Eckburg: There’s a difference between dark humor and being a jerk

Bella Eckburg

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Black humor, commonly known as dark humor, is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes.” 


However, the rise of social media — especially amid a pandemic — has largely contributed to a rise in the normalization of dark humor. Unfortunately, this has also led to people misusing the term and making disgusting jokes about harmful topics under the guise of dark humor.

Dark humor is joking about experiences you have had and are potentially coping with, not joking about things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. When someone uses humor as a way to cope with their own experiences, even if some people find it morbid, it’s a completely normal response to trauma.

“Being humorous can be a personal strength,” said Viviane Ephraimson-Abt, a manager of well-being initiatives at the Colorado State University Health Network. “When we offer it to others and they benefit, this gives us a sense of purpose. Laughing together is also good for de-stressing and boosting our mood. Shared humor can help us feel connected, seen and give us a sense of belonging.”

There comes a point when dark humor is no longer funny; it’s just distasteful. We could see this line being crossed a lot during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

It should be a given that joking about the very real and traumatizing experiences of people of color, and Black people specifically, at the hands of the police when you will never encounter those situations yourself is in poor taste and, frankly, offensive. It minimizes the situation and punches down. If the people making these jokes were actually funny, they wouldn’t need to hurt others to come up with a punchline.

Privileged groups making offensive jokes about marginalized people does lasting damage to communities. Jokes about racism and sexism will never be anything other than individuals perpetuating damaging ideals within our society. Dark humor is not only for shock value — it’s for coping, and when it’s anything other than that, it’s not really dark humor.

Dark humor amid a pandemic has created a space for catharsis. Yes, living in a pandemic sucks, but we’re all getting through it together, as a community and as a generation.”

“We can use humor to cope with life — the mundane, the ridiculous, inequities and tragedies,” Ephraimson-Abt said. “If you look at comedy, you can see how many important issues comedians are raising. You can also see that humor is bound by social group identity.”

Dark humor used by comedians can be controversial, especially when those jokes are at the expense of others. However, TikTok specifically has created a space for this “edgy” humor to circulate, and that opens up a high potential for harm. 

“Humor can be especially empowering for post-traumatic growth and for trauma prevention,” Ephraimson-Abt said. “The comedian Hannah Gadsby is one example of this, speaking about her trauma with the intention of dismantling the social conditioning that caused it. This can be an empowering way to engage in collective healing.”

The pandemic has also opened the doors to dark humor in mainstream content, which makes sense considering the uncomfortable and uncertain situation that has unfolded around all of us. In this case, humor is being used as a coping mechanism and tends to be a little bleak — here lies dark humor in its purest form.


When it comes to the internet, there are always going to be muddy waters, but you need to consider the context. 

“Humor does have the potential to be an effective coping mechanism,” said Reid Trotter, director of CSU Health Network’s counseling services. “While it is common for people to use humor in stressful situations, it’s important to know the context of the situation and be mindful of how humor might impact others in the context, both positively and negatively.”

Dark humor amid a pandemic has created a space for catharsis. Yes, living in a pandemic sucks, but we’re all getting through it together, as a community and as a generation.

Trotter said dark humor “potentially helps make a big or intense situation seem less overwhelming and thus helps lighten a person’s mood and relieve stress.”

When we “punch up” in comedy, we are making jokes about an organization, person or situation that is more powerful than we are. The only way to end the pandemic is to go through it, and thus those jokes are punching up at a situation that has significantly more control than we do currently. 

Punching down, on the other hand, is when a joke is un-empathetic about the real situations marginalized groups face in day-to-day life — intentionally not recognizing privilege and, essentially, going for the lowest hanging fruit: the groups that deserve to be listened to.

“Humor can be helpful at some points, and it is so different for each person and their situation,” Ephraimson-Abt said. “We might need other things to deal with the trauma. There is trauma support and counseling at CSU. There are community-based models for trauma support that can help us understand … high stress and trauma and also how to support ourselves and our community.”

Bella Eckburg can be reached at or on Twitter @yaycolor.