, and potentially maintains, access to new or unconventional
perspectives on death. Humour can be used to directly subvert well-established rules of
behaviour by raising taboo topics that remain on the agenda (Palmer, 1994: 61). In this
manner, black comedy may evade the social boundaries that would otherwise prevent,
postpone, minimise or contain the overt discussion of death and grief; it seems to provide
a safe format for difficult encounters with mortality.

Morans (1990, 1997) research on the communications of emergency staff and fire
fighters indicates that black humour serves as a coping strategy during and after deathrelated experiences. Interviews with emergency workers reveal that black comedy helps
to verbalise concerns and release stress (Moran 1990, Melby 2001). These studies suggest
that emergency workers purposefully use black comedy to bring their experiences into a
communal context. These individuals may be signalling to others that they recognise the
horrors of their work (Moran, 1997: 36). Research by stedt-Kuki and Isola suggests
that the use of comedy in a hospital setting, whether or not the material relates to death, is
a strategy to create efficient interaction between nurses and patients and to provide an
outlet for feelings that might otherwise be difficult to express (2001: 457). Similarly,
Maeve cites nurses intentional engagement with black comedy to help manage the
darker aspects of nursing (1998: 1139). Overall, Moran believes that there is
considerable scope for [black] humour to act as a positive, healthy coping strategy in
emergency work (1997: 30). She cautions, however, that research into the therapeutic
benefits of black humour is inconclusive: an important delineation needs to be made
between a healthy use of humour and humour that is used to mask feelings [that] will
cause later distress (Moran, 1997: 36).

On the whole, current research demonstrates that, at both the individual and social levels,
black comedy serves as a potent articulation of diverse cognitions, emotions and practices
surrounding death. By engaging with black comedy, participants may challenge and

223

acknowledge pain, ridicule or advocate religion, define the boundaries of a social group,
and resuscitate or reject personal relationships. Black humour can make the issues
associated with death seem communal and manageable instead of isolating and
threatening. In essence, participants may actively use the experience of black humour to
reconceptualise the meaning of death.

Yet the question arises: why do people need to wrestle with death in this unusual way in
the late twentieth century? I contend that black humour is both a manifestation of, and a
contributing factor to, the indeterminate, questioning nature of contemporary life. As
discussed previously, late twentieth century culture may be characterised by a sense of
social uncertainty and flux, a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a deep
concern with individual uniqueness (Giddens 1991). Although Giddens does not
specifically discuss the phenomenon of humour, he emphasises the active role people
play in making meaning from their experiences. At the same time, people are involved in
reading and constructing collective representations: Individuals contribute to, and
directly promote, social influences that are global in their consequences and implications
(Giddens, 1991: 2).

Thus, I argue that the social conditions of the late twentieth century contributed to the
development and proliferation of black comedy. I theorise that the popularity of black
comedy is heightened by an increased ability to access information about death and a
decreased involvement with actual death. This operates in combination with frequent
exposure to explicit stories and images of dead and dying bodies in the media.
Consequently, individuals in contemporary society may be educated about the causes of
death and the concept of grief, but are not often witnesses to real death or dead bodies,
unless they work in particular professions (Bauman 1992). This set of social conditions
makes death seem simultaneously absent and present (Mellor 1993). It seems as though
death is both silenced and publicised, both hidden and exhibited, in contemporary culture.

As a result of this juxtaposition, people may have more personal and social tension
surrounding death; they may feel confused about how to understand loss and connect to

224

those who are dying or grieving. Since the issues surrounding death tend to be
emotionally and cognitively challenging, black comedy may generate particularly high
levels of controversy. I suggest that people purposefully create and engage with black
comedy in order to articulate the anxieties and ambiguities they feel surrounding death. In
writing about this process, I am aware that black comedy generated in realistic
circumstances, such as that documented by Schulman-Green (2003) and Moran (1990,
1997), is different from black comedy created by writers of texts intended for
performance. The black comedy used by individuals within a death-related situation tends
to be more informal and particular. This material may not be interpreted as funny by
those outside the situation (Ryan 1997). In addition, the primary purpose of this material
is to create narratives, ameliorate tension and perhaps foster an acceptance of loss. Black
comic texts, on the other hand, tend to be more formally constructed. Their purpose may
be to entertain and inform rather than provide coping strategies for grief, but the
characters within the reality of the text may use black comedy to alleviate stress just as
people do in their everyday lives. Furthermore, black comic texts are generally
reproducible and intended to be funny to wide range of participants.

Although there are differences between the two types of black comedy I discuss in this
thesis, both are embedded in the social circumstances of the late twentieth century. Thus,
I argue that both forms are a response to, and a factor that contributes to, the
absence/presence contradiction discussed above. I suggest that the current conditions
surrounding death serve to foster the creation and appreciation of black comedy and, in
turn, the constant presence of black comedy in cultural products of the late twentieth
century makes this form of expression a more acceptable strategy for the articulation of
beliefs and emotions related to loss. By laughing about death through black comedy,
people may release some of their anxiety and sadness. One of the outcomes of this
process may be that people may be that people gain and express new insights into
bereavement. Another outcome is that, due to the reduction in stress, people are less
inclined to address the underlying problems surrounding death in contemporary society.
Black comedy may provide a momentary escape, but the absence/presence juxtaposition
remains as problematic as it was previously.

225

Thus, I do not imply that the experience of black humour is always an effective strategy
for understanding and managing the complexities of death. As noted previously, I see
black humour as an interactive negotiation, not a pre-determined response to a stimulus.
Some participants who experience black humour may find it stimulating, insightful and
transformative, while others may find it cold, purposeless and offensive. I suggest that
black comedys relevance comes from the possibilities it engenders rather than the
answers it provides. Black comedy seems to elude the obvious despair of death by
presenting options some wild and improbable, others subtle and sincere. Through
engagement with these possibilities, participants they may approach the subject of death
with a more flexible, honest, critical perspective. In this respect, black humour may
enable people to make meaning from loss.

In conclusion, black humour may provide participants with an opportunity to turn the
most painful of human experiences into something new not necessarily something
clearer, happier or less ominous, but something different. In this sense, the experience of
black humour may create, complicate, amend or defer the sadness surrounding loss. Yet
the experience of black humour does not eradicate the absence/presence juxtaposition,
nor does it resolve all of peoples questions surrounding death. In this sense, the
experience of black humour may offer a precarious optimism: a sense that life will
inevitably end in death, but that this reality is tolerable when considered in the broader
context of human existence. Crouch and Hppauf caution that the history of
[humanitys] attempts to come to terms with death is a succession of obvious failures
(1985: 2). The phenomenon of black humour may be one of those enervating failures or
perhaps it is a strange and astonishing success.

226

Chapter 5 Endnotes
1

As established at the beginning of this thesis, I have chosen to focus on written texts that are intended for
performance in theatre, television or film. I do not consider issues related to production or performance of
these texts. I have narrowed the scope of the texts selected for analysis in this thesis to include only works
created in the later third of the twentieth century which deal with human death and dying.
2
My research has not uncovered any anthologies of black comic texts in the late twentieth century, either
using complete works or scenes. In the absence of this type of published work, I spent the past decade
reading, viewing and collecting black comic scripts for inclusion in this thesis. Inherent in my passion for
these texts as written works of art is also a desire to see the texts in production. As noted previously,
however, the presentation and reception of black comedy is not the focus of this thesis.
3
Koestler theorises that the path between these conceptual points is rapidly eclipsed through the experience
of humour, thus eliminating the need to traverse the surface area of these planes with detailed explanations
of potential connections. This concept is indebted to Freuds (1960) notion of psychic expenditure.
4
Again, I do not suggest that there is one consistent, coherent experience of culture for all people of a
certain age living in a particular country in the late twentieth century. I refer to the collective merely to
reflect the shared aspects of social existence at this point in time.
5
Polan (1991) analyses contemporary comedy by applying Jean Paul Sartre's writings on humour. Sartre
discusses how members of the bourgeoisie class in Europe used comedy to criticise social conditions and
therefore make possible their own ascension to power. Once in that position, the bourgeoisie were as fearful
of anarchic comedy as their predecessors. This point relates to the superiority theory, which implies that
participants establish and reinforce social boundaries because it gives them a sense of security and
superiority in relation to others.
6
In this respect, the safety valve perspective is similar to the catharsis theory: both advance the idea that
humour releases tension. However, the safety value perspective is more social in nature, while the catharsis
theory is more psychological (i.e. focused on the individual level of experience).

227

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