Dark comedy is, without a doubt, my favorite genre of film and television, but it’s also a tough genre to crack. I know from experience (a handful of half-written and horribly unimpressive screenplays) that it feels nearly impossible to write a solid dark comedy. When Norman Steinberg, the co-writer of Blazing Saddles, came to speak to members of the screenwriting minor at UNC-CH last year, he told us, “The protagonist always has to go through some kind of change. Unless you’re writing a dark comedy and those are nearly impossible to get right.”
Today I want to talk about some dark comedies that have gotten it right. I’m also going to make this a sort of beginner’s guide to dark comedy, for those who might be interested in the genre, but don’t know quite where to begin. This list should help ease you into the world of this zany, amazing genre.
1. Fargo (1996)
If you’re just entering the dark comedy world, starting with Fargo is a pretty safe bet. This Coen brothers classic is universally loved by both critics and general audiences. Seriously, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t love Fargo, and there’s good reason for that. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for her role as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police chief who investigates a series of connected crimes. Fargo is quirky, funny, weird, and violent, but it’s never too dark. As this list progresses, things are going to get a hell of a lot more disturbing than Fargo, which holds a pretty light tone throughout. It’s one of my favorite movies ever, and it’s the perfect start for an exploration of dark comedy.
2. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Cold War satire is a classic in dark comedies and in film in general. It’s funny and whip-smart, and it’s aged remarkably well. Dr. Strangelove is as biting and clever as any studio film’s ever been. You should watch every single movie Kubrick’s ever made, just on principle, but if you’re a fan of dark comedies, then you should start with this one.
3. Heathers (1988)
While many call Heathers the mother of teen comedies, I think it’s even more influential in the world of dark comedy. Tackling major issues such as the cult of popularity, suicide, posthumous celebrity, and teenage angst, Heathers takes everything you know about high school comedies and delivers a cynical, bitterly funny alternative. Heathers is weird. Weirder than Fargo but this list is still going to get weirder, and Heathers remains a fairly mainstream film. So many movies clearly exist because of this movie: World’s Greatest Dad, Mean Girls, God Bless America… The list goes on. Heathers is a perfect example of a film using dark comedy to talk about serious subjects.
4. Harold and Maude (1971)
This love story about a young man obsessed with death and an old woman with a zest for life is a cult classic in the black comedy world. It’s darkly funny, incredibly weird, and surprisingly sweet. Harold and Maude plays with warmth and a deep understanding for the way people feel about life. It is odd and a little dated, but it’s basically required viewing for a dark comedy fan.
5. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
In one of his final phenomenal performances, Robin Williams wades into the world of dark comedy. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is one of the most talented directors working today, and he loves dark comedy. World’s Greatest Dad’s dark premise about a man losing his son and forging his suicide note might not sound funny, but believe me, this film makes it work. World’s Greatest Dad balances black comedy, quirky humor, and genuine emotion, and whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, you’re going to like what Williams does for this movie.
6. Fight Club (1999)
I know we’re not supposed to talk about Fight Club, but it needs to be said. Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you can probably still quote it. Rarely has a film crept into American culture and conversation as seamlessly as Fight Club has. The film breaks down millennial angst, masculinity, and society as a whole. It’s full of sharp scenes and lines that will make you so uncomfortable that you have no choice but to laugh.
7. Network (1976)
Darker than any film on this list so far, Network is a long, often exhausting intense rant of a movie. Paddy Chayefsky’s script doesn’t just hold up well with time; it gets better with age. Chayefsky’s criticisms of television and news still feel topical and necessary. Network also contains one of the most quotable lines in film history: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
8. American Psycho (2000)
Here’s another creepy one. Christian Bale’s performance as an educated Wall Street man with a thirst for blood is impeccable. American Psycho is a satire that skillfully examines American individualism and narcissism. If you’re young or a man or an American or just a person of any kind (which I know you are if you’re reading this), then this movie is for you. It has so much to say, and our society should listen.
9. God Bless America (2011)
Another gem from Bobcat Goldthwait, this angry, violent film pulls humor from a dark, murderous premise thanks to the genius of Goldthwait’s script and stellar performances from Joel Murray and Tara Lynne Barr. If you haven’t seen many films in this genre, you might not want to start here. God Bless America is about as dark as they come. Like the best black comedies, God Bless America might cause a fairly substantial existential crisis. It has a lot to say about the state of the world and how we handle our own failings.
10. Django Unchained (2012)
Most Quentin Tarantino films fall into the dark comedy genre, but this one about a slave and a German bounty hunter is my personal favorite. (Okay, it’s actually Kill Bill, but Kill Bill is not very funny.) Fast-paced, intense, and gorgeously stylistic, Django Unchained is a hit.
11. It’s a Disaster (2012)
Despite the fact that very few people have seen It’s a Disaster, it’s one of my favorite dark comedies ever, and I feel it’s my civic duty to urge everyone to watch it. If you’re exploring dark comedy, this is a great script to study. With a focus on relationships and an apocalyptic backdrop, It’s a Disaster explores a dark topic (impending death at the hands of chemical weapons) with light, quirky dialogue and a lovely attention to character. It’s a Disaster is one big, delightful bottle episode with dialogue more natural and charming than any you’re ever going to hear.
12. Frank (2014)
Now the list is really starting to get strange. A young musician (Domhnall Gleeson) joins a band where the enigmatic lead singer insists on always wearing a large fake head. Possibly the strangest movie on the list, Frank is uncomfortable, cringe-worthy, inspiring, depressing, and funny. Michael Fassbender is amazing as Frank, the film’s focus, and rarely has a film explored mental illness in a more fascinating way.
13. The Voices (2014)
This recent film flew under the radar with a VOD release, but it’s one of the best (and weirdest) dark comedies I’ve seen in years. If the Coen brothers and Bobcat Goldthwait teamed up, it might look something like The Voices. Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick bring charm and fun to a movie with a twisted premise and characters with scary mental issues.
14. Bernie (2011)
Part documentary-part dramatization, Bernie tells the true story of a small-town murder. The circumstances of the crime are riveting and Jack Black gives one of the best performances of his life as the film’s main character. Despite revolving around murder, Bernie is a compassionate, gentle character study, and it paints one of the most realistic portraits of a small town I’ve ever seen in cinema. To top it all off, it’s funny as hell. This movie gets everything right.
15. Misery (1990)
No dark comedy list is complete without a little Stephen King. Though film adaptations of his work often don’t show it, King is especially skilled at black humor, and his books are almost always funny in an eerie way. Misery is one of the adaptations that captures that humor. Kathy Bates is terrifyingly funny as Annie Wilkes, a demented, obsessive fan who kidnaps her favorite author. It’s one of the best King adaptations ever, and it’s a particularly scary dark comedy.
BONUS: Three dark comedies on TV!
1. Louie (2010)
After all of these movies, you might be ready for a TV show. You’re probably already a fan of comedian Louis CK. His brand of self-deprecating, pessimistic humor has touched a nerve with so many people, and if you like his stand-up, you’ll probably like his show.
2. BoJack Horseman (2014)
Look, I know the idea of an animated show starring a washed-up horse actor doesn’t sound like one of the best shows on TV right now, but I promise it is. BoJack explores serious dark themes such as depression and loneliness with joke-packed scripts and impressive performances from its voice actors. After two seasons, this show just keeps getting darker and funnier…and better. Also, it’s a Netflix original, so it’s streaming all the time!
3. The Big C (2010)
Showtime’s The Big C is one of the best shows that no one seemed to watch, for whatever reason. Laura Linney is PERFECT as a woman who finds out she has terminal cancer and vows to live life to the fullest. This show walks a thin line between heartbreaking and hilarious, and I guarantee that you will feel like a better person after watching it.
As you can see, dark comedy fans have a lot to choose from, and I know that I still missed so many amazing movies with this list. This is a genre filled with old classics and modern gems, and without writing an expansive book, I simply couldn’t include everything.
So now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What do you most wish I’d included? Happy watching!