When does dark humor become too dark?

Examining when the use of dark humor is appropriate


Lillian Wang

Whether used personally or observed, the use of dark humor allows for individuals to laugh and make light of traumatic events, which in return releases endorphins that can lead to improved mental health.

Ananya Chaudhary

The long-running animated series South Park is known for its satirical takes on current events, social issues and pop culture. However, due to its use of dark humor, the show has been the subject of controversy for years. Dark humor is a unique and often polarizing form of comedy that challenges societal norms and pushes boundaries. Despite the show’s reputation for irreverent and offensive humor, it has developed a dedicated following of people that appreciate its unique style. This divergence of viewpoints begs the question: at what point does dark humor become too dark?

Dark humor can be seen as a rebellion against societal norms, challenging the traditional approaches to discussing topics considered taboo and too controversial. By humorously subverting the traditional way of discussing these topics, dark humor provides individuals with a platform to express their thoughts on issues that are often ignored in mainstream media.

Dark humor also provides a way for marginalized groups to resist dominant cultural narratives that perpetuate harmful stereotypes of injustices by sharing their experiences through jokes. Comedians often employ dark humor to connect with their prospective audiences. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, James Davis, a Black comedian, performed a routine that addressed the media’s portrayal of the ongoing protests as violent riots. Using his comedic talents, Davis drew attention to the discrimination faced by Black individuals. By taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, Davis provided a platform for both himself and his audience to confront the issue while also finding humor in it.

While traumatic subjects can potentially be a sensitive topic of discussion, finding humor in these subjects allows individuals to release tension and gain control over difficult situations, with laughter releasing endorphins that act as natural painkillers and mood boosters. Jokes about specific cultures or traumatic events should only be shared by those directly involved and with the intention of eliciting laughter rather than offending. Sharing dark humor with like-minded individuals can create social connections that aid in stress relief and healing.

However, a notable aspect of dark humor is that there is often a fine line between what is considered offensive and what is considered funny. From a cultural standpoint, people outside a certain culture, often use dark humor to make jokes at the expense of those within the said culture. As a result, it is crucial to consider limitations on who can make what type of dark joke. This is a complex issue to navigate, as there is no clear-cut solution or answer. However, it is important to engage in discussions about the potential harm caused by certain types of humor and to approach the topic with sensitivity and empathy toward those affected by it.

The controversy that surrounds South Park is due to the offensive humor which is considered insensitive and hurtful towards marginalized groups, while the writers’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone come from positions of privilege. The show’s depictions of individuals with disabilities, transgender people and various racial and ethnic groups have been criticized as perpetuating discrimination and prejudice. By exploring the boundaries and nuances of dark humor, we can better understand the impact it has on different individuals and communities. 

One parameter people have developed to determine which jokes are funny and which are simply offensive is the Benign Violation Theory (BVT). Designed by Caleb Warren and McGraw, the theory has two set criteria that determine whether a joke is funny or not, and they must be satisfied simultaneously: the joke must both violate norms and be benign. Based on these principles, if any of these conditions are not met, the joke is deemed unfunny. Dark humor consistently follows the first condition of BVT, as the jokes will always slightly deviate from social norms since they reference mildly uncomfortable topics, whether logical, linguistic or social. Therefore, the offensiveness of the joke decides whether or not the second condition is followed: whether or not the joke is benign.

Determining whether a joke is benign or not may be challenging at times, but a simple factor to take into consideration is whether the joke is targeted towards a specific cultural or ethnic group that the individual carrying the joke is not a part of. In these cases, the joke may perpetuate stereotypes and be considered non-benign. In the past, dark humor was often employed to stereotype and target marginalized groups. As society has become more progressive, dark humor has focused more on self-deprecating jokes. The degree to which a joke aligns with the conditions of BVT is positively correlated with its perceived level of humor and negativity, with jokes that satisfy the conditions being less offensive and funnier than those that do not. 



South Park is a prime example of a show that uses dark humor to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in mainstream media. It tackles sensitive topics such as religion, politics and social issues in a way that can be seen as offensive to many viewers. Dark humor serves as a valuable tool for dealing with difficult situations and bringing individuals together through shared experiences. It challenges societal norms and pushes boundaries, leading to important conversations about sensitive topics. Davis’ performance is one of many examples of dark humor being used to amplify the voices of marginalized communities in order to spread awareness about important issues. While some may argue that South Park is a valid demonstration of how dark humor should be used, it is important to note that the show’s characters have faced criticism for their insensitive treatment of certain topics, especially since they are from very privileged communities.

Dark humor requires awareness of context and sensitivity to others’ feelings, as what may be humorous to one person may be offensive to others. Jokes about cultures or traumatic events should only be made by individuals directly involved and with the intention of evoking laughter. Ultimately, whether or not someone enjoys dark humor is a matter of personal preference, but by daring to reference topics that might otherwise be ignored, dark humor has the potential to invoke positive change surrounding these topics, even if it may sometimes cross the line of what people consider funny.