Dark humor isn’t what you think

“It’s just dark humor,” or “it’s not my fault not everyone gets it.” The same responses all who dare try to correct self-proclaimed “dark comics” have heard a thousand times. However, when corrected, many of these “dark comedians” suddenly become the very “snowflakes” they claim to target with their attempted jokes.

While dark humor inherently involves serious subjects such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other grave topics, it shouldn’t be used to target and hurt the people who are already being targeted and hurt by bigots, who more often than not, attack from behind the shield of “it’s just a joke.”

Dark humor should satirize actual bigots, or be coping for a collective cultural experience, like COVID-19, as seen in the New York Times article, “It’s OK to Find Humor in Some of This.” “Throughout history,” says the article’s author, Alex Williams, “humor has played a role in the darkest times as a…shared release.”

Casual misuse of dark humor doesn’t offend me; I mostly find it tactless and irritating.However, this irritation is a position of privilege. Even though I am visibly Jewish, I could, in theory, remove my yarmulke and some jewelry and I would look just like any goy (non-Jew). For others who cannot just change out of presenting as their identity, dark humor can have more tangible consequences.

For example, comedian Dave Chapelle released a comedy special in 2019 called Sticks and Stones, in which he made many a joke at the expense of Daphne Dorman, a transgender comedian, who according to Vox, comitted suicide shortly after the release of the special.

Whether or not the special was a factor in her death, it is difficult to argue with the timing. When confronted with the matter of Dorman’s suicide, Chapelle skirted allegations of the role of his special in her death with a statement implying Dorman should have been able to handle it.

Like any other skill, properly executing dark humor takes practice. Often the line between dark humor and cruelty is thin and blurry. I know I have gone too far many times, but when I do, I apologize, learn from my mistake, and move on. It’s also important to know your audience, and how far you can take the joke with them.

By no means is this op-ed calling for the end of dark humor, rather a careful evaluation of how our words affect others. If someone in a minority group you made a joke about tells you that your joke was cruel, accept it. Feel free to ask exactly why that joke was offensive so as to avoid it in the future, but you need to accept that it was. Use dark humor to hit people in power where it hurts to effect positive change, not to kick the injured when they’re down. Most of all, make sure to love and support the aforementioned injured more than you make light of their pain.