“If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.” —Steven Wright
Comedian Steven Wright is known for his unique brand of humor which often times elicits as many groans as laughs. Psychological Science offers an explanation for the dark humor he both horrifies and delights his fans with. Researchers call it the “benign-violation theory.”
Anyone unable to explain benign-violation theory in less than 10,000 words will be audited by the IRS. See – if you have ever been audited, I guarantee your first response was to groan. If you lived through it, you know the mountain of words and paper you had to wade through in the process. Dark humor.
Advertisers call well-crafted dark humor marketing gold because it guarantees what you have to say will not be forgotten. Case in point, anyone who was alive in the 1980s can still see three elderly women at a Wendy’s counter as one of them growls, “Where’s the Beef.” In case you’re too young to remember, check it out here.
The German word for this kind of humor is Schadenfreude. Loosely translated it means “shameful joy” or the “the joy you get at seeing other people’s misfortune.” It’s the kind of humor that makes a point through the unexpected, shocking, and frustrating aspects of life.
Beware: Dark humor walks the fine line between winning over a host of new followers and alienating more than a few.
But First, Some Examples
Over 50 years after Stanley Kubrick directed Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, it consistently ranks as the best dark or black comedy ever made. The subject in 1964 could not have made viewers any more uncomfortable – the Cold War and assured mutual annihilation.
Who could forget the great Peter Sellers in three different roles as the President of the United States, Captain Lionel Mandrake and Dr. Strangelove?
Unforgettable Line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
The Coen Brothers set a new standard for dark comedy with their film, Raising Arizona. It also set a standard that had been hit or miss for them throughout their career. Sometimes all they get is a groan. But when their mixture of slapstick and dark humor that puts simple people in complex situations hits home, it sticks.
The story of ex-con H.I. and ex-police officer Edwina “Ed” McDunnough kidnapping a baby from a group of quintuplets shouldn’t be funny. Except it is! The scene where escaped convicts Evelle and Gale realize they’ve left the baby on top of their car after robbing the bank is Schadenfreude at its best.
Unforgettable Line: “I’ll be takin’ these Huggies, and whatever cash you got in the register.”
Let’s Get Serious about the Insanity
Remember “benign-violation theory?” According to Psychological Science, the theory states that “people are amused by moral violations — threats to their normal worldviews, for instance, or disparaging statements — but only so long as those violations are harmless.” Emphasis all mine.
Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame sums up the difference in slapstick and dark comedy with two sentences and one unforgettable image:
“If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs.”
Know Your Target Audience
There are times that dark humor is not a good idea.
Consider the example of the largest mobile network in Egypt, Orange Egypt. The company got itself in some hot water with the state government with what, by American standards, was extremely mild dark humor. The campaign depicted senior citizens as they recalled that Egypt has not won the World Cup of Soccer since 1930.
Think Marketing notes that Egypt’s Consumer Protection Agency banned the advert. Even the links to the ads have been taken off-line. Needless to say, that is not the kind of feedback Orange Egypt was aiming for.
Lesson learned: Someone will always be offended but it’s not a good idea to offend a whole country of potential customers.
On the TV show, Leverage, Parker steals from random people because she’s bored and has no concern for her victims. As the series progresses through its four seasons, she becomes more aware of the damage she has done. Near the end of the series, Parker is genuinely surprised when someone explains to her that pushing a person off a building without any warning is, “in fact, Not OK”, and that the flailing and screaming wasn’t just them playing along with the joke.
Point made: your actions have consequences.
Dark Humor is at its best when used to subtly make a point that might otherwise be missed. It’s not overwhelmingly gross nor vulgar. In the end, it just plain funny.
Best Marketing Example
Snickers has been running its “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign for while and with good effect.
BBDO New York developed the campaign that uses unforgettable taglines and ridiculous situations to ensure people don’t forget Snickers. One video shows a man trapped in a car with a friend who repeatedly pronounces the Almond as “ahmend.” The dark humor comes when the man can’t stand it anymore and jumps out of his speeding car followed by the tagline: “You Overreact When You’re Hungry.”
In an ad for Snickers Peanut Butter, a young man visits what appears to be a darkened confessional, reciting his sins: “casual” shoplifting, watching the dark web, something that wasn’t “exactly meant to be extortion,” and having feelings for his stepmother. Dark humor works best when there is something that takes the edge of so this commercial ends with the tagline: “Hunger Leads to Uncomfortable Situations.”
Does dark humor work? Why else would I remember a near illiterate Nicolas Cage narrating in perfect Faulknerian prose: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed couldn’t find no purchase.”
An agented novelist and full-time freelance writer, Tim G specializes in SEO content writing, full-length non-fiction ghost writing, and has written and developed corporate and educational application training materials.