Dark humor is usually explained away as a natural response by human beings to unpleasant things that don’t make sense. That certainly explains a lot of the laughs in “The Lobster.” The film’s plot is deliberately surreal: Single people check in at a hotel to find love; if they don’t succeed after 45 days, they’re turned into animals. And the film only gets funnier as it gets harder to watch; it’s rare that I take in a movie through my fingers while laughing and whispering “what the [ALL CAPS, RHYMES WITH DUCK]?” over and over again.
So why was I laughing? I think dark humor is more complex than “we laugh at unpleasant things we don’t get.” I think it’s more “we laugh when we realize things are bleak but they’re going to get better.” In the world of “The Lobster,” no one is laughing when one character chokes on a martini olive while sitting in a hot tub, because for them olive-related deaths are sad. For me, in contrast, the movie had framed Death by Olive in such a way that I could barely breathe, and there wasn’t an olive anywhere near me.
“Cremains” (“The cookie dipped in grief”) made me laugh a lot too, and not just because the absurdity could distract me from the fact that my father was now in a box that fit in my sister’s purse. Our Cremains ad campaign (“A dessert to die for!”) was funny because we knew Dad would have been coming up with taglines right along with us.
Those laughs — like the biggest ones found in “The Lobster” — come from the tiny voice inside saying that the current level of suck will shrink, that there is a chance at righting a broken world.
The world of “The Lobster” presses down so hard on you that every time you get a chance to breathe, that gasp of hope is made of such rarefied air that the only appropriate way to react is with joy and with laughter. A joke in the midst of sadness (“Cremains — the perfect afterlife snack!”) is a way of introducing a hopeful absurdity into a world whose logic has led only to pain. Dark humor isn’t based in sadness — it’s the light that shines in, however briefly, when everything around us is dark.
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