It might be said that populism's mirror opposite is dark or black humor. This always provocative form of comedy emphasizes three interrelated themes: man as beast, the absurdity of the world, and the omnipresence of death. While populism views human nature as inherently good and the world as rational, with life after death, the blackly comic worlds of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Catch-22 (1970) typically make life out to be a cosmic joke. At its essence, dark humor skewers society's most sacred serious subjects—especially death. For instance, what could be more seemingly tasteless than comedy based on teen suicide, as in Harold and Maude (1971) and Heathers (1989)? Both
Coming from roots in the music hall tradition, Charlie Chaplin is easily the most significant of all screen comedians. Indeed, he is often called cinema's greatest figure, comic or otherwise, by film scholars and the general public alike. Because of both the everyman universality of his Tramp character and the range of Chaplin's pantomime, he remains the standard against which all cinema clowns are measured. His ability to balance comedy and pathos, as at the close of City Lights (1931) when the blind girl finally sees but finds the benefactor Tramp wanting, is unparalleled. This blend has become an elusive goal for other comedians from Harry Langdon to Jerry Lewis. Chaplin wrote, directed, scored, starred in, and produced his own films. Many film comedians have since failed in their attempts to equal this accomplishment, from Langdon in the silent era to Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (1989).
Chaplin's art is clearest when contrasted with his contemporary comic rival, Buster Keaton. While Keaton's world often involves doing battle with machines and/or nature, Chaplin's comic wars are with other men and society. For instance, in The Pilgrim (1923) Chaplin pantomimes the story of David and Goliath—a situation that informs all of Charlie's stories. Also, the epic quality of Keaton's comedy contrasts sharply with the intimacy of Chaplin's metamorphosis of small, inanimate objects, the most brilliant example of this being the fanciful forked dinner rolls that suddenly become dancing feet in The Gold Rush (1925). While Keaton's world is often about a cerebral take on twentieth-century absurdity, Chaplin's oeuvre is all about heartfelt nineteenth-century romanticism, from the films with perennial short-subject actress Edna Purviance such as The Immigrant (1917) to the plucky gamin played by Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936) to Claire Bloom in Limelight (1952).
Chaplin's legacy keys upon the genre of personality comedy, but he was also a pivotal architect of dark comedy. There was always an undercurrent of black humor in Charlie's pictures, as in his thoughts of pitching the baby down the sewer in The Kid (1921). But with The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin produced two pioneering classics of dark comedy. In Verdoux , his first complete break with the Charlie-the-Tramp persona, Chaplin plays a character who makes a business of marrying and then murdering little old ladies.
Chaplin also cofounded United Artists, a distribution company for independent productions, with film pioneers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. But, his shocking persona in Monsieur Verdoux alienated many fans, and in the midst of Cold War hysteria Chaplin, who had never become a US citizen, was barred in 1952 from re-entering the country. Of his last few films, Limelight is noteworthy as his summary statement on the power of comedy.
The Immigrant (1917), Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952)
Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.
Chaplin, Charles, Jr., with N. Rau and M. Rau. My Father, Charlie Chaplin . New York: Random House, 1960.
Gehring, Wes D. Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Maland, Charles. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art . New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Wes D. Gehring
films depict a dysfunctional family, which is typical of the genre; Igby Goes Down (2002) features teenage brothers assisting in the suicide of their mother, in a more recent variation on this theme.
In black comedies randomness is as prevalent in suicides as in the frustrating lives that drive characters to desperation. Reuben, Reuben (1983) documents an accidental suicide (an overwhelmed writer dies by accidental hanging after he decides to abort the suicide attempt), and in Crimes of the Heart (1986) Sissy Spacek's off-center child of the South fails at many attempts at suicide, then decides against it, only to accidentally knock herself out trying to remove her head from the oven. Unlike populism, which preaches hope even in death, the message of dark comedy is that there is no message. The genre has been described as "beyond a joke" or "anticomedy" because it fights the new beginnings associated with most types of laughter. Black humor further keeps its audience on edge ("Am I supposed to be laughing here?") by often fragmenting its narrative, as in Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Dark humor was fueled by the writings of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose works helped accelerate the decentralization of the individual in the grand scheme of things. Darwin's then-revolutionary claims about evolution and Freud's emphasis on the once-taboo subject of sexuality and the unconscious provide a solid foundation for black comedy. Freud was fascinated by this genre, as in the tale of the fellow heading for the gallows who asked for a neckerchief to guard against catching a cold. For Freud, dark comedy was a defense mechanism against the inevitability of death.
Like life, dark comedy is disjointed. It keeps the viewer off balance with shock effects that are visual, such as the leg protruding from the wood shredder in Fargo (1996) by Joel (b. 1954) and Ethan Coen (b. 1957), and/or auditory, as in Malcolm McDowell's warbling of Gene Kelly's beloved standard "Singin' in the Rain" as he stomps people to death in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Indeed, black humor is the only film genre (comic or otherwise) that uses a musical score at cross purposes to the visual, as in the Harold and Maude funeral scene where the removal of a coffin runs into a John Philip Sousa–playing marching band that just happens to be passing the church. This edgy genre offers conflicting cues to the viewer instead of simply reinforcing the status quo (as for example, violin music would in a romantic comedy).
More controversial is how black humor treats institutions of the establishment such as psychiatry, religion, and the military, which routinely insist that this is a rational world. Harold and Maude effectively skewers each one when the troubled teen Harold (Bud Cort) repeatedly says that a counseling trio (a priest, a psychiatrist, and an uncle in the army) do not have a clue about life. The damaging "guidance" they offer recalls Raymond Durgnat's suggestion that whenever sanctimonious society suggests how sacred life is to us, we are drawn to dark comedies that showcase death and destruction ( The Crazy Mirror ).
While there have always been cinematic dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove brought the genre to center stage. Throughout the 1960s, America's interest in black humor was further fueled by growing social disillusionment, and there were dark-humor movements in both 1960s stand-up comedy (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin) and literature (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut). But there was a long tradition to draw upon, given the horrors of World War II. Chaplin produced two watershed dark comedies at this time— The Great Dictator (1940), his take on Hitler, followed by the urbane Bluebeard tale Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The latter picture was the catalyst for a series of black-comedy gems from the genre's most honored studio—England's Ealing. From Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to The Ladykillers (1955), Ealing specialized in amiable dark humor. England has long had a proclivity for this genre, from