Dark Humor and the Subversion of PC Culture

Primary Source: Figures 1-5 above: Taken from James N. Tidwell’s American Folklore archive at San Diego State University; transcripts of different styles of insult, morbid, and dark jokes used around the nation.

Secondary Source: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/455713.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ab18dabb438077c747f5b9ccae2110aa9

(Refer to pages 397-401) Journal: Taken from Professor Edna Andrews’ ” CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: THE LINGUISTIC PROBLEM OF NAMING” (1996)


American comedic culture, more than anything, is a free-flowing counterculture that subverts every single aspect of American society; from race relations to gender issues, comedic culture openly criticizes the subjects that people do not normally discuss or bring about. More specifically, situational relevant “black humor,” otherwise known as dark or hate jokes, have a specific niche in progressive social relations among American citizens throughout history. Rather than a debilitating tool used to humiliate various groups of people, black humor, “skewers convention, looks beyond and through racial and gender identity, and mocks sexuality and death…not [being] concerned with the moral quality of society and instead aims to deconstruct moral certitude” (Standfest). In other words, dark humor has been historically used as a cross-cultural medium, discussing otherwise unwelcome subjects regardless of background or historical period. According to professor Jerry Zolten of Pennsylvania State University, American dark humor is heavily laced with satire, which was mostly about race and ethnicity in the early 1800s, and became more popular in mainstream comedy and media in the mid to late 1950’s (Zimmerman). Around the latter time, literature and language professor James N. Tidwell archived many of these commonly tabooed jokes during his travels throughout the country, and stored them in the American Folklore collection in the Special Collections and University Archives. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 consist of examples of such archived jokes, ranging from morbid, cannibalistic, violent topics to that of cross-dressing children; such archives epitomize the very nature of this style of humor. Dark humor strays from the politically correct environment that American culture emanates, subverting common racial, ethnic, gender, and customary stereotypes in order to deconstruct the peculiarities of overt and covert discrimination and taboos present in society.

Regarding gender and sexuality stereotypes, dark humor often attacks the constructs of what makes men and women look like and act like their established social identities of the time. Tidwell’s travels throughout 1950’s America allowed him to experience different levels of typical American gender roles and nuclear family households: a stay-at-home mother who cooks and cleans, a daughter playing with dolls, a son with toy soldiers, the bread-winning father, etc. A direct antithesis to this lifestyle would include anything that is not heterosexual and patriarchal. One such example of patriarchal gender stereotyping is the gentleness of a mother, to which Tidwell presents the aggressive joke, “‘Mother, why does Daddy lie so still?’ / ‘Shut up and keep digging!’” (Tidwell), implying the fact that the mother may or may not have killed her husband.

In taking a dark turn, black humor has the cynical tendency to subvert normal behaviors to “address dire social circumstances, but with a specificity of intent that adhered to topicality in a way that [‘correct’] humor does not” (Standfest). At face value, this joke is highly immoral, but carries many social implications: Are mothers always good or can they ever be bad? Do BOTH men and women have violent tendencies? Can the man actually become a victim? With the difference in established power, it was actually atypical in the past to see a man being the helpless victim and the mother acting in a tough or dangerous way, especially when the lens is given through an innocent child’s eye. Moreover, when it came to the difference in male and female interaction, there has even been a submissive expectation regarding intellect.  The following video satirizes the female ability to engage in a “man’s” conversation:


Black humoristics purposefully exaggerate common social constructs and stereotypes for the sake of exposing the peculiar behaviours that result from such harsh societal judgement. The skits and jokes spur conversation, and introduce uncomfortable topics with light-hearted an shocking ease. Figure 1 includes the joke, “Mommy, can I wear a bra?” to which the mother refuses, yelling, “NO! Thomas!” (Tidwell) to her son after much persistence. Homosexuality and cross-dressing during the 1950’s to 1960’s remained a huge taboo in society, often being viewed as an anti-establishment ideal for American men and women; as a result, the government often shut down or did not, until recently, pass laws that would be in the favor of the LGBTQ community (Cohen and Richards). In other words, these topics of conversation were controversial. Comedy Central’s show Saturday Night Live frequently presented skits that included situations of homosexual advances and cross-dressing, to both provide laughable material as well as show the ridiculous extent to which American society taboos the gay community. “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” in season 24 of SNL is a prime example of exaggerating the stereotypes of the gay community that made people question how absurd it was to worry about couples who may or may not be gay, by introducing characters who cross-dressed, overplayed gender stereotypes, and mined for humor in “gay panic,” but were heros (Pierce). Of course, like Tidwell’s cross-dressing joke, the material was accepted with shocking surprise, eventually leading to the question: What is there to really worry about with the LGBTQ community? Dark, satirical humor in American society subverted the common misconceptions of how badly one should actually worry about such issues.


The goal of a dark humorist is to be painfully honest, and observational humor provides just that. As time progressed closer to the 1960’s, around which the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements came about, dark humor became a particular form of “American outrage” that exploded from the social unrest of the time. According to curator Ryan Standfest, “The postwar desire to aggressively shape a singular middle class ‘American Dream’ eventually rested in a brand of comic subversion in the mid to late 1950’s” as a “literary conceit with the occasional nod to stand-up comedy” (Standfest). This American Dream was to be more inclusive, leading to a common pattern in the growing popularity of stand-up comedy in the late 1960’s. Rosenfield from the American Comedy Institute claims that “it starts with certain groups or minorities–immigrants, blacks, women, old people, Jews, Muslims, gays, Arabs, Asians–being the target of stereotypical jokes” (Cohen and Richards). Racial and ethnic stereotypes have a precedence in stand-up and observational comedy, both of which utilize dark humor as a way to advance minority significance when it comes to having a “voice.” This form of dark humor actually deconstructs mainstream American political correctness by confronting the racial stereotypes that political and social groups try to avoid or “sugarcoat” in order to make American society look better than it really is. On the Greg Giraldo show, Giraldo himself admits that “A lot of racially charged shit happens here in New York City…Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist…Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race…comics are honest” (Cohen and Richards).

By exaggerating or even accepting stereotypes onstage in front of millions of people, stand-up comics present a more dimensional character to audiences who may know very little of the stereotyped group. Talking about these issues with humor effectively presents awareness while also humanizing a seeming representative of that racial or ethnic group, creating human connections to that person/those people and breaking down any original stereotypes, making them “harder to perpetuate” (Richards and Cohen). Comedian Dave Chappelle is one such comic who takes stereotypes toward the African American community and plays along the uncomfortable line of using racially charged language to prove a point:


Another example of this would be the typical “smart Asian” joke, with strict parents who “live and breathe education and good grades.” Thanks to the advent of Vine and other video-based social medias, slapstick humor with original content by multitudes of minority groups presented similar situations among all racial/ethnic groups. Minority comics eventually destabilize the stereotype, taking away the power of prejudices to actually hurt and offend (Richards and Cohen). Hate jokes, no matter how shocking, create a direct counter-culture to the recognized establishment of mainstream media. They directly criticize and expose discriminatory actions as well as debunk prejudicial thoughts. And rather than being ignored, dark humor allows these criticisms to society to be heard and actually listened to.

Morbid and wrong jokes–albeit, can become the most offensive in certain situations if not timed right–play a vital role in the normalization of tragic events. As comedian and British writer of The Office Rickey Gervais states, “Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny…There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is” (Gervais). American society has a tendency to only allow, on media, what is optimistic and comfortable, often staying away from material that can either offend or hurt masses of people (Gervais). This political and social correctness, although comfortable, never addresses a trauma or tragedy at hand. Tidwell’s inclusion of the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln–how was the play?” is an example of pure American satire. After the death of the president, it is almost certain that news about losinga leader would not bode well with American citizens. However, making an ironic joke to laugh at a traumatic situation is a step toward acknowledging that it happened in order to heal rather than pretending it never happened and acting “stronger” as a nation because of it. While it can be very critical of an event and its details, jokes like such are meant to calm the tensions that arise that would otherwise cause mass hysteria or communal anxiety. On a largely recent account, the contribution of comedy that Comedy Central’s Saturday Night Live show shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example of comedy’s power to unite over taboo humor.  In fact, SNL was one of the first television shows to air directly after the tragedy of 9/11 and help retain American sanity.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/cold-opening—homeland-security/n11645?snl=1 (2002)

In the video above, Robert de Niro on SNL is a newscaster being pranked by college and highschool students on national television while reporting alleged terrorist members. This is a direct play on the widespread racial fear that ensued toward the Middle-Eastern community by other Americans. Other skits that SNL produced after the incident included “‘American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie’, Washington hubris ‘U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With’, citizen helplessness in ‘Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,’ and presenting reactive xenophobia in ‘Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn’t Kill Anyone’” (Sneed). Each and every skit provided specific insight into American behavior and made it laughable, so as to show the American public that it is aware of how people are reacting to the situation. Rather than giving into hysteria, SNL was trying to give the Americas public a reason to analyze itself; by pointing out these weird hypothetical or ironic situations that are almost ridiculous, people were able to feel as though they could relate to the shock or watch someone else act worse than they ever would. It is a laughable way to gain acceptance for the fact that it happened, and a way to acknowledge that it is not a large enough reason to break down the American morale. Dark humor purposefully subverted the atypical news message of “We will rise again” by providing America the comfort to actually recover.
Dark humor/comedic culture allows for American society to have an outlet to speak about the tabooed topics and issues that need discussion as well as an introspective medium in tough situations. By subverting American political correctness, truth is allowed to be spread and discussed, progressing society through racial, ethnic, gender, customary, and traumatic issues in a light-hearted setting. Comedy not only provides comfort, but insight. As for American culture, it enhances the opportunities for groups of all types to have a voice in a culture that DOES have problems by merely not adhering to the “orthodox” behaviors expected of them.

Works Cited

“American humor.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_humor.

“Understanding American Jokes.” Columbia West College, 17 Aug. 2015, www.columbiawestcollege.edu/2015/04/01/understanding-american-jokes/.

Cohen, Rogers and Richards, Ryan. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity In Action, www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/174-when-the-truth-hurts-tell-a-joke-why-america-needs-its-comedians.

Gervais, Ricky. “Ricky Gervais: The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Time, Time, time.com/3720218/difference-between-american-british-humour/.

Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/the-dark-psychology-of-being-a-good-comedian/284104/.

Love, Matthew. “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/50-best-stand-up-comics-of-all-time-w464199.

Sneed, Tierney. “”After 9/11, How we Learned to Laugh Again.” USA Today. 11 Sept. 2013, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/09/11/after-911-how-we-learned-to-laugh-again.

Standfest, Ryan. “Black Humor and the American Comic.” RYAN STANDFEST, Rotland Press, 2010, www.ryanstandfest.com/writings-/black-humor-and-the-american-comic.

Zimmerman, Bill. “Professor explores American culture through comedy’s history.” Penn State University, news.psu.edu/story/143653/2012/12/18/academics/professor-explores-american-culture-through-comedys-history.


Visual Artifacts Cited

Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming .” Duke University Press, 1996, doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Tidwell, James N. “Hate Jokes.” American Folklore Collection. (Primary Source)