Columns > Published on March 24th, 2014

In Defence of Snark: Why Dark Humour Can Save Your Life

A few days ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a meme. It consists of a stock photo from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. In the background some wag has photoshopped an image of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

‘Too soon?’ asked my friend. Some people thought so. Some people thought the image was disrespectful to the missing passengers, or might be painful to the relatives of the missing. Some felt it was making light of a terrible situation.

My comment on my friend’s post? ‘It’s never too soon for sick humour.’

Humour helps us cope, even with terrible situations. Especially with terrible situations. The funniest place I ever worked? A hospital ward for the hopelessly demented.

Life sucks. Life throws shit at you. Life is short, sometimes very and cruelly short. But when all is said and done, our options about how to deal with these unavoidable facts—the suckitude, the shit, the cruelty and the brevity—form a very short list:

  1. We can ignore it.
  2. We can pretend there is a better life in store for us (except if we are Fred Phelps, in which case, if there is a God, we are sucking dicks in Hell).
  3. We can laugh about it.
As writers, we have a duty to think the unthinkable. Finding the funny in the unfunny is one way to embrace the transgressive.

Back in November, Joshua Chaplinsky argued that snark had become the jobbing writer’s blunt tool. In this internet age of anonymity and instant self-expression, we’ve become dependent on the one-liner, the bon mot, the throwaway comment. Instead of analyzing, we dismiss. Instead of critiquing, we slander. Desperate for a few retweets and likes, we don’t take anything seriously enough. If we have now passed through Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, according to Josh, we are now as a society fully immersed in the Age of the Cutting Putdown. There is some evidence for this: book reviewing, once a scholarly art, has now evolved, thanks to Goodreads and Amazon, into a hot mess of factionalism, false identities and conspiracy theories. An article once inspired thoughts you could continue in the comments, now it inspires death threats and long arguments about chemtrails. Twitter, once conceived as a way to promulgate breaking news or compose Haiku, now allows, as Josh points out, Bret Easton Ellis to pour scorn on the world, with the vinegary spleen of everyone’s least-favourite maiden aunt.

But none of this evidence argues against snark when it is done right. Because none of it – the Goodreads scandal, the twitter-mobbing, the existence of Bret Easton Ellis – is funny.

Dark humour, of which snark is one example, has a long history. The Greeks called it sarcasm – ‘the humour that bites’ – but didn’t use it much. Like negative numbers, discovered by the Chinese and regarded as an oddity until someone worked out they could be used to register financial debt, sarcasm only came into its own when William Shakespeare discovered it and, like comedy, tragedy and every other literary concept, made it his bitch (‘My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun’). Since then, the dark side of funny has gone from strength to strength. Black humour, sick humour, irony, fatalism, cynicism, snark – all of these are branches of the same tree, that gnarled and wizened specimen which lurks at the edge of the forest and draws its sustenance from the darkest soil, but also uses that unlikely material to produce the sweetest fruit. These forms of mirth take the unmentionable and mention it. They lift the stone and laugh at the horrors that lie beneath. Instead of respecting boundaries, they trample on them with hobnailed boots, howling with mirth.

But isn’t life cruel enough without making fun of misery? The soft of heart often flinch from the excesses of black comedy, feeling that we all ought to be sympathizing with the afflicted, not making them the butt of our joke. They worry about where the line is, but ought to ask themselves instead whether the punchline worked. Humour is all about picking the right target: the weak are allowed to make fun of the mighty, but not the converse. The joke about the Malaysia Airlines plane qualifies as funny, because the target wasn’t the passengers or the crew or the relatives of the missing, it was the incompetence of the airline itself and the Malaysian government, who obfuscated and concocted ridiculous explanations as a smokescreen (one suspects) for their own mishandling of the whole affair. That joke constituted a cry of rage, the kind that makes you laugh instead of gnashing your teeth. It forced us to face facts instead of swallow the Kool-Aid of delusional theories, and that is the other reason why it worked. Snark must be motivated by the purest intentions. Snark must puncture the pompous or expose an important truth. Allow bitterness or self-importance to taint your humour and you stop being amusing and start being bitchy. Experienced comedians know the difference. Amateurs, in which group I would include the Bret Easton Ellises of this world, don’t.

As writers, we have a duty to think the unthinkable. Finding the funny in the unfunny is one way to embrace the transgressive. Do not flinch from snark or any of the other forms of dark humour; just make sure that when you use it, your target and intentions are correct. And the part about saving your life? When Joseph Catch 22 Heller fell ill with Guillaume-Barre syndrome, a poorly understood, untreatable disorder, which causes creeping paralysis, his reaction was not to rail at the injustice of the world. His reaction was to surround himself with the funniest people he knew and afterwards write a satirical account of his disease. Heller, who credited humour with his recovery, summarized the experience thusly, ‘We do have a zeal for laughter in most situations, give or take a dentist.’

Ta boom tish.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: