How Subtle Should Dark Comedy Be? – A Ramble

As regular readers of this site know, I write these articles ridiculously far in advance. As such, I wrote this article fairly early this year when I was still binge-watching a DVD boxset that I got for Christmas (via a gift voucher). So, I thought that I’d take a look at what the 2017 series of “Twin Peaks” can teach us about dark comedy and subtlety.

Needless to say, this article will contain some SPOILERS for this TV show.

Anyway, when I started watching the new series of “Twin Peaks”, my reaction to it was initially something between bewilderment, morbid fascination and gloomy despair. Initially, I thought that the new series was “too depressing” or “too disturbing” when compared to the older episodes of the show from the 1990s. It was only after about eight or nine episodes that I realised that it was meant to be a dark comedy. After this, the series made a lot more sense.

But, although there are some clearly comedic moments, most of the series’ dark comedy is kept surprisingly subtle.

For example, there’s an incredibly dark piece of comedy that revolves around the differences between two dangerous car-related events in different episodes. Both scenes are presented as serious, shocking, gritty drama. Yet, when you compare the two of them, it’s hard not to see the ironic dark comedy (regarding who survives and who doesn’t).

Then there’s the subversion of the “handsome rebel” trope. Basically, there’s a scene in a bar near the end of one episode where a character finds herself attracted to a guy in a leather jacket who breaks all the rules and seems like the kind of roguishly handsome love interest you’d expect to see in a 1980s/90s romantic comedy. But, when she talks to him, he quickly turns out to be a terrifying violent criminal. This scene is utterly shocking upon first viewing. But, when you think about it in the context of romance movies etc.. it’s hard not to see the very dark humour/irony in this scene.

This irony is further counterpointed by the fact that another “rebellious” character from the old seasons of the TV show is now, 25 years later, a highly respected member of the local police, who is far more interested in enforcing the law than breaking it.

But, the main thing that clued me in to the fact that the series was a dark comedy was the eighth episode. Most of this episode consists of a surrealist art film/ horror film. The episode’s sheer strangeness and seeming irrelevance to the main plot of the series was the thing that finally made me realise “This series isn’t meant to be taken 100% seriously“. After all, the fact that something as utterly bizarre as this was able to be included in a popular American TV show is absolutely hilarious when you think about it.

So, what can all of this teach us about dark comedy and subtlety?

Simply put, subtlety allows you to include more dark comedy than you would probably get away with if you were a bit more obvious about it.

This is mostly because the audience gets to feel the “normal” reaction of horror, despair, unease, awkwardness etc.. that these scenes evoke, with the dark comedy only becoming obvious later – when it is a welcome way to lighten these emotions.

Going back to the car-related dark comedy scenes I mentioned earlier – if these two scenes had included a slightly lighter emotional tone or had been shown in close succession, they would probably be criticised as crass or tasteless. Yet, the fact that they’re played completely seriously and separated by a fair amount of time means that the audience only notices the underlying dark comedy sometime after they’ve experienced more “acceptable” reactions of shock and horror. As such, these scenes are able to add dark comedy to subject matter that is usually considered off-limits for comedy.

However, if you’re including subtle dark comedy, you do need to find some way to signal to your audience that your story includes dark comedy. But, you should usually wait a while before you make this fact obvious to your audience. I mean, one of the reasons why the eighth episode of “Twin Peaks” (2017) works so well is that it appears halfway through the series. The audience is already gripped by the main story of the series, so when something bizarrely irrelevant appears, it’s a significant clue that they shouldn’t take the story too seriously. This sudden moment of realisation retroactively lightens some of the more serious or grim moments earlier in the series.

So, yes, subtlety means that you can include more intense dark humour.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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