A movie which takes on controversial or taboo subject matter in a deliberately humorous way is often referred to as a black comedy. This type of movie tends to use sarcastic or sardonic dialogue in order to remove some of the audience's preconceived notions about the proper treatment of a taboo subject. There are certain subjects or themes which many people would consider too taboo or morbid to become the basis of a traditional comedic film. The realities of warfare, for example, generally lend themselves to documentaries or serious dramatic films. Director Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H* both treat the subject of war with unmistakably dark humor, however. The lead character of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, for example, spends much of the movie muttering sarcastic observations while the horrors of war unfold around him.
A black comedy doesn't always have a heavy or morbid tone. Sometimes the humor comes from essentially straightforward characters who happen to be placed in traditionally bleak or controversial circumstances. The characters may have little idea that their occupations or lifestyles are morally or ethically questionable to outsiders such as the audience. One example, Sunshine Cleaners, features two women who start their own crime scene cleaning service, which juxtaposes the gruesome imagery of crime scenes with the upbeat pursuit of the American dream. A black comedy does not generally shy away from its darker subject matter, but rather presents certain aspects of it in a comedic or satirical way.
Morbid or dark humor can be a very subjective form of comedy, so producers and directors of these types of comedies must decide if a particular scene crosses the line of acceptability. The target audience of a typical black comedy is typically not mainstream, so the creators can and often do push the envelope when it comes to shocking or controversial sequences. A black comedy about the Korean War, for instance, could feature graphic battlefield or operating room scenes, but the filmmakers must decide if the comedic elements are strong enough to balance out the more dramatic or controversial sequences. A successful black comedy should still be viewed by audiences as a comedy, not a drama with a few instances of dark humor.
Stanley Kubrick also created another film which many film critics believe to be one of the best black comedies ever produced. In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a mentally unbalanced military officer refuses to recall a squadron of American bombers mistakenly ordered to drop atomic bombs on Russia. The efforts of various diplomats and military officers to prevent total global annihilation becomes the basis for dark comedy sequences. While the subject matter itself, the dangers of nuclear warfare, would not ordinarily lend itself to comedy, Kubrick and actor Peter Sellers manage to maintain the film's darkly comedic tone through brilliant dialogue and over-the-top character roles. This balance between comedy and pathos is what distinguishes a black comedy from more traditional comedies.