"Whatever success I've had aside, between you and me? This [routine] right here, I've been doing it since I was 18, this is the difference between paycheck... and medication and bedcheck. And don't get me wrong. I want to hear your pain! For God's sake, just put it in joke form, that's all."
Quite often this world is filled with horrible things: disease, war, suicide, drive-by shootings, racism, sexism, terrorism, drug abuse, child abuse, rape, traffic. Letting these things consume you is not healthy, psychologically or medically.
But there is a way to keep it in check... by joking about it. People who are easily offended will find such a joke horribly offensive, their reaction will be "This is not a laughing matter." But the truth is there is a healing power to comedy. If you can make fun of yourself, talk about your problems and have someone laugh with you, then your problems don't seem so bad anymore.
This is when you are able to make the best of a bad situation, this is finding something funny in Hell. Like the age-old adage, "Laughter is the best medicine."
Gallows Humor is, by definition, from the perspective of the victim. If anyone else delivers it or actually trying to make the situation funny, it's Black Comedy. This trope is generally when the joke itself or simple laughter allows you to deal with your problems.
Compare Black Comedy, Quip to Black, Refuge in Audacity, The Fun in Funeral. See also "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner and Sad Clown.
Contrast Too Soon.
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Anime and Manga
The Trigun manga does this all the time, hence the Mood Whiplash and the sudden shifts to SD mode. Some Western fans complain that the bits of tragicomic laughter during gloomy, gritty fights become egregious towards the end of the manga. The humour tied to characters such as Livio and Legato gets particularly disturbing and seemingly out of place at times. Vash and Knives's snarky banter has a weird edge too, and Cosmic Horror Knives yelling insults in SD form is possibly even creepier than his non-SD moments.
Kimi No Kakera (Your Piece) contains a few outrageous cases too. A particularly jarring example is the Running Gag tied to Icolo's breasts, since the children are fascinated by them because they're all motherless and have had no substitute mom before teenage Icolo and Icolo/Cololi and a few other young girls are rape victims who went through forced prostitution.
Fullmetal Alchemist: The short jokes and quirky personalities of the officers are the only thing keeping from being a being a manga about the horrors of war. The inability of the series to keep a straight face for more than five seconds at a time is part of why some fans prefer the first anime (which maintains a more consistent mood).
Brook of One Piece constantly makes jokes and puns at his own expense over the fact that he is a skeleton. It lands solidly in this category when you realize that the series has more than once acknowledged that being reduced to a skeleton is not actually very funny, and that Brook knows it.
Lampshaded by Beast in an early issue of Grant Morrison's New X-Men, in the wake of the Genosha Massacre, when he tells Jean to tell Xavier that gallows humor is the only thing keeping them sane. The issue opened with him holding up a partial skeleton and saying "I don't know how to tell you this, my friend, but your dating days may be over."
Watchmen has quite a bit of gallows humor. Moloch: "Well, now, y'know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from? Well, that ain't the kind of cancer I got."
1776 - The members of the Second Continental Congress employ this to get through signing the Declaration of Independence. Franklin's real life quip about the situation (as seen in the page quotes) is famous enough that he gets to give it in the movie as well.
The Last Samurai: Katsumoto returns to his badly outnumbered and outgunned force after 'negotiating' with Omura, and tells his commanders: "Well, they won't surrender."
Butch: There's a way to profit from this... bet on Logan (the other guy). Sundance: I would, but who'd bet on you?
Butch and Sundance have the choice of being shot dead by bounty hunters or jumping off a high cliff into a river. Butch keeps saying they should jump, but Sundance'd rather fight them (and probably get killed).
Sundance: "I can't swim!" Butch:(bursts out laughing)' Are you crazy? The fall'll probably kill ya!
Butch: Hey, did you see Lafors out there? Sundance: Lafors? No. Butch: Oh good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.
Severance is a particularly good example of this. The comedy up until the middle of the movie is almost entirely Black Comedy, including the discovery that the meat pie the main characters have been eating contains a human tooth being met with the insistence that, "It's not all bad, I cooked it for the whole hour!" The movie actually ends with the four surviving characters, two of whom are strippers, rowing to escape in a small boat. Things look bleak and no one really has any hope for survival when the sole male in the boat turns to his coworker and says, "Foursome?" It is the last line in the film.
Ingmar Bergman is pretty good at this - bits of The Seventh Seal are intentionally both disturbing and hilarious, as are the attempted suicides in both Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magic Flute. (Admittedly, the latter is Schikaneder's doing, not Bergman's.)
Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor manages to make murder, Nazi sympathizers, insanity, etc. really funny while still as horrifying as ever. One scene has a magician trying to saw a lady in half without really knowing how the trick is done. Ah, those Swedish filmmakers.
In one scene in Cast Away, Chuck has developed a toothache during his stay on the island and is considering his options about extracting it (without anything close to the proper dental tools available), bouncing ideas off his buddy Wilson the volleyball, including the speculation that Wilson could be his dentist. Then he realizes (and shares) the ironic recollection that Chuck's actual dentist back home was named Dr. Spaulding (another brand of sporting equipment).
The Devils Rejects - The Firefly family: "We're sorry to inform you the Banjo and Sullivan show will be canceled for this evening!"
Despite the inherent seriousness of the situation, after Richie's suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums, a dark joke is thrown in:
After the transporter is fixed following a nightmarish transporter error that resulted in two crewmen being turned inside out, an arriving crewman says "Someone wanted to first see 'how it scrambled our molecules'".
Kirk to Transporter Chief Rand: That has a familiar ring to it....
Present quite often in A Night to Remember, from the 'You and I will be in the same boat later' conversation, to an aristocratic lady moaning about being out of bed due to the Titanic being 'unsinkable', cut to the boiler room flooding and the stokers desperately evacuating.
Due to a long, long history of persecution, Jews are generally acknowledged as the grand masters of Gallows Humor; this is highlighted in one scene in Schindler's List which features a group of ghetto residents tossing around very dark jokes about the number of people forced to move into their houses.
From The Counterfeiters: "Why is there no God in Auschwitz?... He didn't get through the selection process."
Sin City: Marv does this right before their own execution.
[Reverend reads a bible passage]
Could you get a move on? I haven't got all night...
Real Life serial killer Carl Panzram famously said something similar to his executioner: "Hurry up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill ten men while you were fooling around."
Pirates of the Caribbean: in Curse of the Black Pearl, Pintel and Ragetti tell Will the story of how, only after they sunk his father to the bottom of the ocean, did they learn they needed his blood to lift the curse. They then have a laugh at the cruel irony of their situation.
A lot of early translators didn't realize Hans Christian Andersen had quite a dark sense of humor underlying his many grim morality tales. "The Tinder Box" in particular has a line from the protagonist while he's awaiting his execution that, translated properly, is hilarious:
In the morning he could see through the bars in the little window that the people were hurrying out of the town to see him hanged. He heard the drums and saw the soldiers marching along. All the world was going. Among them was a shoemaker's boy in his leather apron and slippers. He was in such a hurry that he lost one of his slippers, and it fell close under the soldier's window where he was peeping out through the bars.
"I say, you boy! Don't be in such a hurry," said the soldier to him. "Nothing will happen until I get there!"
Astrid: " I believe that's what's referred to as Gallows Humor."
Harry Potter frequently makes these types of jokes, which for some reason are usually followed by a variation of the phrase: "Ron laughed, but Hermione didn't"
Especially true of Fred and George, who are known for making jokes about everything.
With the whole world of ear-related humor before you, you go for holey?
The Discworld series does this all the time, and points out why it works with Vimes musing "We who think we are about to die will laugh at anything."
Similar musings played straight in The Last Hero: Carrot takes a moment to work out that the motto Rincewind recommends be sewn on Leonard's space suits translates from Canis Latinicus as "We who are about to die, don't want to".
Another good one is Moist Von Lipwig in Going Postal. As he is about to be hanged, he says "I commend my soul to any God that can find it!"
Jingo is packed with this sort of joke, since it's one of the most dramatic and almost one of the darkest in the series. Most are about war and racism. And there's the World's Most Laughable Shipwreck.
Johnny Truant: Zampanò, I've come to recognize now, was a very funny man. But his humor was that wry, desiccated kind soldiers whisper, all their jokes subsurface, their laughter amounting to little more than a tic in the corner of the mouth, told as they wait together in their outpost, slowly realizing that help's not going to reach them in time and come nightfall, no matter what they've done or what they try to say, slaughter will overrun them all.
Some characters in Dune, such as Gurney, show this kind of humor.
Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series is notable for this, but Prince of the Blood has one mercenary who just takes the cake.
"My mother always wanted me to go into an honorable trade, like grave-robbing. But did I listen? Nooooo. Be an assassin, like your uncle Gustav. But nooooo. Apprentice to the Necromancer..."
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Perry Smith was reportedly joking with the hangman the night before his death.
Eat Your Feelings by Heather Whaley (based on a blog of the same name) is essentially relentless mockery of life under mental illness and other forms of stress. As a cookbook. Sort of "Sarah Silverman cooks" kind of thing.
Harry Dresden is, along with his Sad Clown ways, a master of this form of humor. Somewhat unusual in that he deals in post-gallows humor as well.
Some victors/tributes from The Hunger Games, including Katniss, have a rather droll outlook on their Crapsack World. Finnick in Catching Fire even ties a noose and pretends to hang himself as a joke.
A Song of Ice and Fire: The Lannister boys are particularly adept at this. No matter what the situation is - even after he has hit rock bottom and is Made a Slave - Tyrion is always ready with a snarky quip, which annoys his colleagues thoroughly. Jaime is an even straighter example. Shortly after the single most traumatic moment of his life, he has this exchange:
Supposedly, Oswell Whent of the Kingsguard had a wicked sense of black humor. Unfortunately, we never get to see it in action, since he's dead. Alas.
The cadets in The Lords of Discipline develop this as a coping mechanism towards their brutal Military School. The most notable instance occurs when one character commits suicide by walking in front of a train and graffiti starts appearing on the bathroom walls reading, " Dante Pignetti was railroaded out of the Institute."
Hazel, Augustus and Isaac of The Fault in Our Stars are as full of this as you would expect terminally ill teenagers to be. One particular gem:
Hazel: It's primarily his hotness.
Gus: It can be sort of blinding.
Hazel: It actually did blind our friend Isaac.
Gus: Terrible tragedy, that. But can I help my own deadly beauty?
Hazel: You cannot.
Gus: It is my burden, this beautiful face.
Hazel: Not to mention your body.
Gus: Seriously, don't ever get me started on my hot bod. You don't want to see me naked, Dave. Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace's breath away. *He nods toward Hazel's oxygen tank*
Bobby: So now we're having bacon cheeseburgers for breakfast?
Dean: I got a year to live, I'm not worried about the cholesterol.
When Dean and Sam go undercover at a church abstinence group, Sam tells the group that he's slept with women in the past and it always ends up badly. Dean adds, "He ain't lying."
Mash is a great example. The theme tune is "Suicide is Painless". The episode Rainbow Bridge had a high-stakes turnover of prisoners to the MASH doctors, and Frank nearly screwed it all up by bringing a gun. In reflex, Frank reached for his gun and stopped, but the enemy soldiers were not happy about this violation. Upon command, Frank revealed his gun, a very tiny pistol, which made the enemy soldiers laugh so hard that they forgave him and the turnover went smoothly from then on.
In another episode, a no-nonsense visiting Colonel takes Hawkeye to task over his constant cracking of jokes. Hawkeye points out that, given the horrors he witnesses on a daily basis, making a joke is the only way he can open his mouth without screaming.
Frasier. In "Murder Most Maris", Frasier attempts gallows humor, and in a running gag, keeps bringing up the fact he was punched by a man now dead, repeatedly, even days after the fact, to win an argument. The funny part? It works each time.
Titus - The entire show was about finding something funny about dark things.
"It actually comforts me to know that when I was in Kindergarten, gluing macaroni to paper plates, my Mom was in therapy... gluing macaroni to paper plates."
An episode of where the Defiant was hit with a warhead, and Quark and a Gamma Quadrant merchant are stuck right next to it. It turns out the merchant sold that kind of warhead to the Defiant's attackers, but it was designed to go off on impact. Quark jokes that they deserve a refund. To a Ferengi, that would be almost a sin, but considering they were that close to death, he and the merchant burst into laughter. The merchant also prided himself on only selling top quality merchandise.
Another episode had several Starfleet officers casually discussing the merits and drawbacks of various ways of dying as they awaited a battle they had little chance of winning. Maybe not strictly humour, but the nonchalance is quite chilling, especially for one character who tells them to knock it off.
Star Trek: The Original Series - In the "Catspaw" episode, Kirk and Spock are shackled with their arms raised against a wall next to a skeleton in the same position. At one point while discussing the situation with Spock, Kirk pauses as he looks at the skeleton, momentarily cocks his head in the same position as the skeleton's, then turns back to continue talking to Spock.
Earlier, when Dr. McCoy was also in the dungeon, Kirk turned his head to ask if 'Bones' was all right, saw the skeleton, and called McCoy 'Doc' for the rest of the episode.
Buffy has always had a morbid sense of humor; in Season Six after she's brought back from the dead it tends to get a Dude, Not Funny!! reaction from the Scoobies.
The final episode of Season Six. Buffy is updating the recently returned Giles on the horrible things that happened to her and her friends (her masochistic relationship with Spike, Xander and Anya's altar break-up, Dawn's shoplifting, etc.) After this laundry list of soul-crushing defeats, both Buffy and Giles suddenly break out laughing. Buffy even recounts the particularly traumatic events of Normal Again (where she's hallucinating that her entire time as the Slayer was just a delusion from a mental hospital, and she tried to kill everyone to stop the delusion...) in a fit of giggles.
They attempted to use this when Xander got his eye poked out by Caleb. Sitting in the hospital bed, Xander tried to crack a few jokes about the situation, which was hardly working for him let alone an emotionally frail Willow, which ended up being a Dude, Not Funny! and Too Soon.
Though a bit later:
Xander: And you know what's even worse? All the stupid "it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye" jokes. "Hey, —Xander, so no more fun and games, huh?"
Dawn: Giles was just having fun with you.
Xander: That's not the point. It's an obvious joke. It would be like someone calling me a cyclops ... I mean, give me some "eye of the beholder" jokes, you know? Or some "eye for an eye" jokes or maybe even a post-modern I, Claudius joke. It's about standards, Dawnie.
Hogan's Heroes - This partially explains why several Jewish actors (one or two of whom narrowly escaped the Holocaust) were willing and eager to play Those Wacky Nazis (including the main four Nazis, Klink, Schultz, Burkhalter, and Hochstetter). That, and the chance to make a career out of Take That. John Banner (Sergeant Schultz) supposedly told someone, "Who better to make fun of them than us?" There's a reason you never see any of the Germans with their forearms bared, after all.
The jokes present in This Hour Has 22 Minutes are only rarely Gallows Humor, but in a commercial for the show in the nineties, Rick Mercer had this to say on the subject, after musing on why Canadians seem to take such glee in lambasting not only their politicians, but themselves: "If ya can't laugh, ya might as well cry."
Scrubs can feature quite a bit of this although sometimes they advise against it if it's not really helping, it can make you even more miserable. J.D. and Turk once explained to a dying patient that because they are around it so much they need to make it clear they aren't afraid of death. And there are other examples such as regarding Doug, a doctor and later pathologist, who has killed numerous patients and treats dead bodies like "giant children", Dr. Kelso, who has a habit of cracking extremely morbid and perverse jokes that horrify his colleagues, and Ted the lawyer, who comedically threatens to kill himself numerous times over the course of the show.
Ted also makes the occasional oblique reference to murdering Dr. Kelso. "Bloop..." certainly comes to mind
Richard Hammond's first episode after his 288 mph crash and subsequent recovery from a serious brain injury, with James May standing by with tissues in case Hammond starts "dribbling" and Jeremy Clarkson asking if he was now "a mental."
Virtually every time one of the presenters has a big crash there's some variation on the theme of "We've just killed [presenter]. If you want a job on Top Gear, write to 'I'm Better Than [Presenter] Was', BBC TV Centre, Wood L... no, wait, he lives!"
After Jeremy blew a tire on a Bentley, Jeremy looks at Richard and says "I had a blowout, and I held it."
The presenters allegedly have a pact that, should any of them die, the others will appear at the beginning of the next episode, make a mournful comment, and then say "Anyway.." and cheerfully continue with the show.
Firefly has its fair share of this, but the most literal example has to be River giggling at the absurdity of being tied to a pyre on the same day as she learnt what a "post-holer, for digging holes for posts" looked like in "Safe".
Criminal Minds makes use of this frequently, which is probably a good thing on a show that has had cannibals, killer clowns, guys that kill people and do experiments on them before feeding them to pigs, people that remove their victims eyes, people that kill others randomly, people that do live autopsies on others, and people that set up death traps to watch their victims suffer. And that's only a few. Gallows Humor is probably one of the only reasons any of the (current) main cast is at all sane.
Red Dwarf is full of this. One episode deals with Lister losing his arm. Doug Naylor(who wrote the episode) is missing a leg.
A recurring theme throughout the various Blackadder series, although special mention should be granted to 'Goodbyeeee...', the final episode of 'Blackadder Goes Forth', where the constant threat of death has finally... pushed them over the top.
Of particular note is the episode "Corporal Punishment", where Blackadder jokes constantly about his imminent and ultimately avoided doom.
Blackadder: "Can I ask you to leave a pause between the word 'aim' and the word 'fire'? Thirty of forty years, perhaps?" Blackadder:(asked by the marksmen where they should hit) "Just above my head might be a good spot." Blackadder: "Robinson, good to see you!" *gun gestures*
It helps, though, that he's set up and expecting a Last Minute Reprieve to pull his chestnuts out of the fire, and when it looks like it's not coming he starts sounding a lot more panicky. Another example, however, is at the Kangaroo Court where he was sentenced to death to begin with
Melchett: "I therefore have absolutely no hesitation in announcing that the sentence of this court is: that you Captain Edmund Blackadder be taken from this place and shot to death by shooting tommorrow at dawn. Do you have anything to say?"
Blackadder: "Yes, can I have an alarm call, please?"
Home Improvement had an episode where Jill's dad died and the family had go to Texas for the funeral. Randy was constantly making jokes about it and upsetting Mark. He later admitted to Tim he didn't know why he was acting that way. Tim said he was the same way when he was 11 and his dad died, and suggested to just be careful around certain people like Mom and Mark.
That '70s Show had an episode where Eric was driving his grandmother home, and the lady was not well liked by anyone for her fault finding and meanspiritedness. When Eric finally tells her that she isn't very well liked, she just suddenly drops dead. Interestingly no one, not even her son Red, cried at her passing and while the show had plenty of jokes happening, the funeral was a rather standard ordeal. After the funeral Eric confessed to Red that she died immediately after he told her off, Red chuckled saying "It could only happen to you." Kitty then came in, after spending the entire time just cooking things and finding herself with nothing left to keep her busy, and started to break down in tears. The three of them then cried together for a moment of grieving.
Specifically, Eric said "It wouldn't kill you to be nice", hence this trope and Red's reaction.
Oz: An awful lot of it. No matter how brutal or horrific a situation, someone is going to make a joke about it.
Warden Glynn: The M.E. has ruled McCullum's death as suicide. He bit into his skin, chewing off chunks of muscle over the course of a week or so, causing himself to bleed out. Sister Pete: Sweet Jesus! Officer Murphy: Like a cannibal! Tim McManus: A cannibal eats somebody else's flesh. Murphy: So what do you call a guy who eats his own flesh? Tim McManus: Inventive.
Doctor Who had this exchange between Sarah Jane Smith and the Third Doctor as they're trapped in a web in Planet of the Spiders:
Doctor: I think they'll find I'm rather a tough old bird. Sarah Jane: An old boiler, in fact. Doctor: (chuckles) yes, yes. I would make a good item on the agenda of the next spider council meeting. Whether to stew a Time Lord or roast him in a slow oven? Sarah Jane: That will give them something to chew over. Doctor: Yes, something they can get their teeth into, hmm?
In The Time of the Doctor when the Eleventh Doctor is dying of old age and out of regenerations, surrounded by Daleks, on the planet Trenzalore where he is destined to die, he tells some to Clara.
Doctor: The trouble with Daleks is, they take so long to say anything. Probably die of boredom before they shoot me.
Sketch comedy shows like The Kids in the Hall and The State will sometimes do a sketch in the recovery room of an attempted suicide. Expect no one to have read the attempter's (long and detailed) suicide note.
In Never Wipe Tears Without Gloves Paul whines about people who commit suicide when they find out they have AIDS, saying that they are mean to make their friends carry the coffin with their heavy body and that they should have the decency to wither away from the disease and make the coffin lighter to carry.
Only Fools And Horses: Most of "The Russians Are Coming", where Rodney convinces them to build a nuclear fallout shelter after Del unknowingly buys a kit along with a shipment of lead. Most of the episode highlights just how unprepared the average person in 1981 was to cope with the possibility of nuclear war and life afterwards, particularly with only a "four minute warning" to seek shelter.
Del: By the way, how are we doing?
Rodney: We're dead. We died 45 seconds ago.
The final reveal makes it even more poignant, revealing that the "Safe as houses" location that they decided to build their shelter was on top of Nelson Mandela House.
Frank Zappa's "Suicide Chump" is about the importance of just getting your damn suicide over with.
Tom Lehrer's song "We Will All Go Together When We Go" is all a touching, hilarious example of this kind of humor, applied to Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation: "We will all go together when we go / All suffused with an incandescent glow / No one will have the endurance to collect on his insurance / Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go"
Strangely, there is no literal Gallows Humor in Creature Feature's "A Gorey Demise," a song that is an ABCs of a year's Obituaries. This is perhaps out of difficulty of using the word "hanged" in a song. Though "hung" (although not proper grammar) would provide a lot of comedy, all by itself. (W is for William who was very wellhung?)
In Cage's "Suicidal Failure", the lyrics are partly Gallows Humor, partly Nightmare Fuel. An example is Cage walking past a group of Crips bleeding, hoping that they would kill him (implying that they would think he was a member of rival gang the Bloods).
"How come Mom's crazy and I'm not? It's possible she could have got up every night in front of this many people, talk about all the CRAP in her life and those people sat around and laughed with her, would have meant nothing and she could have moved on cool. It's also possible she also could have taken out the front row with a large caliber weapon, she was, whew, out there. And maybe things would be different for Mom, she would have gotten her own show and you would read about me in 'The Inquirer' as her heroin addicted son. Oh, we can dream!"
The Dutch stand up comedian Herman Finkers does it literally: "Two gallows are walking down the street...".
Following his open heart surgery, Robin Williams was quick to poke fun about it in his HBO special "Weapons of Self-Destruction."
Romeo: Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much. Mercutio: (Having just been mortally wounded by Tybalt) No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
This is also said in the stage musical of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, though the movie itself has plenty of such jokes, like "During my first performance, the audience threw tomatoes at me, and afterwards I had a nice salad"
In Hugh Wheeler's libretto for Candide, Dr. Pangloss gets in a few optimistic words as he stands on the gibbet, just before the executioner releases the trap:
"adies and gentlemen, one final word in praise of the universal laws of Science. God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope and what is the rope for but to create a noose? And, Glory be to the Greatest Philosophers, what is a neck for but to be...
The Mikado derives considerable merriment from the subject of execution by beheading.
During the signing of the Declaration in 1776, Franklin jokes about their impending treason and McKean speculates on which one of them will hang the easiest, to great laughter—which gets louder when Hancock points out:
Hancock: Gentlemen, forgive me if I don't in the merriment, but if we're arrested now—my name is still the only one on the damn thing!
The increasingly inaccurate title Final Fantasy was given to the first game because Square was in trouble at the time, and had it not been a hit, it would have been Square's last game. The creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi, presumably attempted to do it again, with a Wii game titled The Last Story, though he himself said it wasn't directly intended (and The Last Story became a success anyway).
During the boarding of the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, EDI makes an inappropriate joke about the sight of humans on their knees. When Joker just glares, she clarifies "That is a joke."
Also in 2, as he notices that they're about to start fighting through a hospital, Garrus Vakarian cracks "That's unfortunate. Hospitals aren't very much fun to fight through." Late in 3 he says "I thought hospitals were ugly to fight through. This is so much worse," making the joking sentiment suddenly seem much more serious.
South Park put it best when saying that it's been long enough to make jokes about 9/11 and AIDS, because if you keep taking it so seriously then the terrorists win.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, after being captured by Shen and about to be executed, Mantis makes this quip.
Mantis: I thought I'd meet a nice girl, settle down, and then she'd eat my head.
Surprisingly, an example is found in a House of Mouse segment where Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are hired to bring an organ to a demented toymaker that wants Mickey's heart to bring his doll bride to life.
Mickey: He didn't want to donate an organ! He wanted me to donate my organs!
Goofy: And you're not even done with them.
Benjamin Franklin: One of his most famous quotes, referring to the Revolution, was "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." A rather literal use of gallows humor indeed.
Along with the ever-infamous "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." (Though this might an adaptation from Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet - "two may keep counsel, putting one away"—there's little doubt Franklin said this.)
"Soon, we will be able to take a tram from one theater of the war to the other." Reportedly said to Hitler during the last days of World War II.
And in a similar vein a popular German joke of the period:
Eins: I was thinking, after the war ends I will go for a walk around the perimeter of the Greater German Empire.
Zwei: Oh? And what are you planning to do in the afternoon?
Similar to yet another joke that was popular among German soldiers in the last weeks of World War II. Translated to English (as featured in Downfall), it goes:
"Berlin is the city of warehouses. 'Where's my house?' 'Where's my house?'"
The story about it being "translated" to English is obviously apocryphal, as the pun only makes sense in English. In German, the word "where" (Wo) does not sound anything like any part of the word "warehouse" (Lager).
German humor is pretty fond of gallows humor. Another old literal one: "Back in the middle ages the criminal who was about to be hanged on Monday tells the judge 'Great start of the week, huh?'" (Please note that in many countries, the calendar week begins on Monday.)
Mexican Calaveras (joking poems on someone's encounter with the Grim Reaper —even if not dead yet) are all about this. Then there are Posada's engravings, many of them satirical. Also, skull shaped candy!
Indeed, it might be said that the holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about this: rather than a grim mourning of those who have died, it's a celebration featuring all sorts of skeletal decorations (juxtaposed with bright colors and flowers). The reasoning behind this is that one should celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, not dwell on the fact that said lives are over. It also has the effect of making death somewhat less frightening.
A couple of near-literal examples from real world criminals sentenced to death:
"Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel." George Appel, executed in New York's electric chair, 1928.
"How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? French Fries." James French, executed in Oklahoma's electric chair, 1966
"I'd rather be fishing." Jimmy Glass, executed in Louisiana's electric chair, 1987
"This is the first time authorities helped me escape prison." George Sitts, executed in South Dakota's electric chair, 1947.
A more literal example is "Black Jack" Ketchum, hanged in New Mexico Territory, 1899. There are at least three reports of his last words.
"Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up." "I'll be in Hell before you start breakfast! Let her rip!" "Hurry up! I'm due in Hell for dinner!"
Another literal exemple is William Palmer, who exclamed while looking at the trapdoor:
"Are you sure it's safe?"
Some rumors said Henri Landru refused the last cigarette because it would be bad for his health
John Albert Taylor asked for a bulletproof vest before being Shot at Dawn
As they were being taken to the guillotine, the poet Fabre lamented to Georges Danton that he would not be able to finish his verse drama, The Neapolitan Orange. Danton replied: « Des vers ! Avant huit jours tu en feras plus que tu ne voudras, et nous aussi ! » ("Verses/worms! (The French « vers » means both.) In a week you'll be making more of them than you want, and so will we.)"
Another story tells of a commoner who was being tried and faced the guillotine. Assuming he was a nobleman, the court called out for him to stand, adding a "de" in front of his name. The prisoner stood up and testily replied : "Je ne suis pas ici pour qu'on m'allonge, mais qu'on me raccourcisse" (translation : I'm here to be shortened, not made longer). Reportedly, the judge liked his wit and answered "Eh bien, qu'on l'élargisse !" (lit. "very well then, let him be widened !", but in French legalese meaning "release him")
Georges Cadoudal, a Catholic Royalist guerrilla fighter during the French Revolution, was arrested and sentenced to death in 1804 after a failed assassination attempt on Napoléon. On the guillotine, as he was reciting the "Hail Mary", he stopped at "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now". As the priest who assisted him encouraged to finish the prayer, he answered : "Why ? Isn't now "the hour of our death" ?"
During the Winter War, the Soviet Union dropped large numbers of incendiary cluster bombs on Finnish cities as part of their attacks. The Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, went out in the international press and claimed that this 'bombardment' was a filthy lie; they were actually food drops to help feed Finnish refugees from the war. The Finnish responded by naming the bombs "Molotov bread baskets" in his honor and began referring to the mass-produced incendiary bomb (filled with high-proof vodka provided by the state liquor monopoly) they used on the Soviet as the Molotov Cocktail; "a drink to go with the food".
People in the medical business do this a lot. Making jokes about patients, disease, etc.
What's the difference between a doctor and a lawyer? When the lawyer's done robbing you, at least you're still alive.
And on the other end of the age spectrum, you'll know that a patient that was CTD (Circling the Drain) is now GFPO (Good For Parts Only: ring the organ donor desk and see if there's anything they want) when he/she gives the Q sign (Tongue lolling out of a slacked jaw. Mouth now looks like the letter Q.). Meanwhile, you can take the GOMER (Get out of my emergency room! Person whose injury does not rate the ER) aside and practice your PRATFO (Patient reassured and told to...) technique.
Classic signs of a concussion include being Disoriented, Irritable, Confused, and Combative.
A psychiatric hospital was once on trial over its practices and a doctor was asked what the term "FITH" stood for. After trying to dodge the question by saying it was highly technical, he was finally forced to answer: "Fucked In The Head".
Police also tend toward very dark humor, for a similar reason.
The slogan "Our day starts when your day ends" - Homicide has been used occasionally
Stuart Slade, on the effects of direct radiation from a nuke: "Once thermal blast and concussion have reduced you to the size, shape, and color of a McDonald's hamburger patty, irradiating you as well would be incredibly superfluous."
Phrase commonly seen on T-shirts among Explosive Ordinance Disposal personnel: "I am a bomb technician. If you see me running, try to keep up!"
Pilot joke: "Any landing is a good landing. A 'great' landing is one where you can use the airplane again."
Submariner joke: "A submarine is a ship for which the number of sinkings is equal to the number of surfacings. Hopefully."
The crew of a British warship sunk in the Falklands sang "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian while waiting for rescue. The entire British Armed Forces basically runs on bleak gallows humour.
Military units in general, particularly in combat zones do. IEDs have been said to be the terrorists' way of making you obey the speed limit. You get nailed by one, you were driving too slow.
The anthem of American paratroopers is "Blood on the Risers", a song about a paratrooper whose parachute didn't open during a jump.
There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute,
Intestines were a'dangling from his Paratrooper suit,
He was a mess; they picked him up, and poured him from his boots,
And he ain't gonna jump no more
The song Blood on the Risers also serves to illustrate another purpose behind a lot of Gallows Humor; the cautionary tale. In the song, the paratrooper does all his equipment checks except his static line ("He jumped into the icy blast, his static line unhooked"). A static line is a cord on a military parachute that attaches to a cable inside the plane. When the trooper jumps out of the plane the static line deploys his parachute for him, just in case he should happen to freeze up or pass out from the fall. The song is a warning for paratroopers (and by extension soldiers in general): ALWAYS remember to check ALL your equipment.
After he was diagnosed with cancer: "If it weren't for science, how many of us could enjoy cancer for more than five years?".
You can add: "plus cancéreux que moi, tumeur" (more cancer-afflicted than me, tumor). The pun is the homophony of tumeur (tumor) and tu meurs (you die).
Also this one: "Noël au scanner, Pâques au cimetière". Desproges was playing on an old saying that went "Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison" (Christmas on the balcony, Easter by the chimney), effectively saying Christmas at MRI, Easter at the grave. Morbid, but since he kept saying it with an exhilarating smile, it still elicited laughter.
Desproges also justified Gallows Humour in his mock-prosecutor's charge against french right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, explaining that "On peut rire de tout, mais pas avec tout le monde" (You can laugh about anything, but not with everybody).
He justified it even better when he told "On peut rire de tout. On doit rire de tout. Même de la mort. Surtout de la mort. Après tout, la mort se prive-t-elle de se rire de nous ?" (We may laugh about everything. We must laugh about everything. Even death. Especially death. After all, does death show any qualm about laughing at us?) (this is a simplified version of the original quote, which is even more awesome)
And of course, his book "L'Almanach", which he wrote while in the final stages of his cancer, and was published after his death, is literally rife with Gallows Humour. Including, but not limited to, one different darkly sarcastic subtitle for Picasso's Guernica for each week of the year.
George Harrison had coincidentally hired new groundskeepers about a week before a crazed fan broke into his house and stabbed him nearly to death. As he was being taken away by paramedics, with stab wounds in his chest and a punctured lung, he reportedly looked up at the new groundskeepers and asked "So how do you like the job so far?"
On his deathbed, Voltaire, a fervent deist, received a Catholic priest who asked him to renounce Satan and thus be accepted in Heaven. He reportedly replied "Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies".
Another one from the U.S.A.'s Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence.
Benjamin Harrison: "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead."
Yet another political one: when Ronald Reagan was shot, his first words to his wife were "Honey, I forgot to duck." And when the surgeons were about to operate on him to remove the bullets, he told them "I hope you're all Republicans."
A doctor (who was a Democrat) replied: "Today Mr. President we're all Republicans."
According to medieval Catholic legend, Saint Lawrence of Rome was martyred by being roasted to death on a gridiron. After roasting over a hot fire for a while, he supposedly told his torturers, "I am done on this side; you may turn me over". The Catholic Church decided that because of this, he should be considered the patron saint of cooks and chefs, making this first-rate Black Comedy as well. Lawrence is also the patron saint of stand-up comics for just this reason.
St. Sebastian (the one who was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows) is the patron saint of lacemakers. Bartholomew the Apostle — the one who was flayed alive and then crucified — is the patron saint of tanners and leather-workers.
Russell Means once said American Indians should be placed on the endangered species list, much like the aforementioned Star Trek example.
As Sir Walter Raleigh approached the executioner's block, he looked at the axe and whispered to the executioner, "Tis a sharp cure, but good against all ills."
Philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has a fondness for gallows humor. It was part of the language of academics living in the East Bloc, and his fondness for this type of humor carries through. He's also argued that in many circumstances, like the Holocaust, the monstrosity of the situation is "too strong for tragedy", and so the only decent response is one of comedy, ridiculing the brutality of the situation.
Christopher Hitchens, during his losing battle with cancer, loved this trope - he announced he had it in an article called "Topic of Cancer," and said that, because his cancer was so developed he had "joined the cancer elite." He also said: "I make preparations for living and dying every day. But with the emphasis on not dying, and on acting as though I was going to carry on living."
When asked how he was coping, he replied "Well, there are the bad days and then there are the worse ones."
To the first friend he spoke to after learning of his cancer and its advanced state he said, "I had plans for the next ten years. I expect I shall have to cancel them."
Add firefighters and EMTs to the other occupations that do it. Stand near some firefighters as a building, despite best efforts, burns to the ground and almost inevitably someone will ask who brought the marshmallows.
EMT 1 (after moving a very heavy patient): "When I die, you can wait until I'm rotted down to a skeleton so I'm easier to move."
EMT 2: "I have a carving knife. I don't have to wait that long."
United Airlines flight 232 was a DC-10 that suffered a total failure of all its hydraulics in flight, making it all but impossible to control. During the co-ordination of the emergency landing attempt, the following conversation occurred between ATC and flight captain Alfred Haynes:
Sioux City Approach: United Two Thirty-Two Heavy, the wind's currently three six zero at one one; three sixty at eleven. You're cleared to land on any runway.
Haynes: [laughter] Roger. [laughter] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?
The obituary of a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan: “He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pall bearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.”