Dark humor: sarcasm, coping and reframing

Humor is one of the best coping mechanisms. It can also be very memorable. However, dark humor can be weaponized and can become toxic. Is there a way to use sarcasm safely and positively? Can there be a proper context for dark humor? Every April 1st I write about humor. Today, I want to take it more literally. Futher reading here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Soviet jokes

Somehow the jokes I tend to enjoy most are the jokes I learned when I was young. Since I lived till my teens in Ukraine, these were mainly soviet jokes. And these jokes were dark… Many of them dealt with oppression, fear, death, and sarcastic nihilism. Not all of them can be applied internationally or written in a blog like this. Here is one universally acceptable:

A skydiver jumps from a plane but nothing happens when he pulls his rip-cord. He pulls the cord on his secondary chute, but this too is broken. As he is hurdling toward the earth, he sees a man coming straight up toward him. ‘Hey!’ shouts the skydiver. ‘Know anything about parachutes?!’ ‘No!’ shouts the man. ‘Know anything about gas barbecues?!’

Why was it funny in the Soviet Union? We did not have anything, did not know much, but human life was cheap, and we were not afraid of anything. If enjoying something will get you killed, it is probably a good way to go. I am the only one in my family who still finds it funny since the culture is different here. Now we value human life above everything else and knowledge above machoism. The joke does not anymore sit well with our family culture.

Memorable jokes

When I was a kid, we used to memorize jokes to tell them. We did not have mobile devices and quality entertainment. I notice this in business culture. Those of us older than 40 years old, often use jokes to justify hard decisions. Younger people smile but do not integrate jokes into the conversation. They may integrate references to fantasy and sci-fi masterpieces instead.

Good jokes are memorable. They often start with a premise, and then there is a logical reversal of meaning. When we finish smiling, there is still a chilly feeling that what we just heard was very true. In-between we might be able to fill in the missing details. The trick is noticing a reversal of the roles of the key actors.Here is a political joke that I learned when I became familiar with capitalism:

Son: “Dad, I have to do a special report for school. Can I ask you a question?”

Father: “Sure son. What’s the question?”

Son: “What is Politics?”

Father: “Well, let’s take our home as an example. I am the wage earner, so let’s call me “Capitalism”. your mother is the administrator of the money, so we’ll call her “Government”. We take care of your need, so let’s call you “The People”. We’ll call the maid “The Working Class” and your little brother, we can call “The Future”. Do you understand son?

Son: “I’m not really sure, Dad. I’ll have to think about it.”

That night awakened by his brother’s crying, the boy went to see what was wrong. Discovering that the baby had seriously soiled his diaper, the boy went to his parent’s room and found his mother sound asleep. He went to the maid’s room, where, peeking through the keyhole, he saw his father in bed with the maid. The boy’s knocking went totally unheeded by his father and the maid, so the boy returned to his room and went back to sleep. The next morning he reported to his father.

Son: “Dad, now I think i understand what politics is.”

Father: “Good son! Can you explain it to me in your own words?”

Son: “Well Dad, while Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, Government is sound asleep, the People are being completely ignored and the Future is full of shit.”

Is dark humor toxic?

While these jokes are a nice way to tell a very dark message, they are demotivating. Dark humor is a coping mechanism, a less scary way to tell the very scary truth. It can be an interesting way of overcoming destructive anger, but the underlying message is toxic along the lines of “resistance is futile”. Humorists and clowns are not happy people. They use humor as a way of diffusing their anger, but their underlying message is toxic.

In our memory courses, we often teach using funny visualization for remembering stuff. When I just started memorizing things I used a lot of dark humor. It was very effective for memorization, but during the process and when reviewing the visualizations I felt a lot of suppressed anger. With time I switched to a more logical and technical approach. It can be humoristic like funny nonsense, but not dark and explosive – for my own sanity.

Indirect communication

We are usually not sarcastic for our own sake, but use it in communication as a weapon. Both men and women are more sarcastic with men, but not always. The best sarcastic messages I know are considered a part of British humor.

Sharing a dinner table with Winston Churchill was no ordinary event. There’s the time the colorful Nancy Astor visited Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. During the evening meal, Astor and Churchill became embroiled in a spirited debate about women’s rights and other liberal causes that Lady Astor embraced with ferocious zeal. Churchill dissented on every point.

In exasperation, Lady Astor exclaimed, “Winston, if I were married to you., I’d put poison in your coffee!” To which Churchill replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

Then, of course, there was the dinner party at which Winston and a female member of Parliament got into a verbal tussle and the woman finally snarled, “Mr. Churchill, you are drunk!”

“And you, madam,” responded Churchill, “are ugly. But I shall be sober tomorrow.”

When observed in person or via video, detecting sarcasm involves attention to the tone, facial expression, and cadence of the communication. Research suggests that movement of the mouth area is most helpful for distinguishing between sarcasm and non-sarcasm. Sarcasm creates tension and undermines the trust of a partner as it may promote a sense of disconnection and betrayal. It’s often difficult to hear a partner reveal anger toward us, but it is even more challenging when that anger is denied.

I quote:

  • Sarcasm is a form of communication intended to convey the opposite of what is literally said.
  • Sarcasm is often considered a passive-aggressive form of anger.
  • When sarcasm is especially biting and pervasive, it undermines trust and promotes disconnection.

Anxiety reduction

Dark humor can be used positively, as a way to diffuse the especially tense and anxious situations, like comic relief in great drammas. For example, most of us fear dental care.

Patient: How much does it cost to have a tooth pulled? Dentist: $100. Patient: All that for only a few minutes of work? That’s expensive. 

Dentist: Don’t worry, I can pull it out slower if you’d like.

Humor is a great way to show vulnerability without communicating weakness. But it is risky. Rather than laughs, failed humor leads to negative emotions like anger, disapproval, or even disgust.

Identity humor

Another way to use dark humor is to show one’s identity, the way we might be perceived by others. Memory masters are often reviewed through the figure of Sherlock Holmes. We tend to be overly intellectual, so every time we do something normal it sounds funny.

Sherlock Holmes begs Watson:

– Give me problems. Give me work. Give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis.

– All right, Holmes. I will give you an income-tax return.

Or maybe:

Holmes and Watson chase a mouse who has an expensive ring in its mouth. The mouse runs into the mouse-hole. The two men try to reach into the hole, but without avail.

– I have no other choice, I have to use my head – says Sherlock.

– Excellent idea! Use your big nose and sniff it out!

My neighbor is an accountant. One day both of us were throwing garbage. It was raining. He said “Imagine, somewhere in Seatle, Bill Gates is throwing his garbage in his pajamas. It is raining, he is tired and he has better things to do. Then he visualizes Melinda, and bravely completes his task.”

Humor can be used to address common issues and stereotypes, provided it is sensitive.

Admitting a weakness

Self-humor can be used to communicate a personal issue. I often tell a story about my coworker who every day wrote on a whiteboard “OCD” in the wrong way and every day I felt compelled to correct it. Now, I understand why I felt compelled to correct it, but why was the guy compelled to write it in the wrong way?

When dark humor addresses unique personal weaknesses, the effect may be therapeutic. We may find it easier to accept our limitations and other people when these limitations are funny.

At the same time, it is important to remain sensitive and not use humor as a weapon – unless intended.


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