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Black Humor in Trying Times

Me On Emerald Mountain, May 2020


The best thing about the Corona virus (Wow! Did I really just say that?) is that it has given me a chance to think about things. Sure, I’ve watched more Netflix and Youtube, and I’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook, but I’ve also had the luxury of not working. My substitute teaching job ended when the schools closed. My part-time taxi driving gig stopped when our taxi/shuttle company cut back because of the shutdown and “stay at home” order.

So . . . I sit at home, take the dog on long walks, and contemplate my naval. No, I don’t really do that, but I come close. I feel for my friends who are out of work (bar tenders and waiters and owners of bars and restaurants along with all the other “non-essential” positions). They are hurting in a terrible way and it will be touch and go for them and their businesses for some time. How will this all play out? I have no idea, but I do think the whole process may give us some time to re-evaluate our decision-making paradigms.

I’m a lazy man. This last 8 weeks is representative of that statement. I could have written many more blog posts, worked on or even finished my second novel, sent out more letters in an attempt to find a literary agent who might represent me. Did I do these things? No, I didn’t. I feel mildly guilty about that. I did some photography work, converting old slides to digital. I tinkered with my novels but did little new writing. Perhaps this “pause” is what I needed. I could say I used it to recharge my internal battery, but that would be disingenuous.

One of the things I noticed early in the stay at home time was the use of humor everywhere, particularly on Facebook. It has carried on and there are hilarious memes that began not long after the shutdown and haven’t slowed. Some of the humor was pretty dark—but so were the predictions. That’s what I want to discuss today: the necessary use of humor in our lives, particularly in troubling times.

Black humor. You know, cracking a joke that is totally inappropriate but at the time eases the stress of the situation and actually helps psychologically.

One definition of black humor is: humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes (Merriam-Webster). Another dictionary defines black humor as: a kind of comedy that jokes about serious or depressing topics, such as hopelessness, suffering, or death (

Now in this blog I’m not going to talk about black humor as the literary device where the writer or satirist uses humor or a comic situation to introduce subjects that are generally taboo. The classic film, “Dr. Strangelove” is a perfect example of this where nuclear war is dealt with in a humorous way—this film came out at the height of the Cold War, so people were particularly sensitive to its satiric and dark message. Another example is the novel and film, “Catch 22.” In this satire the focus of the black humor was the military and war. Samuel Beckett uses black humor magnificently in his absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot.“ The Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Saturday Night Live, and others, along with most comedians use satire and black humor. They help us by framing situations in black humor to make their point. The satirist forces us to look at people and situations from a different perspective. Thus, in literature, the performing arts, and film, the satirist asks us to rethink what we take for granted about life, people and institutions.

We’ve all probably been guilty of using black humor or laughing at a dark joke to make light of a stressful situation. Guilty? Yeah, I say guilty because it feels a little like we are “guilty” when we do it. But you know what I mean. The thing of it is black humor is often important and even necessary, especially in difficult times.

In April I found out that one of my old students had Covid-19. She was hospitalized and put on a ventilator, and all of us who know her were worried and hoping for her speedy recovery. Then I found out that my stepbrother in Iowa had Covid-19. His case wasn’t serious enough for him to be hospitalized but the virus kicked his butt. So I personally knew people who were affected by this thing. When I went on Facebook I scrolled through the various posts and memes, most of which were humorous responses to the virus and our stay at home/lockdown situations, I had a moment’s pause. Should I repost this one? Should I put a laughing emoji on that one? Was It right to joke about the Coronavirus and subsequent lockdown when people I know are fighting for their lives?

I struggled with my concern for my old student and my stepbrother, and my natural tendency to use humor in difficult situations. I realized that we must joke about Covid-19 as it is a natural way to get through a difficult, stressful time.

This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about black humor. I have a Masters in English and my profession was high school English teacher. I loved my students and worked diligently to have them improve their understanding and use of language in reading and writing. Sometimes though I found myself with other teachers using black humor—saying things that to non-teachers (parents/administrators/the public) sounded terrible. People outside of the profession wouldn’t understand our comments and the fact that they derived from deep caring about our students and our frustration when our efforts sometimes were for naught.

My colleagues and my use of dark humor were not made out of cruelty. They were actually therapeutic for us, helping us to relieve stress. Almost every profession uses black humor in some ways as healthy outlets from stressful situations. Particular professionals who rely on black humor in this way include police officers, EMTs, doctors and nurses, psychologist/psychiatrists, educators, soldiers, and journalists. I’m sure there are many professions I’ve omitted, and I apologize for that. My point is people on the outside do not understand and can be shocked and offended if they overhear the “sick” jokes by people in those professions. But this use of humor is necessary. It isn’t out of cruelty or malice.

So, don’t feel guilty about using a sick joke in a stressful situation. Perhaps try to keep someone who wouldn’t understand from hearing of course. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care, or that you are cruel and heartless. It just means that you are dealing with a tough, stressful situation and applying a therapeutic technique to get through it.

If you’d like to read more about how dark humor/sick jokes help I recommend the following articles, among many. They cover the health/psychological benefits of black humor.

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