Tag Archives: writing humor

Q&A: Gallows Humor

Do you have any advice on injecting black humor into my assassin’s narrative without being tasteless?

You can’t. Gallows humor revolves specifically around being tasteless, around saying very inappropriate things, and making a mockery of the situation. You are, after all, laughing at the pain of others.

The question is: were you funny?

That is the make or break rule of comedy, and understanding how to be funny with gallows humor requires understanding gallows humor. When you fail at gallows humor, you are just that asshole who said an inappropriate thing at the wrong time and then laughed at their own terrible joke.

Humor is the connections your mind makes before other people get there. As such, it tells us a lot about a person, who they are, how they think, what kind of experiences they’ve had, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and who they are. This is part of why funny people break first, your sense of humor will tell your interrogator how you think and they’ll use that against you. (There’s some black humor in turning the knife on yourself, especially unwittingly.)

In real life, gallows humor is a sign of what experiences you’ve had, how you respond to them, and what you’ve become inured to. Gallows humor by its very nature is a societal taboo, you’re saying something shocking but the shock or the inappropriateness is not what makes the joke funny. For gallows humor to be successful, it must also be insightful. The outrageous comment served a purpose, had a point, drew a connection that their audience couldn’t see.

Humor is taking the situation you’re in, drawing insight from it, and making an observation. If you don’t do that, then your joke will fail. Gallows humor represents a high bar because it is offensive by its very nature, but the observation and the unexpected connection of two pieces are why we laugh. Gallows humor has to be relevant to the situation at hand, it is directly related to what is happening in front of you. You have a better understanding of what is going on around you than others who have not been inducted into this view of the world. Gallows humor directly relies on your ability to look at a situation before you, gather up the pieces, and make an observation for a joke that will not work anywhere other than in this exact moment. You can’t, really, save this shit for later, except when telling the joke to someone else who was there at the time.

Soldiers, cops, doctors, customer service reps, people who work in retail, they all have very specific forms of humor that can be shared because of their shared experience. If you lack that experience, then you will be outside of it.

The moment gallows humor crystallizes is when the character really does stop giving a shit. Other humans become ambulatory bags of meat and then it’s okay to laugh at their suffering, or make jokes at their expense. This doesn’t mean it’s societally okay, if your character utilizes black humor they can and should expect to be called out for it. However, the character no longer cares how their listener is going to receive the joke because the joke was funny to them. What they’ve been through has been normalized, they’re no longer horrified by it and now it is just funny.

Humor in fiction functions much the same way, except with the added dynamic of the purpose it serves to clue the audience in through those observations made by the characters. M.A.S.H. and Law & Order are both a masters of utilizing humor as a form of exposition without the audience ever realizing it. The jokes serve a specific purpose, while also underscoring the natures of the characters’ themselves.

If your characters humor does not serve a purpose then it won’t be funny, they’ll be tasteless and an asshole instead of a tasteless funny asshole. For an assassin, this kind of humor could be a weapon they use against others. It could be a dead give away to their nature, and expose them to normal people around them. Or, they just spend so much time alone they tell jokes that are only amusing to them and that the people around them don’t find funny. (Though, the audience might.)

George Carlin is right, any joke can be funny no matter how inappropriate, that you will laugh at despite yourself, and you can find humor in any situation. He’s also right in that it has to be funny. The shock is not what’s funny, the taboo is not what makes it funny, the observation and the unexpected connection between two different pieces somehow applicable to the situation are where the joke is.

The trick to grasping gallows humor is that you first need to own it. No wishy-washy, “but I don’t want to offend someone”, this form of humor is offensive by its very nature. However, the next step is in understanding the offensive part wasn’t what was funny. Humor comes from disrupting audience expectations at key points. You can’t get there just by being shocking, you’ve also got to get them to laugh. In this case, it’s funny because it’s accurate.

Gallows humor is often utilizing people’s pain to mock something else occurring in the scene. In the case of M.A.S.H. for example, the point is the realities of war and death versus the jingoistic illusions sold to the populace at large. The humor works to firmly root our understanding in the horrors happening, and make us aware of them. Humor also transforms the horrors into something less incomprehensible. It connects the incomprehensible to the absurd in ways that can make performing “meatball surgery” on hundreds of teenagers who were torn apart into an almost manageable experience.

Gallows humor is often specifically targeting cultural illusions about death, about the way people die, about the arbitrary nature of it.

“He was such a brave and noble soldier. Too bad he shat himself right there at the end, and then again after his corpse went cold. You’d think the human body could only stack up so much shit, but no. There’s always more.”

The joke is you shit yourself when you’re scared and after you die, and the fact the whole situation was shit to begin with.

Gallows humor is often biting, bitter, and disillusioned. It has a target, though that target may not be what you initially think. After all, a gallows humor joke at a funeral is usually targeting the mourners themselves. The disconnect between the person who died, who they were, and what is said about them. Gallows humor at a crime scene or over a dead body could very well be about the situational irony or an observation of the person’s unexpected nature or the nature of their death. It can be crass and cruel, and very difficult to hear.

The ending point is that humor is about who your character is as a person and how they express themselves. However, to successfully carry the humor off, you’ll need to be realistic about how other people would respond. (Specific people, not a generic response.) You’ll also need to get used to not giving a shit. This is not the kind of humor one uses in order to make people like them. It’s more the kind that gets people to like you in spite of themselves. This is a very specific type of humor which appeals to a very specific type of character, and is an example of the way they look at other human beings. The kind that gets people to call you an asshole, but, you know, a funny asshole.

Try to remember, assassins are not nice people. Assholes can indeed be very funny. You’re character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a good protagonist. Humor is an expression of character, experience, and the way the mind puts information together.

Again, there’s only one real metric: was it funny?

Your character has three audiences, themselves, the people around them, and the audience at large. If you tell the joke right, then the audience will sympathize with your character. Tell it wrong, and they’ll sympathize with the people who got offended. If you don’t provide them with that outlet within the narrative because you’re desperate for your character to appear funny, you risk taking them out of the narrative entirely. You need a good foil, and a way to catch yourself when the joke fails. Don’t get so caught up in trying to be funny that you lose the perspective on when your character goes over the line. This is a high bar, your character is going to fall down a few times. Jokes just don’t land.

You’re never funny 100% of the time, even when you do it for a living. Add the dynamic for your character of when the joke doesn’t land, and those who don’t find them funny.

It makes them human.


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