If you were to ask me what my favorite movie genre is, I'd definitely have to say dark comedy. All things considered, this is the genre that I seem to get the most enjoyment from. Because I'm so aware that many people have slightly different (but often very strong) views on what a good dark comedy is, as well as what can be rightfully labeled "dark comedy", I will give you the standard disclaimer that this is only my personal take on things, and if you wish to disagree with me, that's entirely okay. I know how fanatical fans of this genre can be, and, at least in this instance, I do respect other people's opinions; even if they differ from my own.
For those of you who don't know, dark comedy is usually defined as humor which makes light of morbid, grim or otherwise "serious" issues and situations. Depending on your definition, this may also include comedies which have any other types of gloomy or disturbing elements to them. Another common term for this kind of comedy is black humor. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for less intelligent or uninformed individuals to mistake this term for having some racial implication, which is one reason many people prefer to use the term "dark" instead of "black" (once again, that's "mortuary black", and has nothing to do with ethnicity). Personally, I like the term dark comedy better because the word "dark" has a slightly more foreboding connotation.
Movie genres, by their very natures, are not absolutes and often overlap, and bleed into each other. This is, of course, true of dark comedies. Many of them could be placed into other genres as well, and numerous dark comedies are actually known or recognized as other things by many people who have seen them. The reason for this is that it requires a certain kind of (I've often heard it refer to as "weird" or "strange") sense of humor to really understand and appreciate dark comedies, and much of the population doesn't possess this sense of humor (F.Y.I. this is also why many good dark comedies don't tend to do especially well at the box office; most people just don't get the joke!). This is also the reason why many of these films are not advertised as dark comedies when they're first released. In fact, I can't recall ever seeing a movie trailer which tried to play up the dark comedy angle, in any significant way.
Although I'm sure that the basic definition which I've provided above would be enough for most people (though certainly not for my audience), it occurs to me that I have seen very little examination on what other elements are comprised within good dark comedy. I have noticed several patterns which I believe are present in many quality movies of this genre. Among most basic fundamentals of almost any dark comedy is the element of dysfunction. This includes not only the psychology of the characters, but the general situations as well. One of the keys to seeing the humor in dark comedy is to be able to sit back, and examine the extreme absurdity of the situation. This is not as blatant as many other types of comedy, and often requires a little thought and examination (which is probably why many people don't get it, thinking isn't their strong suit). The ability to "step back" and look at things from the point of a casual observer, as opposed to getting too drawn into the world and sympathizing with, or becoming too complacent with the characters, is probably the best way to understand the more subtle and broad humor within dark comedies. Basically, think about the situation according to your normal, everyday standards (as opposed to the context of what's normal within the movie) and you'll see just how ridiculous what's happening really is.
The best way that I can think of to sum up the true value of dark comedy is, "it's funny because it's so wrong". Often, the humor is kind of subtle by movie standards; but when compared with real life, whatever's occurring is wickedly over the top. To put it simply, it's funny because it's just so damned messed up! I think it's safe to say that the basic element of dysfunction contributes greatly to this. An extension of this dysfunction is the simple fact that in many dark comedies there are no truly admirable characters. Often, every one within the movie is grossly flawed or somehow deranged. In fact, it is frequently the main character or protagonist that is among the most appalling or psychologically disturbed of all. And yet you're encouraged to root for and sympathize with this character. It should be obvious why, as a villain, I enjoy this (this also has some distinct parallels with the villainesque genre which we're attempting to create, as well as certain horror movies, in which the villain has their own fan base). There are usually no traditional heroes or good guy type characters in dark comedies; everybody's screwed up. Another interesting observation is that within the context of the movie, this dysfunction is often treated as the norm. Although the characters may occasionally make some sort of comment about how utterly flawed a situation is, and on rare occasions even briefly freak out about it; generally, it is taken a lot more lightly then you would expect to be the case any similar, real life situation. This is definitely a common stylistic element in many dark comedies.
Another common element in dark comedies is the spiraling down factor. Things going from either so-so or bad, to worse for the main character. However, this is not normally treated in the more traditional, dramatically tragic way and is often seen as somewhat expected or par for the course, by the characters. There is normally a certain level of apathy towards the seriousness of these events and the character just goes along with them in a somewhat complacent way. Many dark comedy protagonists exhibit an almost unnaturally muted reaction to the insanity that's occurring round them.
I would say that another hallmark of quality movies within this genre is the frequent use of the characters inner monologues. These are used to both, fill the audience in on what's going on in the general plot and to give the audience some insight into what the character is really thinking. I've noticed that this frequently adds significantly to the humor of the movie and quite often, these internal rants and comments are very witty.
Despite the supposedly bleak subject matter of these films, the endings are often strangely upbeat. They are certainly not "live happily ever after" endings, but they are usually not particularly tragic and tend to offer some hope for the character's future. This is in contrast to the downward flow of the rest of the movie, and seems to suggest that the characters life is now finally leveling out. Considering that the main characters of these films are often morally reprehensible, this genre seems to be the closest, most consistent thing to the villainesque, "bad guy wins" mentality currently available in any culturally significant form (then again, I suppose that we always have Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects").
To be continued...