Although I have heard people say that they believe drama and tension are an essential part of good dark comedies, as opposed to other types of comedies, I'd have to disagree (then again, perhaps we don't share the same opinions about what is "dramatic"). I'd say that the best dark comedies don't take themselves too seriously. If you really think about it, they can't. By their very nature, dark comedies are dealing with (what would normally be considered) very serious subject matter. The only thing that makes it a comedy is the fact that it's not taking these things seriously at all and in fact, is making the light of these situations, events and activities. A good dark comedy knows how to have fun!
Allow me to explain what I mean by this. I'm a fan of the 1982 film Creepshow; directed by George A. Romero and written by Stephen King. This film pays tribute to 1950's horror comics and is very stylized. Creepshow is not normally considered a dark comedy. However, it would be a mistake to label it as a straight up horror flick; it's something else entirely. Horror films, by their very definition are designed to inspire fear in the audience; but this is not the first priority with Creepshow. This movie is obviously more concerned with having a good time, then with trying to scare you. It really doesn't take itself very seriously at all and it's so deliciously corny (you may have noticed that I enjoy getting a little corny with my work as well)! Although, Creepshow maybe a more extreme example of what I'm talking about, many good dark comedies have a similar sense of the whimsy about them (be it, a very dark sort of whimsy!). And I feel that the best dark comedies encourage you to have fun while viewing the acts of terrible violence, dysfunction and insanity. Obviously, it takes a certain type of person to appreciate this, but I'm expecting that my villainous audience will be somewhat biased.
Another important aspect of many dark comedies is that of satire and irony. As I said in part one of this rant, the humor in dark comedies is often somewhat subtle and requires a certain amount of thought to truly appreciate. Often, the types of satire found in dark comedies, is of a cynical or socially pessimistic nature. It could be argued that you already have to see the world from this point of view in order to appreciate this kind of humor. This also applies to the ironic elements of dark comedies as well. Basically, you have to be able to see the humor in something that goes unbelievably wrong (especially for someone else). Uncanny coincidence and obscenely bad timing are just as much a part of the fun of dark comedies, as the more blatantly grim aspects are. I suspect that the kinds of people, who would identify with these rants, would probably be more inclined to appreciate or at least understand the view of the world which dark comedies show us; as opposed to many other people.
In order to clarify what we've discussed in these last two rants, I'm going to briefly examine three fairly well known dark comedies (though, most people who have seen them probably know them as other things, and once again, don't really get the joke). Although you can find all of these films in lists of dark comedies, each of them is known by the mainstream public for other reasons. However, despite the perception of the masses, I would say that all three of these films are very good, but very different examples of dark comedy.
American Psycho (2000) I must admit that one of the reasons that I like this movie so much has to do with the period in which it is set (the 1980's), as well as the whole yuppie lifestyle that this movie is heavily immersed in. It also may not come as a complete surprise that I can sympathize, in certain ways, with the main character (Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale). I know that I'm not the only person who really enjoys the darkness of his inner monologues throughout the film. Although you're much more likely to find this title in the horror section, rather than the comedy; I would say that this film is only mediocre as a horror movie, but is an excellent dark comedy.
Aside from the blatant derangement of the main character in American Psycho (which provides some wickedly entertaining moments right there), the self centered, and utterly apathetic nature of the other characters, brings a lot of the humor to this film. The fact that every one is so self-absorbed, that they can't tell one of their colleagues from another and don't even bother to realize that there's a psychopathic murderer in their presence, is downright hilarious. The preoccupation with aesthetics, exhibited both by the characters and the film itself, is another thing that adds significantly to the humor and is also something that I can appreciate on a personal level (I'm not what you would call a "tee shirt and jeans guy").
Pulp fiction (1994) Although I would not put this film on a list of my top five favorite dark comedies, I decided to included here because I feel that it is generally more well known and iconic, then many others on my list. This film has many memorable scenes, and these are what it is typically known for. Despite the fact that many people know that it is a dark comedy, sometimes I get the impression that this is because someone else told them it was (meaning, they didn't figure it out themselves by watching the film). This movie does have some very funny moments in it. There are no truly admirably characters in this movie, and in fact, most of them are extremely morally reprehensible; and yet you're encouraged to sympathize with them and can't help but to like them. Instilling this response in the audience is something that Mr. Quentin Tarantino (director) excels at. The only complaint that I have about this movie, is that I think that the actors often play their parts a little too straight. There is very little emphasis on much of the outrageousness of what is being said by the characters, and it can get kind of lost. This makes some of the humorous dialogue a little more subtle then it probably needs to be; however, if you really listen closely to what the characters are saying (and aren't too distracted by all of the iconic scenes) this is a very funny movie.
Fight Club (1999) The line "The first rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club..." is probably what this
film is best known for. This is a shame. Although many people tend to think of Dr. Strangelove, whenever someone says "dark comedy",
I always think of Fight Club. This movie takes full advantage of the satirical aspects of dark comedy and gives us an interesting
(and delightfully cynical) view of both society and the human animal. I'd also like to point out that some of Edward Norton's
character's narrations in the film are freak'n hilarious. It's a real pity that so many people get so hung up on the violence
and brutality in this movie that they fail to see the comic diamond mine underneath. But I suppose that I can't expect everyone
to be as blatantly amoral as me.
Below, I include a list of other personal recommendations of movies in this genre; in no particular order.
Little Shop of Horrors (1960) Yes, I must admit that I'm a real "Little shop" fan. Man eating plants rule!
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) This film remains very true to the book by Hunter S. Thompson; which is also excellent. Another personal favorite.
Heathers (1989) Haha, teen suicide. Winona Ryder is great in this.
The Cable Guy (1996) Just imagine Jim Carrey stalking you; creepy.
So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) With a title like that, how can it not be fun?
Death to Smoochy (2002) Confirming my suspicions about the mass corruption in children's programming. This flick also stars Edward Norton, though Robin Williams really steals the show.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Ah yes, family dysfunction.
Very Bad Things (1998) Very bad things indeed. FYI- I sympathize a little bit too much with Christian Slater's character in this one. He's the only one making sense through the first part of this film.
American Beauty (1999) Some nice, down to earth dark comedy. Another great example of movies in this genre.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) Showing us the softer, more romantic side of people who kill for money.
Thank You for Smoking (2006) Greed, threats to public health, social irresponsibility and mass media B.S.; does it get any better than that?
Although I'm sure that everyone has their own list, these are some of my personal favorites. The movies in this genre may not be for everyone, but for those of us who "get it" they are a unique source of enjoyment. And by understanding the humor of dark comedies, we are better prepared for the punch line to the greatest joke of all; which is, of course, human existence.