Gallows humor  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Gallows humor is a type of humor that arises from stressful, traumatic or life-threatening situations such as accidents, wartime events, natural disasters; often in circumstances where death is perceived as impending and unavoidable. It is similar to black comedy but differs in that it is made by the person affected.

Nature and functions

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis warns that this "liberating" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else.

Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them."

Gallows humor is a kind of humor which developed in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States as part of Jewish humor. It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor. The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune, which also has a Germanic equivalent in the Belgian Dutch expression groen lachen.

Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi discussed gallows humor focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses (risata verde or groen lachen), and said that grotesque satire, as opposed to ironic satire, is the one that most often arouses this kind of laughter. In the Weimar era Kabaretts, this genre was particularly common, and according to Luttazzi Karl Valentin and Karl Kraus were the major masters of it.


From Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 scene 1:

Mercutio is stabbed in a swordfight by Tybalt, Juliet's cousin.
Romeo: "Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much."
Mercutio: "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man."

As Sir Thomas More climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner:

"I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."

Immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, but before the wars that secured independence, Benjamin Franklin is known to have said the following in danger of being accused of high treason to his fellow, often fractious delegates:

"We must all hang together or, assuredly, we will all hang separately."

After her career had declined and she had started aging, actress Tallulah Bankhead would answer the question

"Are you Tallulah Bankhead?" with
"No, darling, I'm what's left of her."

Author and playwright Oscar Wilde was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what the sentence exactly was, but his reputed last words were

"My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death; one or the other of us has got to go."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Gallows humor" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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