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Arts & Entertainment

How to Write Dark Humor: 4 Dark Comedy Screenwriting Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 3 min read

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Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Comedy movies run the gamut from romantic comedies to political farce, but when comedic material blends with more sinister themes, it becomes dark comedy. Some of the most enduring films and television shows to emerge from Hollywood fall within the dark comedy genre.

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What Is Dark Comedy?

Dark comedy, or black comedy, is a genre of film, television, and literature that brings satire and dark humor to subjects that are depressing, frightening, unpleasant, or taboo. The best dark comedies simultaneously entertain and expose corners of the human condition that make the audience uncomfortable. Films in this subgenre of comedy create catharsis by heightening the absurdity and irony of painful subjects, imbuing them

5 Classic Dark Comedy Examples

Hollywood has produced a wealth of dark comedies, the highlights of which include:

  1. Dr. Strangelove (1964): This dark satire from director Stanley Kubrick skewers the arms race at the heart of the Cold War. Though the subject matter (impending nuclear annihilation) couldn’t be more serious, the tone of the film is characterized by slapstick and silliness.
  2. Fargo (1996): Perhaps the most celebrated of Joel and Ethan Coen’s many films, Fargo is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes very dark tale of a kidnapping gone wrong. The Coen brothers handle unsettling subject matter in this film with a level of understatement that, at times, is jarringly funny.
  3. Pulp Fiction (1994): Like the best dark comedy movies, this genre-bending Quentin Tarantino film deals with touchy subjects like drug use and violence yet maintains an upbeat energy that keeps it from ever getting too bleak.
  4. M*A*S*H (1970): Robert Altman’s comedy later inspired a TV sitcom. Set in a military barracks during the Korean War, the film debuted in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War and touched on the absurdity of war in a time when Americans were actively being conscripted into military service.
  5. Harold and Maude (1971): On the one hand, director Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is an unlikely and odd tale of an intergenerational romance. On the other hand, it's a stark meditation on death. As a dark comedy, it succeeds in both its aims.
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4 Tips for Writing a Dark Comedy

If you’re writing a dark comedy script, there are several screenwriting tips that will help you transform your dark sense of humor into a great dark comedy.

  1. Start from the truth. A great dark comedy approaches its subject matter with truthfulness, and the best comedy offers absurdity based in reality. No matter how uncomfortable your subject, emotional honesty is necessary if you want the story to resonate.
  2. Build three-dimensional characters. Many writers populate comedic films with two-dimensional characters who exhibit funny quirks but rarely experience growth or change. That works for farces and slapstick, but given how bleak dark comedies can be, it helps to have three-dimensional characters who tackle serious subjects in human ways. Of course, you can still write these characters into situations rife with black humor.
  3. Push boundaries. Even if you're committed to grounding your story in truth, you can still push boundaries into the plausibly ridiculous. Sinister subjects and gallows humor make for a memorable genre film, and you can write dark comedy within the realms of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror and still maintain a sense of authenticity.
  4. Know your ending. Even the funniest comedy writers need space to brainstorm comedies with serious topics and dark subjects. Even as you explore plot twists, make sure you always know where the story is going. If you stack a dozen dark humor jokes on top of each other, you might write yourself into a corner with no satisfying way to reach a conclusion. So make sure you have a plan. Indulge in funny ideas as they come to you, but leave yourself a way to bring all the funny threads to an organic resolution.

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