Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dark Humor...not everyone gets it

by carol

Along with geography and pronunciation discrepancies, criticism of CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 has included the use of dark or black humor. Joking at murder sites and while discussing criminal cases has some viewers concerned about the sensitivity of the characters played by Scott Caan and Alex O’Loughlin (Danno and Steve). The recent episode He Kane Hewa’ole (Innocent Man) brings the use of black/dark humor to a “head.” (mea culpa)
A particular type of humor which applies in the critical incident situation is often called black, dark or gallows. It is seen to be a mechanism for coping with life in harsh settings. It proposes an illogical response to irresolvable dilemmas and offers a way of being sane in an insane place.
Is it real? Are the writers portraying police as they behave in real life?

Cops see the grotesque, the inexplicable, the scarcely credible. They have to turn off, not get involved. They handle insane, intoxicated and violent people. They console crime victims and their families. They must cope with the aftermath of criminal violence and the brutal cruelty of people to each other. Black humor can be a safety valve to get them through the day. Along with military, shock-trauma surgeons, ambulance crews, fire departments, and ER nurses, they can hide in black humor.

Humor serves to bring a sense of balance, perspective, and clarity to a world that seems to have been warped and polluted by malevolence and horror. Humor, even sarcastic, gross, or callous humor if handled appropriately and used constructively, ­ may allow the safe venting of anger, frustration, resentment, or sadness.

Does black humor then reflect a heightened or a reduced sensitivity to the crime and the people involved? Many writers use black humor to portray a grim ability to see things as they are rather than deny them. Perhaps people who use black humor do have an even darker vision than most and may present this through a unique mixture of comedy and despair.

Jokes and puns were rampant throughout He Kane Hewa’ole. But in the scene with the victim’s wife at the airport, McGarrett voices what he and his partner have really been feeling and coping with during the investigation: their anger, frustration, horror and sadness over the pain and suffering of a horrific crime.

Kudos to the writers. Keep writing it this way, guys, keep it real.


Fullerton, C.S., McCarroll, J.E., Ursano, R.J. & Wright, K.M. (1992). Psychological responses of rescue workers: Firefighters and trauma. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 62, 371-378.
Miller, L. (1994). Civilian post traumatic stress disorder: Clinical syndromes and psychotherapeutic strategies. Psychotherapy, 31, 655-664.
Silva, M.N. (1991). The delivery of mental health services to law enforcement officers. In J.T. Reese, J.M. Horn & C. Dunning (Eds.), Critical Incidents in Policing (rev ed., pp. 335-341).
Janoff, B. (1974) Black humor, existentialism and absurdity: A generic confusion. Arizona Quarterly, 293-304
Thompson, J. & Solomon, M. (1991) Body recovery teams at disasters: Trauma or challenge Anxiety Research, 4 235-24
Kuhlman, T. L. (1988) Gallows humor for a scaffold setting: managing aggressive patients on a maximum-security forensic unit. Hospital & Community Psychiatry, 39 (10) 1085-1090


  1. I found your site while searching for stats about dark humor, particularly if it's more common in men than women.

    This was a very interesting post.I happen to love Hawaii Five-O and haven't even noticed that the humor was dark:~)Then again, I have a dark sense of humor.

    I recently wrote a short story, which has a scene between two women, one of whom has just killed her abusive husband. In the scene, both women make comments that use dark humor.

    It's amazing how many readers of this story have zeroed in on this scene. One even called it "sick humor." I was really surprised at the negative reactions to what was something I might actually say in real life:~) It kind of scared me.

    I wonder if anyone has done research on dark humor. I'd be curious to know if it's more or less common in women -- All of the readers of my story have been women.

    Are there more women viewers of Hawaii Five-O and could this be part of the reason people have responded negatively to the humor on the show?

    I apologize for the long-winded comment. Your article was helpful. I really hope that one of favorite shows doesn't "bite the dust" because of its dark humor:~)

  2. Is there indication that more women watch Hawaii Five-O than men? The reason I ask is because I'm trying to find if dark humor is more common in men than women or if there's no gender difference.

    As a writer, I use dark humor, mainly because it's my type of humor. I recently wrote a short-short story for an online writing site.

    I was fascinated by the negative comments by the readers, all women so far, to one particular scene in the story that uses dark humor after a death.

    Some of the people have called this inappropriate and one even called it "sick" humor. It kind of scared because I didn't see anything odd about it, even given the horror of the circumstances in the story.

    I often use dark humor to diffuse a situation I can't emotionally deal with at the time. Laughter helps release the tension.

    If there are more women viewers for Hawaii Five-O, perhaps this may be a reason why the show is getting the flack about the dark humor.

    Just curious.

  3. I am a women and in my youth my job involved life and death and human drama everyday. After a rough day, me and my friends would usually just be stunned and quite for a while and then normally a flood gate of Dark Humor would open up to release the tension (maybe my present insanity would have kicked in sooner if I did not have that release then)

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