“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Charlie Chaplin, the source of that catchy little snippet, knew a thing or two about both comedy and tragedy. The human condition is a fragile and chaotic thing and the only true certitude is death. On our way there, we are likely to come across a number of other unpleasantries.
Film works as many things: an escape, an aspiration, an invigoration, even an insight. It only makes sense, then, to examine the darker recesses of life and the mind. What we might find there is terrifying or depressing, but thankfully, we are safe in our seats watching from behind a safety screen. This allows us to confront the darkness without having to succumb to it, to peel back the layers of tragedy and laugh at its absurdity, and sometimes, its sheer weight.
We have put together a list of 15 comedies that are grimmer than grim, blacker than black. While they might not necessarily be the funniest out there, these comedies deal with some of the darkest premises and situations out there. There are plenty more out there, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
Here's our take on the 15 Darkest Adult Comedies Of All Time.
Unless you have seen Trainspotting recently, it is really easy to forget just how truly dark the film is. Director Danny Boyle handled this Irvine Welsh book about a group of Scottish friends addicted to heroin with a masterful balance of madcap levity and crushing sadness.
Ewan McGregor plays Mark Renton, a junkie bent on recovery after a series of events (including his own overdose, a couple deaths, and an arrest for theft) and working to make something of his life in London. Unfortunately, his past and his friends aren’t done with him, and he soon finds himself harboring a maniac fugitive and gearing up for a big drug deal. Heroin addiction isn’t exactly the thing anyone expects to laugh about, but it is the driving force behind this comedy. The movie also features some of the most haunting imagery to come out of a non-horror movie (like the baby) in years.
14 Bad Santa
Director Terry Zwigoff doesn’t have many credits to his name, but he sure has made them count. He is known for his offbeat sense of humor, having broken through with Crumb (a documentary about underground comic icon R. Crumb) and following it up with adapting Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. His warped sense of humor was never on display more than with 2003’s Bad Santa.
The film follows Willie (portrayed in a born-to-play-this-role Billy Bob Thornton) and his little person partner Marcus, professional criminals who rob department stores while posing as a mall Santa and elf. Willie is also a belligerent and stumbling alcoholic with a taste for big women. They get caught by Gin, the head of security (played by Bernie Mac), who winds up being just as crooked as they are. Willie winds up holing up with a kid with developmental disabilities who is being looked after by his senile grandmother.
Bad Santa treats us to perhaps more tenderness and light-heartedness than most movies on this list. But it is not without its mean streak. The movie also has to be in the running for most F-bombs dropped in film history. 2016 saw the release of a sequel, but it was not nearly the film its cult classic predecessor was.
13 A Boy And His Dog: A Rather Kinky Tale Of Survival
Easily one of the more esoteric titles on the list, A Boy And His Dog is one of the finest films on our list. The movie won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1976, and was adapted by director L.Q. Jones from a story by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison.
The film’s title is a pretty accurate descriptor of what the movie is about. The main character is Vic (played by a very young Don Johnson), a young guy scraping through a post-apocalyptic landscape following World War 4 in a graceless search for food and sex. He is joined by his dog, Blood, who speaks to him telepathically (voiced perfectly by Tim McIntire, who was never much more than a character actor in several TV shows). Blood is the voice of reason in the wasteland and keeps the dumb and headstrong Vic out of as much trouble as possible.
The movie takes a very grim view of society and the future, as is partially evidenced by the fact that there was both a 3rd and 4th World War by 2024. Vic eventually finds his way to Topeka, a dystopian underground community where he is requisitioned for breeding purposes. The movie is just as weird as it sounds, and much of the humor comes from the way that Blood teases and prods Vic during their travels.
12 Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
Stanley Kubrick is known for many films, but undoubtedly his funniest (and darkest) is Dr. Strangelove. The film, done in black-and-white in 1964, stars comedian Peter Sellers as three different characters: British RAF man Lionel Mandrake, U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and the titular Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound former Nazi scientist working for the U.S.
The film takes place during the Cold War and follows how the U.S. and Russia deal with the probability of human extinction. The premise is that a rogue U.S. General orders a nuclear strike on Russia because, after experiencing sexual dysfunction, he's convinced himself that Russians are poisoning Americans with fluoride in the water to deprive Americans of their “essence” (the General’s name, by the way, is Jack D. Ripper).
The humor is absurdist and done mostly with wordplay and situations that are derived from flawed logic and ridiculous misunderstandings. The characters are all very cartoonish in the way they are portrayed. A great example of the sense of humor in the movie comes from the famous line, “...you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
Directed by the visionary directors of Amelie and The City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, Delicatessen is a stylish and grim story of an apartment building in post-apocalyptic France. If you haven’t caught on just yet, the end of the world as we know it, or the aftermath, is a fertile ground for a dark comedy. In this iteration of life after armageddon, food (meat especially) is an incredibly rare commodity. The owner of the apartment building also has a butcher shop on the ground floor, and he specializes in murdering people and carving them up for meat.
Many of the tenants of the apartment building are in on the killings, and look forward to having some meat in their diet. The butcher/landlord hires a new handyman for the building after the previous one “mysteriously disappeared”, intending to also kill and eat this new hire. The butcher’s daughter, however, falls in love with the handyman, Louison, and enlists the help of a group that lives underground to help him escape. Before applying to work as a handyman, Louison was a clown -- and he uses his clownish charm and offbeat inventiveness to work on the building and make the tenants (and the audience) laugh. The film, as with the other Jeunet and Caro titles, are filled with an unceasing understanding of the humor of coincidence and the quirkiness of human behavior.
10 Barton Fink
We are using Barton Fink as a stand-in for virtually the entirety of the 17 feature films done by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. They ply their trade in dark comedies that expose the idiosyncrasy and unseemliness of their characters, and are perhaps most famous for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men. Barton Fink is unique among their library, as it was actually a writing exercise by the Coens to help chase away the writers block they were having while trying to write Millers Crossing.
John Turturro plays the titular Fink, a playwright in New York who comes to Los Angeles to write a wrestling B-movie and who himself has writers block. Fink is a troubled and neurotic person, and as he begins to unravel due to his inability to write (and the inflated issues he comes up with to consume his time and energy) he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery.
The movie takes a very cynical point of view toward writing and artistic genius, the inner workings of Hollywood, and Los Angeles itself. While these are all subjects touched on in other Coen movies, they are not presented elsewhere with as potent a combination of humor and vitriol as they are in this little gem.
Known now for his fun and family-friendly mega-hit Guardians of the Galaxy, writer/director James Gunn is a demented deviant (in the best possible way). His love affair with the grotesque and the grim dates all the way back to his start in film with shlock masters Troma Films. While even his horror is funny enough and dark enough to land on this list, his blackest comedy is undoubtedly the superhero film Super.
In it, Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) plays Frank, a workaday schlub whose unrealistically hot wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) who gets her addicted to heroin. Frank has a vision (involving God and a public access Christian superhero played by Nathan Fillion) that leads him to become the superhero, The Crimson Bolt. Frank elects to fight crime by beating people mercilessly with a pipe wrench, and soon adopts a sidekick named Boltie (played by Ellen Page) in his quest to combat evil and win his wife back. The movie takes the trope of the non-powered superhero and calls it out for what it is: an act of lunacy that would require someone who’s gone off the deep end. The movie is ultra-violent and features some other objectionable content, like female-on-male rape, for comedic effect. Far from a perfect film, Super is still enjoyable and a great example of a dark adult comedy.
8 Very Bad Things
Peter Berg (of the recent Patriots Day, Friday Night Lights, and Lone Survivor) got his start in feature films writing and directing the blacker-than-black comedy Very Bad Things. It is honestly a wonder that this movie got made in the first place. Berg’s only directorial and writing work before the movie were two episodes of the short-lived series Chicago Hope. The movie is crass, and not nearly funny enough to back up all the misery to come from it. It wound up losing money at the box office (an estimated $200,000) and is the worst-rated movie on our list by a decent margin (44% on Rotten Tomatoes). In fact, Roger Ebert said of the movie, “Isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing. If you think this movie is funny, that tells me things about you I don’t want to know.”
This is precisely why we are including the movie on this list. It might not be particularly funny, but it's about as dark as an American wide release comedy has ever been. The movie revolves around the accidental death of a prostitute during a Vegas bachelor party (attended by groom Jon Favreau and attendees Cristian Slater, Adam Stern, and Jeremy Piven). The rest of the movie focuses on the men involved working to tie up the loose ends. People end up dying and getting maimed left and right in a surprisingly joyless affair for a so-called comedy.
7 The Young Poisoner's Handbook
The Young Poisoner’s Handbook is the most unsung flick of the whole list, and it's perhaps one of the most underrated movies of the ‘90s. The writer/director, Benjamin Ross, hasn’t done much since this 1995 film (although he did just write and direct the series The Frankenstein Chronicles for British television). The brilliant lead actor, Hugh O’Conor, was never really able to turn this performance into regular starring roles. And it’s all really a shame, as this movie is charming, sharp, funny, and disturbing in just the right amounts.
Based on a true story, O’Conor plays Graham Young, a British teenager in the ‘60s that develops an unhealthy obsession with poison and the chemistry behind it (not to mention how to avoid detection in its use). Unhappy with his station in life, he begins poisoning his own family. The film follows Young as he is caught, pretends to rehabilitate himself in prison, and gets back out in the world to poison again. The film owes a huge debt to A Clockwork Orange thematically, visually, and in tone. The movie even shares some of the same music as Clockwork. While currently out of print and not available for streaming, it is our hope that this movie finally finds its audience outside occasional midnight movie showings.
6 American Psycho
Based on a Bret Eason Ellis novel of the same name and directed by Mary Harron (The Notorious Bettie Page, I Shot Andy Warhol), American Psycho follows a yuppie New York banker named Patrick Bateman (played expertly by Christian Bale), who happens to love four things above all else -- a well-designed business card, ‘80s pop music, himself, and murder. The movie does an amazing job of sending up ‘80s greed culture. Bateman wanders around his world of suits, ties, and cocktails without raising so much as an eyebrow, even as he begins to visibly unravel. In fact, many of the other upper class types seem as twisted and messed up as Bateman himself (minus the murder).
The movie does not flinch from the character’s activities as it forces us to watch as he indulges in an extreme-ish self-maintenance routine, meaningless sex, impassioned speeches about the merits of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston, and dismemberment. The movie ends in a flurry of craziness that has to be seen to be believed, and leaves viewers (intentionally or not) in the dark on whether or not any of it actually happened.
5 The Hateful Eight
Yes, we are going against the director’s wishes by listing The Hateful Eight as a comedy. That's because if you were to hold a gun to our head (please don’t put a gun to our head), we would call this a dramatic comedy more readily than a comedic drama. Either way, as with the rest of his oeuvre, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc., etc.) has managed to make the objectively unfunny funny in some seriously warped ways. Much of the humor in the movie comes from the snappy dialogue, and the interplay between the ultra-interesting characters.
The movie is a claustrophobic powderkeg film, set in a cabin in the Wild West during a snow storm. Kurt Russell plays a bounty hunter attempting to bring a wanted criminal, Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), in for trial and a hanging. They must hole up in the cabin to wait out the storm, alongside a group of other bounty hunters and some rather shady characters. It becomes clear that one of the people in the cabin is likely working with Daisy in order to free her. What transpires is tense and violent and nasty. The dialogue and action are unrelenting and nihilistic, and the movie ends in a way that's as likely to leave you shaking your head as to leave you laughing.
If Tarantino is to be believed, he only has two more movies before he retires. We can only hope they stay as sharp as The Hateful Eight.
Quite possibly the gnarliest movie to ever be an indie arthouse darling, Todd Solondz’s Happiness is a tour de force black comedy that resides on a shortlist of the most shocking flicks ever. The tone of the film is a slightly peppy predecessor to the current “mumblecore” movement. The subject matter, however, is beyond even some of the most grisly horror and exploitation films out there.
Under the thin veneer of middle and upper-middle class living, the characters of the film are dysfunctional and even murderous. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Allen, a nervous introvert with a fetish for making lewd phone calls, who befriends his neighbor (who just so happens to have murdered a man and stored him in the freezer in pieces). Dylan Baker plays a pedophile therapist with fantasies of going on a mass murder spree. And on and on it goes. While it is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite all-time movie (maybe worry about associating yourself with anyone who says it is), it is an enjoyable film that will have parts that stick with you until the end of days.
3 Meet The Feebles
Meet The Feebles was an early passion project from demented New Zealand director, Peter Jackson. Yes, the same Peter Jackson who directed the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. Jackson originally intended the film to be a television series, but rewrote things to make it a feature length film on the wishes of his Japanese investors (who also were funding Dead-Alive). The movie is made entirely with puppets (both hand puppets and full human-in-a-costume puppets) of animals. It is fairly apparent that the movie is poking fun at Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, as the animals all work on the production of a long-running and successful variety show/musical revue.
Only a couple animals are relatively ‘normal’ in the film, and the rest are about as warped as you could possibly imagine. The star of the show, a rabbit, is a sex addict who has contracted an awful (and disgusting) disease. The knife-throwing frog is a junkie prone to Vietnam War flashbacks. A rat who works under the financier of the show (a walrus) also drugs women and forces them into his adult films. The tabloid journalist is a fly with a taste for waste. And that's just the tip of the demented iceberg. Truly, this is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed.
2 Eating Raoul
Paul and Mary Bland live up to their name; they're an intensely dull couple who dream of owning a restaurant. When an aggressive swinger mistakenly barges into the Blands’ apartment and assaults Mary, they are forced to kill him. It is then that they realize the quickest path to becoming restaurateurs is to put an ad in the paper for Mary as a dominatrix… and then kill and rob all the people that respond to the ad. Things get messier when a burglar breaks into their apartment and discovers what they’re up to. The burglar, Raoul, is game to help join their scheme, but ultimately complicates manners in unforeseen ways.
This 1982 film was written and directed by Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000). While it might not be as reprehensible as some of the other titles on the list, it is no less dark. It is an intelligent and funny film with an acting style not unlike watching a zany stage play. Much of the comedy comes from the way it treats fetishes and sexual kinks -- and we are treated to some bizarre and hilarious roleplaying, an orgy, and a great dane.
1 Visitor Q
This list very well could have been just 15 of the nearly 100 films directed by Japan’s Takashi Miike. While he's probably best known for Ichi The Killer, Audition, and 13 Assassins (which are all very twisted and violent movies in their own right), none of his work has reached the frenzied depravity of Visitor Q. Much of the film is shot in a documentary ‘found footage’ style by either the main character, the father Kiyoshi Yamazaki, or the titular Visitor Q. Be forewarned: as grisly as the other entries were, the description of this movie is still shocking.
Visitor Q is just a random dude staying with a morbidly dysfunctional family for unknown reasons that are never addressed. He seems to be otherworldly, and exists more to move along the action via his emotionless responses and initiatives, and is a highly surreal touch to the film. The film revolves around the father, a failing television reporter, trying to make a documentary about family dysfunction (by filming his own very broken family). His teenage daughter is a prostitute that he sleeps with (and pays for). His wife is also a prostitute, a heroin addict, and is constantly abused by their teenage son. The son, for all his abuse, is bullied and abused by his classmates to an unsettling degree. There is also murder, necrophilia, lactation play, and a really disgusting poop scene… and yet somehow, there are laughs to be found along the way.
There are a number of very dark comedies that didn’t make our list. We didn’t even touch John Waters and other dark comedy auteurs. What movies do you feel are deserving of a spot? Let us know in the comments!