Why You Should Write Dark Comedy
July 19, 2023
Dark comedy, also known as black comedy, is a style of comedy that finds humor in serious or taboo subjects. At its best, dark comedy can be cathartic, helping people confront the absurdities and injustices of existence while making them laugh.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable with content that’s dark and confrontational. Because of this, dark comedy isn’t for everyone. That said, there seems to be more darkly humorous content available to audiences than ever before. In fact, this trend is becoming so prevalent that writing a pilot or feature screenplay that contains dark comedy might give you a better chance of making a sale in today’s marketplace. And for that reason, it might be worth your while to try adding a little dark comedy in your portfolio.
The Broadening Appeal of Dark Comedy
Call it modern-day cynicism or being “black pilled,” but there’s an undeniable strain of dark humor running through much of our contemporary content.
This started to happen in the early 2000s with an increase in cable programming. Suddenly, dark humor typically reserved for Martin Scorsese or Coen brother films was finding its way into television series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. With the rise of new streaming platforms in recent years, similar content followed. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find an A-list actor who doesn’t want to star in a series that’s “dark and edgy.”
In addition to comedy series like HBO’s The White Lotus and The Righteous Gemstones balancing existential crises and death with laughs, there’s been the emergence of a new television subgenre: the Dark Comedy Drama. Highly-acclaimed shows like HBO’s Succession and Netflix’s Beef are helping to further shape and define the entertainment landscape.
In recent years, many filmmakers have likewise embraced dark comedy from Jordan Peele (Get Out; Nope) to Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure; Triangle of Sadness) and it has led to critical and commercial success. In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — a black comedy thriller — became an international sensation and was the first Korean film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
A Darker More Marketable Tone
Not only are dark comedies reaching a wider audience than ever before, dark humor in general is appearing in more mainstream genres and tentpole studio films.
In addition to popular horror comedies (e.g., Freaky; M3GAN; Cocaine Bear), dark humor can also be found in many comic book films these days (e.g., Deadpool; Suicide Squad; Joker), and this trend is showing no sign of reversing.
In my article, "5 Ways Screenwriters Can Adapt to the Marketplace”, I discussed the importance of writers taking notice of industry trends and changing tones. In many ways, tone is one of the most effective ways to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace; in the same way the films of New Hollywood (circa late 1960s to early 1980s) have a more cynical and darkly humorous tone than to what came before and afterwards, and as the films of Generation X are genuinely more glib and ironic, every generation has its own unique tone.
One could say that today’s primary tone is a combination of dark humor and the ironic (more defiantly so than glibly). Like in the 1970s, many people have lost faith in institutions, but they also don’t place a lot of stock in social crusades. Many of us are just trying to get by the best way we see fit, and this is reflected in much of today’s content. It’s indeed telling that Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s Joker outgrossed the last Batman film: both films were quite dark, but Joker had additional elements of dark humor and anarchist subversion. These are Joker times and audiences are responding as such.
Because of the success of darker content in recent years, Hollywood is more receptive to dark humor than ever before. Whether or not your script is specifically a “dark comedy,” or simply contains dark humor, it’s more likely to sell in today’s marketplace than a script that comes off as too wholesome or vanilla.
Strengthening Your Writing Portfolio
Even if writing dark comedy doesn’t lead to a script sale, it could still work as a writing sample and possibly lead to an assignment job or staff writing position.
Also, as noted above, your spec script doesn’t have to be a full out dark comedy: it can be a genre with mass appeal – say an action film or thriller – with darkly humorous elements. Ideally a spec script should demonstrate to industry professionals that you can write material that’s aligned with the current marketplace.
In general, a writer that’s able to change and adapt their tone to the marketplace is more likely to establish themselves and sustain a career as a working screenwriter.
Read More: How to Write a Winning Spec Script
How Dark Should You Go?
Despite Hollywood trending dark, are there still lines you shouldn’t cross?
How dark is too dark?
A good gauge is asking yourself the following question: are you being darkly humorous or simply offensive or, more specifically, are you just trying to provoke?
If it’s the latter, maybe you have crossed a line.
Ideally, dark comedy is about confronting harsh realities and putting an irreverent or satirical spin on them. In other words, there should be some substance to it.
So if you’re writing a comedy or simply inserting something darkly humorous into a different genre, be mindful of the times, industry trends and, most importantly, the intent behind your words. This should all help you gauge how dark to go. Oftentimes it’s about being on the edge and not going over it.
And if well executed, dark comedy might be the edge your script needs to break through.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.