What Is a "Black Comedy" Movie?

Movies That Shock You With Humor

Women laughing in a movie theater

 Flashpop / Getty Images

You've probably heard a film described as a “black comedy” or a “dark comedy,” but what exactly does that genre term mean?

Though more recently some have equated the term “black comedy” with comedy films aimed at African American audiences (for example, the Friday and Barbershop movies), the traditional definition of black comedy has nothing to do with race.

Typically, a black comedy – or dark comedy – is a film which takes a heavy, controversial, disturbing, or generally off-limits subject matter and treats it in a humorous manner. Some black comedies set out to shock their audiences with their unexpectedly humorous take on a serious subject. In many cases, the goal of a black comedy is to shed light on controversial or disturbing subject matter through humor. There are also many films that are drama, thriller, or horror films that nevertheless contain memorable moments of dark comedy, including Fargo (1996), Fight Club (1999), and American Psycho (2000).

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of black comedy in film is the final scene of 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The film – which is about a Jewish man in Biblical-era Judea who is misidentified as the Messiah – ends with a mass crucifixion scene in which those who are slowly dying on crosses sing a jolly song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” to pick up their spirits. Obviously, that situation isn’t humorous to everyone and upon its release Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in several countries. The comedy group used this to their advantage by using the tagline “The film that is so funny it was banned in Norway!” on posters.

Though there are dozens of great choices, here is a short list of some of the most popular black comedy movies of all time.

of 05

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Masterful filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is considered by many to be the best black comedy movie of all time with good reason – it tackled a fearful subject that was on the minds of nearly everyone on the planet during the Cold War: nuclear annihilation. The film also pokes fun at world leaders by making both the head of the U.S. and USSR governments totally inept and unable to make effective decisions to prevent nuclear war. Highlights of the film include Peter Sellers in three roles (including U.S. President Merkin Muffley and the title character, ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove), and George C. Scott portraying an over-the-top jingoist Air Force general.

Surprisingly, Kubrick’s film was based on the serious 1958 novel Red Alert. As he was working on the script adaptation with his collaborators, they found humor in the stark drama of the material and wrote a comedy instead.

of 05

Heathers (1988)

New World Pictures

Three girls all named Heather form a popular clique at a high school in Ohio. After one of the Heathers embarrasses a girl whom they were once friends with named Veronica (Winona Ryder), Veronica and her boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater) enact revenge on them—though it has unintended deadly consequences. Veronica and J.D. cover up the crime, but it begins a pattern of sociopathic murder and copycat behavior that is as outrageously funny as it is shocking. Though it wasn't a box office hit, Heathers became a cult classic on VHS.

of 05

Delicatessen (1991)


Delicatessen is set in post-apocalyptic France and is about a landlord (played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who hires people to work for him. Except instead of putting them to work, he kills them, butchers them, and serves their meat to his tenants. Few people would find cannibalism funny under regular circumstances, but this French comedy won many awards and is still praised for its clever character development.

of 05

Bad Santa (2003)

Bad Santa
Dimension Films

Even the holidays aren't safe from black comedy. In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton stars as a drunk, sex-crazed, unkempt thief who poses as a department store Santa Claus in order to rob the store overnight when the doors are closed. Thornton’s character is so over-the-top awful that’s it’s impossible not to laugh at his horrific antics and the terrible way he treats the children who come to see him – including one outcast with the unfortunate name of Thurman Merman. Bad Santa has remained so popular that a sequel is being released in November 2016.

of 05

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

World's Greatest Dad
Magnolia Pictures

Those most familiar with Robin Williams from his family-friendly comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire might be horrified by World's Greatest Dad, a brilliant black comedy written and directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. The film is about a high school English teacher named Lance (played by Williams) who is unable to get his novels published. When Lance discovers that his outcast 15 year-old son has accidentally died, Lance fakes a suicide note to cover up the death. Many are touched by the note, so Lance then decides to live his dreams as an acclaimed writer through his dead son as he begins publishing more of his son's “work” (really, his own). Many critics hail it as one of Williams' best performances.