Written by David Warfield
Sexual deviance, death, stupidity, mental illness, brutality, murder: don’t you love ‘em? I do, but not in the form of earnest drama. I like my perversion with a double shot of truth, and hold the sentimentality. When it’s real smart and real funny and really offends the faint of heart, what do you call it? Until now it hasn’t had a proper name. I call it Comedy Noir.
The term comes from the French, Comédie Noire, which can be attributed to playwrights and critics of the early twentieth century. But I’m talking about the form that is most relevant to contemporary cinema and screenwriting: American films (and their parent novels) from the mid-twentieth century to the present. The term “Black Comedy” gets confused with the even more vague “Dark Comedy,” and sometimes with stories by or about African Americans. And, because the Comedy Noir form is a vital force for good in a movie world dominated by a market-driven aversion to offending consumers (you’ll not see product placement shots in a real comedy noir), it deserves and requires a distinctive, assertive title with literary cred.
Definition? Comedy Noir is a meta-genre with influence across story types that share a dark comedic, morbid, or satirical tone in dealing with taboo or other subject matter usually regarded as horrific, macabre, immoral, or revolting. The purest form of Comedy Noir can be detected by authorial intent: if it is to make the audience laugh at the abhorrent, it’s probably comedy noir. A subversive challenge to social mores, hypocrisy, social institutions, and belief systems is an important, if secondary, component of Comedy Noir. It presents a stylized vision of human nature, often preposterous and exaggerated beyond the “realism” of the drama. Comedy Noir shares DNA with Film Noir (I mean the pre-film-school-neo stuff) in that cynicism, human folly, sexual deviance, and moral ambiguity accompany both forms
Comedy Noir is not merely a sub-genre of comedy. The sardonic and mordant heart of the form is expressed in stories too divergent to be contained within a single genre. Dr. Strangelove, Fargo, Starship Troopers, Catch 22, Lolita (1962 version only please!), The Loved One, They Live, and To Die For certainly cannot be adequately described as “comedies,” but they all represent Comedy Noir.
Many stories employ Comedy Noir as an ad-hoc technique within a given scene, while the over-all vision of the story is conventional. There are a number of Comedy Noir moments in Hitchcock’s Psycho (who doesn’t laugh nervously at Norman’s relief when the car finally sinks in the swamp?) but as a whole, it’s a horror film. One may count a handful of big laughs in Silence of the Lambs, but the film is a thriller rather than a Comedy Noir.
The horror/ slasher genres in general deal in a kind of fun-house gallows humor, but their intent is to arouse fear and anxiety, creating a sort of vicarious rite-of-passage for the (usually) youthful target audience. The threat in a horror film, comfortingly, is deviant: a monster, fiend, or a supernatural entity. The horror film thrill-ride tests the mettle of an individual hero who must overcome this threatening monster, but within a conventional point of view of social establishments. In the “pure” Comedy Noir, the social establishment is the threatening monster. We can’t be comforted by the probability that the deviant or monster will be arrested or killed, because the monster is us.
The Comedy Noir comic-apocalyptic point of view refuses to pull its punches. It does not allow us to feel reassured, safe or uplifted. It is willing to profoundly offend in the service of truth telling, at least as truth is perceived by its author. It doesn’t say, “just kidding” after delivering its blows. It’s a slaughterhouse for society’s sacred cows. Tropic Thunder and Talladega Nights are typical parodies that deal in a politically correct, calculated outrageousness that allows the audience to feel reassured and safe by the time the credits roll (befitting ample-budget mainstream movies). Other mild species include Arsenic and Old Lace, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Harold and Maude. Idiocracy has some inspired moments, but ultimately chickens out. These movies lack the undomesticated ruthlessness of pure Comedy Noir, like say, Team America: World Police, or the unflinching Happiness.
Hard core Comedy Noir intrigues and attracts some viewers, while it offends and repels others. It’s not blockbuster material. It seems to appeal to an artsy/literary, cynical, potty-mouthed juvenile, and/or intellectual audience. The subversive, satirical, and reform impulse sometimes expressed in Comedy Noir suggests a political leaning (usually liberal), but the pure stuff transcends politics. Those who don’t get it view Comedy Noir as non-ironically “sick,” which is what Comedy Noir is, if done correctly, without compromise, and delivering a real sting! Reese Witherspoon’s turns in Freeway and Election deliver, as does Laura Dern’s anti-Juno in Citizen Ruth.
Novelist James Purdy (recently deceased) said in the 1960’s, “We live in the stupidest cultural era of American history. It is so stupid it inspires me . . . the theme of my work is the estrangement of the human being in America . . . based on money and competition, inhuman, terrified of love, sexual and other, obsessed with homosexuality and brutality, opposing anything that opposes money.” Fifty years later, it seems little has changed that would alter Purdy’s point of view. In the past, movies like Day of the Locust, A Face in the Crowd, and Catch 22 offered some darkly inspired reactions to our brutal, dumbed-down culture. Sources of inspiration for the contemporary Comedy Noir writer are not in short supply, though the corporate cash may be. Still, we got Fight Club, Observe and Report, and the glorious Starship Troopers.
The impulse to reform in classical Satire is expressed in these quotes:
“Satire is born of the instinct to protest; it is protest become art.” (Jack)
“Satire . . . a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.” (Johnson)
“Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” (Swift)
While Comedy Noir often bears a close kinship to Satire, it need not have any intent to reform. And, unlike Comedy Noir, there is no requirement that Satire make us laugh at what is usually considered repugnant or horrible. Satire (through literary and other art forms) seeks to illuminate or improve human behavior and institutions by exposing follies, hypocrisy, excesses, and vices, using the tools of wit, irony, derision and sarcasm. Exaggeration and analogy are often components of satire, and the humor and irony employed are of a militant degree.
Most films listed in my Comedy Noir filmography contain satirical elements, if not bold-faced satire. Some Comedy Noir films that employ less apparent satire include Drag Me to Hell, Bad Santa, Observe and Report, and Fargo. Others are richly and pointedly satirical, like They Live, Dr. Strangelove, To Die For, and Burn After Reading.
So, Comedy Noir can be satirical and reform–minded, but what it really cares about is the primitive, perverted, absurdity of human beings in pursuit of their ridiculous ambitions and schemes. We are so sick it’s funny.
An old saying about country music I heard from singer/songwriter Pam Tillis: “When it’s good it’s okay, but when it’s bad, it’s great.” Pam was talking about camp. Camp is a term that refers to an aesthetic appreciation for bad taste, overwrought dramatic works, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and all things cheesy. Velvet Elvis paintings and Soap Operas are embraced on an ironic level by the “sophisticated” class. Kitsch becomes cool through a camp sensibility. Camp and Comedy Noir are not to be conflated. Camp is safe and trend driven. For example, John Waters’ Serial Mom is an exercise in camp, and not Comedy Noir. While the story deals with a suburban housewife who goes on a killing spree, the actions are presented in a cartoonish, non-threatening way. The emphasis is on the garish trappings and mannerisms of banal, middle class, strip-mall life. The film is too tame to claim Comedy Noir cred. On the other hand, a film with a similar milieu, To Die For, is Comedy Noir at its militant best.
“Exploitation Film,” as a marketing term, is not a pejorative. The term denotes a particular niche product, usually of modest budget and without major stars, or with stars on the wane. The Exploitation Film promises a level of lurid content (sex, action, violence) expected by its target audience. Sometimes the Exploitation Film becomes camp with age, spawning retro remakes like Eight Legged Freaks and Black Dynamite (which are fun, but can’t deliver the authentic cheesy energy of the originals). By the time the Child’s Play series got to Bride of Chucky, the ad campaign oozed a strong sense of morbid humor, but the franchise is more in the realm of camp exploitation/ horror than that of Comedy Noir.
Storytellers may ask, “Is my story a Comedy Noir?“ Ask yourself: Do I have something to say about society and the human condition that could be morbid, repulsive, shocking, irreverent, subversive, disgusting, deviant, and really, really funny? If your story demonstrates that influence, attitude, and point of view, maybe so. If you’re playing it safe, probably not. I use the term Comedy Noir to denote films with certain ruthless characteristics, including subversive creative genius, and to give them their due. Besides, when Zack Galifianakis jokes on SNL about confusing “dark comedy” with movies by the Wayans Brothers, you know we need a better term.
Comedy Noir is not simplistic in its reach to challenge and entertain with real meaning. A successful Comedy Noir story must be more than a collage of cheap shots against easy targets, or a series of shocking events and behaviors that gross out for the sake of grossing out. The low humor sometimes portrayed in the artistically successful Comedy Noir is really only effective when it simultaneously works as a sophisticated sort of high comedy. There must be truth in the story if it is to hit home. The subtext goes deeper than the immediate characters and absurdities, and into the realm of social, philosophical, and metaphysical meaning. True Comedy Noir goes beyond exploitation, camp, or satire. It reaches high to confront us with our assumptions about a meaningful, moral world, and reveal the absurd, primitive, greedy, and irrational dimensions of our selves.
I welcome suggestions for films (including foreign) to add to my growing Comedy Noir list. Here’s my personal top ten list of (American) Comedy Noir films, in no particular order:
2. To Die For
4. Starship Troopers
5. Team America: World Police
6. Observe and Report
7. Catch 22
9. Dr. Strangelove
11. Sunset Boulevard
Copyright © 2012 David W. Warfield