Good black comedies are hard to come by. Perhaps it is because any book, television show, or film that is both funny and includes something universally viewed as ‘bad’ is immediately relegated to the ranks. Someone dies? Black comedy. Someone gets dumped? Yeah, that’s probably black. Oh wait, does it include the government or anything even remotely bigger than the protagonist weighing down on him? Well, damn, then it must be Kafkaesque.
Except for that it isn’t.
Black comedy has to be deeper than that. Black comedy actually draws its humor from the amoral depravity, from the failure, from the deadpan casual and calloused welcoming of ‘shit going down’. From my many years of experience laughing at black humor, I have found that there are two general themes: either a protagonist who is relentlessly crushed for no reason (hilarious) or a protagonist who is absolutely scum and is infinitely rewarded for his luck (still pretty funny). For an example of the former, watch Office Space. For an example of the latter, watch American Psycho. The best of all black comedies will play with both of these and balance them in a way that makes for everything going wrong in an unexpected way (this is the basis of all humor). A grand example of both is Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is scum, but a kind of relatable scum that immediately demands both your most intimate sympathy and love as well as your most vile and bitter hatred. It is a constant battle of shifting emotions, the absurdity of it is what makes it hilarious. The love/hate you feel for Humbert Humbert, the sincerity, the amoral code, it is why Nabokov is a perfect example of black humor in great literature.
Last night I watched a movie that Netflix claimed was dark or black humor. I’m well adjusted to shaking my fist in the middle of the night as I watch yet another Netflix recommendation that is nothing like they promise it will be, but last night was different. Last night I watched The Details, which is pretty black, and really funny.
The premise of the film is simple and fun. A guy is somehow swept up in the details of his life and cannot figure out how one bad thing led to another. At first it’s the raccoons, next he’s cheating on his wife. We’ve all been there.
The protagonist, Jeff Lang, is a scumbag. As is true in all fantastic black humor, this is not immediately obvious. It is also not overplayed. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Jeff Lang’s moral compass has been lost for years. He is also relatable, which is one of the most important factors in black humor. Jack Nicholson isn’t funny in a dark way because everyone expects him to be crazy. This is truly where people get confused about black comedy. Without being able to feel a genuine connection to the protagonist, there is no hope of the dark humor catching on. It is just a comedy with some macabre elements (boring).
It was no surprise to me to find out that The Details has a rating of 47 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Good black comedies rarely succeed. Why? Because they predicate on the shit we are trying to ignore. Because we have cultivated an escapist society that prefers The Bachelorette and streaming porn. And because David Foster Wallace says so.