What is Funny? What Can Humor Do?
This multi-modal essay uses contextual examples as well as multimedia examples to establish a delineation between comedy and tragedy and justify dark comedy as a valid, but indirect, source of humor.
What is the line between what is funny and what is tragic?
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Most important aspects that go into determining this line:
  • Setting (both physical and psychological)
i. The setting is the most effective tool in determining the mood of a piece of literature. A character’s surroundings as well as a characters thoughts are directly relayed to the reader and, while they may not have a great effect on what we think is funny, its may determine whether or not we look for humor in literature or look to receive a more serious message.
-"Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-nigology. He could prove to wondeful effect that there was no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, His Lordship the Baron's castle was the finest of all castles and Her Ladyship the best of all possible baronesses." (Voltaire 4)
-The setting of Candide is established by the optimistic teachings of Pangloss. It gives every action and reaction a lighthearted twist. It is no secret that terrible things happen in Cnadide, but it is Voltaires whacky satire and positive psycological setting that make the novel funny.
- "Oh God" he thought, " What a grueling Job I've picked! Day in, day out- on the road. the upset of business is much worse than the actual business in the home office, and, besides, I've got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, consantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate." (Kafka 4)
-As in Candide, Metamorphisis contains outrageously terrible circumstances. However, as observed in this excerpt, Gregor has a more pessimistic view on his life, which provides comedic relief on its own, but general creates an aura of depression and grief for his situation, one thing that is not present in Candide and often present in dark comedy.
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  • Theme or Message
i. One thing that must be considered is the entirety of the work of literature as opposed to small portions of situational comedy. The theme of a work is the most important factor in determining humor. This is where dark comedy falls short. Most dark comedy contains a unfortunate or depressing plot and, while they contain starkly contrasting outlooks on the plot, there is an underlying sense of darkness and depression remaining.
Again Candide is used as an example. The theme of the work is intended to be both satirical and ironic. Candide spends the entire novel scouring the world finding nothing but misfortune and bad human nature, all while continuously asking himself if this is the best of all possible worlds and maintaining his inexplicably positive attitude. It is not until the end that he goes back on this notion when he says "That is well said...but we must cultivate our garden." (Voltaire 94). This ironic message downplays all that precedes it and makes the considerations irrelevant, which is the ironic humor that Voltaire utilizes so well.





Waiting for Godot, however, contains no straightforward message. Its humor comes directly from hit and miss banter and character actions. Best exemplified in this stage direction: "Estragon takes Vladimir's hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky's Hat on his head. Estragon puts on Vladimir's hat in place of his own which he gives to Vladimir. Vladimir takes Estragon's hat. Estragon adjusts Vladimir's hat on his head. Vladimir puts on Estragon's hat in place of Lucky's which he hands to Estragon." (Beckett 80). While these actions contain some slapstick style humor, there is no real intention to the hat madness, and after eight or so rounds of the exchanging, you begin to wonder what the point is. A understandable message must be obtained for the true comedy of the work to come out.


dark humor
dark humor


How do we define dark comedy?
Humor is far too subjective of a topic for a true delineation to be made between what is funny and what is not. The truth of the matter is that there are so many types of humor that endless lists of categories must be made to fit them all. One of the most debated categories is dark humor. With the previous aspects of humor in mind, dark humor most often contains a dull or even scary/sad setting as well as some sort of message that in in no way comedic in nature, but the context of the work contrasts this message. A good way to grasp this to think of a time anything unfortunate has ever happened to you, this could be spraining your ankle in a relaxed ultimate frisbee practice, not understanding a joke everyone else gets, or zoning out during a government lecture only to be brought back to reality by a question from the teacher that you didn't hear (to name a few from my recent experiences). The seriousness of the situation is not observed by the person enduring it, it takes contrasting point of views to find the humor in them.
The following examples also help clarify this concept:




This song by Warren Zevon is upbeat and catchy. At first glance there is nothing wrong with it. However, upon closer inspection, the song is actually an attack on the dominant corporate and wealthy class of London and contains that negative message that is so vital in dark comedy. with lyrics like, "You'd better stay away from him, he'll rip your lungs out, Jim. I'd like to meet his tailor." (Zevon) both the humor and the dark nature of the song are seen. It is the contrasting lighthearted lyrics and general tonality of the song that place this song under the category of dark humor.
comic gas prices, gas station, comic, dark humor, cut off arms and legs, cost a arm and a leg, gasoline, fat vender, cartoon, silly
comic gas prices, gas station, comic, dark humor, cut off arms and legs, cost a arm and a leg, gasoline, fat vender, cartoon, silly
Putting a humorous twist on a topic that is ever present in our economy and in our lives, this is a perfect example of dark comedy.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York, NY: Grove Press, Inc, 1954. Print.

"Comedy Tragedy Masks." Greek Tragedy. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://ramparts360.com/uncategorized/greek-tragedy/>


"Dark Humor." Dead Caterpillar. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://www.deadcaterpillar.com/dark-humor-some-laugh-some-cry/>.

"Gas Prices of the Future." Scheppel's Blog. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://scheppel.wordpress.com/category/artwork/cartoons/>.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated. Schocken Books, Inc., 1972. Print

"metamorphosis2." If I Was Gregor Samsa. Web. 13 Apr 2011. <http://carolc13.wordpress.com/tag/gregor-samsa/>.

Voltaire. Candide. Translted. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2005. Print.

"Waiting for Godot (2001)- Hat Swapping Scene."Youtube. Web. 13 Apr 2011.

"Warren Zevon- Werewolves of London." Youtube. Web. 13 Apr 2011.