Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was published 50 years ago in June 1961 just as the American involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating. You have probably read Catch-22 (and if you haven’t then you are missing out). This book is one of the blackest examples of black humor, also known as black comedy, but there are many more novels written in the same vein.
The actual term ‘black humor’ was coined by Frenchman André Breton, who said Jonathan Swift was the first author to use this style of writing. In 1939, Breton wrote a book called Anthology of Black Humor (Anthologie de L’Humour Noir) and put this comedy sub-genre on the literary map. The author of Gulliver’s Travels was ahead of his time and loved satire. Written in 1729, Swift’s A Modest Proposal suggests the impoverished Irish should sell their children as food for rich folks and shows that black comedy has been around for centuries.
The most common theme in black humor is death but many taboo subjects, or matters that usually require serious consideration, are satirized, including depression, drug and alcohol addiction, disabilities, violence, mental illness, poverty, sex and bodily functions. Bruce Jay Friedman’s book Black Humor is also worth a look for further analysis of a genre that can offend and entertain.
An effective piece of black humor will provoke laughter but also have the reader squirming in discomfort. Aside from Heller, the great practitioners of this art include Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Gorey and Chuck Palahniuk. Some people also put Roald Dahl on this list. Palanuik is an interesting example as he has taken black humor into his book tour appearances where one particular gory tale usually has a few audience members fainting.
Catch-22 is set during the later stages of World War II. It tackles the madness of war and asks questions about who is sane and who is mad. It was crazy for the American airmen to keep flying bombing missions and yet they needed to be sane to do their job. But if they were crazy they wouldn’t be allowed to fly. That’s Catch 22.