Oi Polloi

Films and Things: Black Comedy

Published: Fri Sep 20 2019

If you put a gun to my head (or gave me a really savage Chinese burn) and asked me to name my favourite ‘type’ of film, I’d be hard-pressed to think of one I love more than ‘black comedy’. I even wrote a poorly-researched dissertation about it once upon a time.

I’m still not entirely sure why, but ever since I was a young ‘un, I’ve always been impressed when a film can brazenly railroad through taboos like there’s no tomorrow and still hold its head high.

For those that don’t know, black comedy typically refers to films and books that deal with serious, generally unfunny subject matter with brevity, satire and cynicism, usually in an attempt to make highly-emotional themes a bit more digestible. In the wise words of Professor Wylie Sypher “to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”

Anyway, here’s a handful of devilish dark comedies that really whet my proverbial whistle…


We'll start this off with a dark comedy that not enough people have seen, and one of Spain's finest cinematic offerings - Luis García Berlanga's capital punishment rib-tickler The Executioner.

A macabre farce mocking Franco-era values, The Executioner is the bleak tale about an undertaker who marries into an executioner's family and is tricked by the wily old murderer into taking over the family business so they can keep their government-allotted apartment.

Not only a great black comedy, The Executioner is one of those wonderful films that constantly has you thinking 'how did they get away with this?'

Bare in mind this was made in 1963, a time when fascist dictator Francisco Franco was still very much in power and imprisoning (or worse) anyone who questioned his authority. The Executioner didn't simply question Franco's authority, it gleefully took a sledgehammer to it, and still, somehow, managed to evade the censors, going on to become one of Spain's biggest domestic hits, and winning the hallowed FIPRESCI prize at the Venice Film Festival.

It doesn't hurt that it's really, really funny as well. The scene where the undertaker is dragged off to his first execution as if he's the victim is probably one of the funniest scenes in cinema history.

If you're looking for more of this mid-century black comedy flavour, I recommend checking out Divorce Italian Style (1961) and La Poison (1951).


Secondly, here’s one of the more palatable films on the list – Hal Ashby’s mischievous and uplifting Harold and Maude.

Harold and Maude is the story of young, rich, death-obsessed Harold and his relationship with a free-spirited 79-year-old named Maude. Over the course of their relationship, which quickly turns romantic, Maude teaches Harold the importance of living life to the fullest through stealing a cop’s motorcycle, acting like a crazed, militaristic nutbag to get out army service and going to amusement parks.

Critically-misunderstood on release, in my eyes Harold and Maude stands as one of the finest existential comedies (not sure how many there are of these to be honest, but whatever) ever made.

Presumably taking inspiration from Albert Camus’ landmark essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, the film humorously details the perils of despair through Harold’s hilariously elaborate, and often disturbing, fake suicides, and shows us, through Maude’s endless optimism and zeal, how easy enjoying life is.

Critically-misunderstood on release, in my eyes Harold and Maude stands as one of the finest existential comedies ever made.

Without the black comedy aspect, this naïve message of ‘enjoying life’ might’ve been a little to schmaltzy to stomach, but by peppering in a bunch of fake suicides and a healthy dose of morbidity, Hal Ashby and his writer Colin Higgins turn it into something truly profound.

If this uplifting style of black comedy sounds like your cinematic cup of tea, you’re going to want to check out Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) and Don Hertzfeldt’s animated wonder-work It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012).


Next up we’ve got one of the hardest-to-recommend films of all time, and a bonafide masterpiece of black comedy – Todd Solodnz’s Happiness.

Happiness is an ensemble-comedy, centred on the three Jordan sisters – directionless Joy, poet Helen, and ‘happily married’ Trish – and their desperate, painful search for the titular emotion.

As you might be able to guess, the film’s moniker is entirely ironic.

Now, the film is choc-a-bloc full of blackly comedic nuggets of gold (like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s outrageous phone conversations), but perhaps the greatest aspect of the film (and Solodnz’s whole career to be honest) is Bill Maplewood, Trish’s husband.

I don’t want to spoil anything, or upset anyone for that matter, by describing the sordid nature of Bill’s character here, so I’ll just say if you’re looking to guffaw, weep, cringe and be disgusted in equal measure, this is the film for you.

Not for the faint of heart though, so be advised. I don’t want anyone’s irrate mother on the phone complaining that I upset their sweet, innocent 43-year-old child.

There’s really no other filmmaker like Todd Solodnz out there, so if this brand of utterly-soul-crushing comedy sounds like your cup of tea, I’d recommend doing a deep dive into his entire filmography, starting with his 1995 feature Welcome to the Dollhouse.


Penultimately, we've got an underappreciated gem from the brothers Coen, and one of the first films I remember becoming completely enraptured by – A Serious Man.

Set in 1967, A Serious Man follows Larry Gopnik, a meek Jewish geezer from Minnesota, whose life crumbles both professionally and personally, leading him into a major crisis of faith.

There's plenty of films that treat their characters poorly, but there's nearly-always some form of catharsis at the end. You'll find nothing of the sort in A Serious Man.

When compared to the other films on this list, most people might regard A Serious Man as quite mild. After all, the story doesn't really rely on taboo at all, and there's barely any offensive jokes, off-colour gags or morbid set-pieces either.

But most people are idiots. What makes the Coen Brothers' film a prime slice of blacker-than-night comedy is its complete and total commitment to misanthropy.

There's plenty of films that treat their characters poorly, but there's nearly-always some form of catharsis at the end. You'll find nothing of the sort in A Serious Man.

Throughout its run time, the Coen's subject poor Larry to suburban Jewish nightmare after suburban Jewish nightmare, without any hope of ever escaping his torment. In fact, in the one moment when the audience believe it might turn out alright for Larry, the Coen's immediately snatch it from him, throwing him once again into the pit of middle-class anguish. If anything, this sheer relentlessness of Larry's torment at the hands of God (or the absence of God?) only makes the proceedings even funnier. Needless to say, it's a real doozy.

Sound like your thing? Might be worth checking out a few other Coen Brothers films, especially Fargo (1996) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2012).


Finally, we’ve got Ruben Östlund’s mean-spirited Force Majeure, a fantastic cringe comedy that’ll make even the likes of Larry David squirm.

Force Majeure follows Tomas and his young family while they’re vacationing at a luxury ski resort in the French Alps. All is going well, until Tomas ditches his family, prioritising his own escape over the safety of his family during a dangerous avalanche.

Pretty much the cinematic equivalent of waking up in the dead of night and remembering something embarrassingly stupid you said in public over five years ago, Force Majeure is one of the finest examples of the black comedy sub-genre known as ‘cringe comedy’.

Popularised by TV shows like Seinfeld, The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, cringe comedy has long been seen as something the Americans do best. But, controversially, I’d argue that the European branch of cringe comedy far outshines anything Jerry and his cronies have ever done. By never shying away from tough, prickly subject matter (Force Majeure deals with the collapse of the family unit and the fragility of the male ego), these films can crank the discomfort levels far further than their American counterparts, resulting in stories that’re equal parts painful and hilarious.

There’s plenty of Euro cringe comedy out there, but in my eyes, the creme of the proverbial crop is Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016) and Mikkel Nørgaard’s Klown (2010).

Right, there you go. Hope you enjoyed this readable voyage through the realm of black comedy. Any suggestions for what films you would have put in this list? Keep them to yourself.