Mark Twain famously condensed comedy into one simple formula: Humour is tragedy plus time. But some of our favourite shows have proven that the best jokes are born when you remove the time element altogether; that you can mock mercilessly in the midst of catastrophe; that even humanity’s cruellest colours can be hilarious. Why? Well, for the same reason that people have fits of the giggles at funerals: everything is funnier when you’re not supposed to be laughing.
The best black comedy writers recognise that nothing is off limits when handled with care. Essentially, we will invest time in amoral characters and their despicable deeds on one condition: that they suffer too. No TV show nails this better than It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which follows five abhorrently selfish humans as they attempt to get ahead at the cost of all others. It might not sound like a hysterical premise, but the punchline of every episode is that despite having no principles to hold them back, the characters end up right back where they started. With a 15th season looking likely, It’s Always Sunny is proof of our enduring taste for the tasteless.
When it comes to unsavoury characters, you don’t get much more sordid than the political sphere, and satirical mastermind Armando Iannucci knows this better than anyone. After producing four series of his critically acclaimed The Thick of It (2005-2012) – following the schemes of a British minister and his sharp-tongued spin doctor – the writer hopped straight across the pond to create seven seasons of US-based Veep (2012-2019). The shows are successful not only because the blistering dialogue is so deliciously devious, but because his seeming caricatures skim so close to our reality that the stories often eerily mirror actual events.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Iannucci’s collaborator Jesse Armstrong would go one step further in the chain of corruption, down into the underbelly of the business world. Succession (2018) follows a Murdoch-esque media dynasty made up of some of the most repellent people on the planet, but dramatic irony allows us to revel as they calculatedly and yet unwittingly tear themselves apart with the help of ruthless deception, seedy handshakes and a whole lotta coke. It’s the grittier alternative to the equally brilliant Arrested Development (2003-2019): both see a rich family make an inevitable fall from grace. Again, the shows cash in comedically on karma: Succession gets less funny as it goes along because these characters are making a deal with the devil, and selling your soul must come at a price.
Like business, black comedy has been a world long dominated by men, but it seems women are beginning to get bolder. One of the frontrunners on the scene is Phoebe Waller-Bridge – her hit sitcom Fleabag, starring a fundamentally flawed and highly sexualised heroine, won her a Grand Slam of Emmys and elevated her onto the international stage. The writer has clearly clocked onto the fact that antiheroes appeal to our own failings, and her current project Killing Eve (unashamedly referencing the forbidden fruit of the original sin), by flirting with our guiltiest pleasures, somehow endears us to a psychopathic assassin.
If we need more evidence of our morbid fascinations, one need only look to the natural playground for comedic violence: animation. People can remove themselves from cartoons because the blood is being spilt in another dimension – just look at South Park and Family Guy, two taboo-toting shows that have run continuously since the late 90s. However, when it comes to gore, Rick and Morty knocks them out of the park. This graphic sci-fi is incredibly clever in its ability to pair trauma and depravity with toilet humour and catchphrases. It’s relentlessly dark dystopian outlook appeals to the cynic in all of us, hence why it’s returning to Netflix for a fourth season next month.
Twain’s formula wasn’t wrong: classic comedy really is tragedy plus time. Black comedy, though, is an imbalanced equation, an unstable nucleus with atomic potential. The energy is raw and rewarding, but you have to be willing to play with radiation.