Music and Dark Comedy: A History

Unsure of what dark comedy is? That’s fine. Dark comedy is a lot like water: not everybody gets it.

Okay, are all of the uber sensitive people gone now? Good, I don’t need any more angry letters.

But really, I understand. Dark comedy isn’t for everybody, especially when it’s in such an impersonal format as an article. Nothing but blank words on a screen, written by someone you’ve never met and who couldn’t care less how many mission trips to Guatemala you’ve been on. Music, however, makes it in your face. Once you start watching a band perform a song, watching the lead singer croon into the mic and look you in the eyes, it’s suddenly a lot easier to understand the emotions and meaning of what they’re trying to convey. That’s why so many comedians use music to tell jokes. You’d be hard pressed to find someone so soulless and boring that even singing to a huge audience can’t make them intellectually and emotionally connect with anyone.

Oops. How did that get there?


Technically, the term “dark comedy” was coined in 1935, but I couldn’t find any examples of it in song until Tom Lehrer. Lehrer is a singer songwriter, mathematician, and a child prodigy who entered Harvard at age 15. His comedic takes were often commentaries on the ongoing Cold War, and specifically what would happen if it were to turn “hot”. His songs include classics like “Who’s Next?”, “So Long Mom”, and my personal favorite, “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”


Before Saturday Night Live graced American screens with samurai hotels and repetitive cheeseburgers, the BBC was busting guts across the pond with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. The Python gang was always considered irreverent, with one of their films even being rated X and banned in some British cinemas. But despite their over the top silliness and disregard of proper Britishness, they have still managed to make themselves a comedy classic. Some of their songs include “The Universe Song”, “The Lumberjack Song”, and (probably the reason for the X rating) “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.


Sorry, I couldn’t find anything. I love Weird Al, but “White and Nerdy” doesn’t exactly scream “dark” to me, y’know?


Time for musicals! Broadway must have noticed Hollywood was slacking in the dark comedy department and decided to step it up themselves. The list includes “Urinetown”, a 2001 show about a dystopian future where water is in short supply, and therefore everyone needs to pay to pee (Please don’t judge the title too hard, it really is a good show). We also have “Avenue Q”, a musical featuring puppets dealing with racism, financial insecurity, and the realities of adult life. Lastly, there’s “The Producers”, a musical based off of the 1967 Mel Brooks film. Two Broadway producers find out that making a bad musical would make them more money than a good one and, well, this madness below is the result.


Considering how much dark comedy has exploded in popularity in recent years, I can’t choose just one theme for this decade. So here’s a list for ya.

  • Bo Burnham’s “What” and “Words Words Words”
  • The Lonely Island’s “Turtleneck and Chain”
  • Ben Hoffman’s “Ol’ Wheeler”
  • The Heathers Musical
  • Saturday Night Live
    • “Political Musical”
    • “Dad”
    • “Neurotology Music Video”
    • “Permission”

I find that a lot of people misunderstand the purpose of dark comedy, and a lot more misunderstand what it even is. It’s not meant to undermine a person’s humanity, and it’s not meant to make others upset and scared of what the world really is. I think it’s cathartic more than anything. You look at the comically massive world and universe around you, and you know that there is nothing you can do in the face of oblivion. So you laugh. Because it’s all we really can do. And you feel good while you’re doing it.

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