Mark Twain wrote in his travelogue Following the Equator that the “secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” In his view, the compulsion to laugh is borne out of necessity. Without hardship and turmoil, there would indeededly be no need for humor.
And just as we need humor as a coping mechanism in our day-to-day lives, we need a certain amount of conflict within the novels we read and the films we watch to hold our interest. Tragedy provides both the basis for drama and the necessity for comedy, and comedy helps to make drama more palatable. Integrating elements of both drama and comedy into their work gives novelists and filmmakers better leverage when it comes to heightening and relaxing tensions.
Here are a look at five highly effective black comedies:
5. In The Company of Men (1997) – Celebrated playwright Neil LaBute, whose new show Full Circle premieres on DirecTV next month, is perhaps best known for this film adaptation of his play of the same name, which deals with misogyny and toxic masculinity in white-collar America. While on a temporary work assignment out of town, the malicious Chad (Aaron Eckhart) makes a pact with co-worker Howard (Matt Malloy) to find one emotionally vulnerable woman, with both men courting her and elevating her sense of self-worth, and ultimately dumping her at the same time, purely for the purpose of hurting her. They ultimately decide on deaf Christine (Stacy Edwards), with dire emotional consequences for everyone but Chad.
Best Scene: Hatching the plan:
4. Better Off Dead (1985) – This is the quintessential ’80s teen comedy, from director Savage Steve Holland and starring John Cusack as Lane Meyer, a teenager distraught over losing his girlfriend Beth Truss (Amanda Wyss) to the captain of the high school ski team, Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier) – so distraught that Lane stages countless botched suicide attempts. He challenges Roy to a ski race to win back Beth, but he becomes smitten with the French foreign-exchange student next door Monique (Diane Franklin) who helps train him in preparation for the competition.
Best Scene: This clay-animated Van Halen cheeseburger:
3. Shaun of the Dead (2004) – Edgar Wright’s zomcom masterpiece. When the zombie outbreak occurs in London, it’s up to Shaun (Simon Pegg), a lovable but unmotivated electronics store worker, and Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun’s overweight and aimless friend, to save the day. The film is filled with all sorts of references to George Romero films, and liberally takes jabs at horror film cliches, but what’s really remarkable about it is that at no point does it feel overwrought with jokes about its own artifice; there is sufficient attention paid to character development and storytelling.
Best Scene: Shaun and Ed fending off zombies by hurling their least favorite records:
2. Harold and Maude (1971) – Director Hal Ashby’s greatest film, which is the ultimate proto-Wes Anderson movie because of its tone, pacing, and music (provided almost exclusively by Cat Stevens). Harold (Bud Cort) is a socially awkward young man who likes to pass his time by attending funerals and staging fake suicide attempts for his mother’s bemusement. It’s at a stranger’s funeral that he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited, if not somewhat rambunctious, Holocaust survivor whose 80th birthday is approaching. The two become romantically involved, much to the dismay of Harold’s overbearing mother.
Best Scene: GTA (granny theft auto):
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick was a creative mastermind, and this film is arguably his greatest offering. Based upon the novel-by-the-same-name by Anthony Burgess, the film follows the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), an amoral and conniving teenage gangster in a futuristic, dystopian England. The film is extremely controversial for its graphic (and highly stylized) depictions of rape and violence. Alex is arrested for murder, and elects to be the test subject for the experimental Ludovico treatment, which, through psychological manipulation, renders a subject emotionally and physically incapable of committing violent acts. The central thesis of the film is that a person without moral agency ceases to be a person, and that it is the responsibility of individuals to exercise sound moral judgement.
Best Scene: McDowell asserting dominance over his gang in super-slow-motion: