What word or phrase could be used to describe a joke about something serious or bad? It isn't meant as humor in the typical sense, but as sort of a brave, different flavor of humor between two friends. Something that isnt actually funny, and could be really bad, but I choose to joke about it to dismiss fear. Between two people that accept life's events, and understand being morbid isn't going to change the matter at hand. For example:

"So we found out more about that chest problem my sister got checked for."

"So how long does she have?"

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    That might be simply called putting on a brave face/front since there doesn't appear to be any humour in the dialogue.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 1:46
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    I am a little confused by the example. It's not clear where the "joke" is supposed to be.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 17:02
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    @DCShannon The humor is in the relief of it not being so bad that the doctors provided an estimated time of death, e.g. "she's expected to live no more than a month". Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 0:44
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    because many people don't seem to get the joke ... the sister got checked for a chest problem, which is not something necessarily life-threatening (although it CAN be). the joke is that OP asked how long she has to live, which is normally something you'd only ask about someone who's definitely terminally ill. OP doesn't actually think the sister's life is in danger. it's a joke!
    – user428517
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 14:31
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    An example if not an answer, my mom died late last year after a long battle with cancer. Someone at the funeral said "she's in a better place now." I quickly replied, "No, she's dead, a better place would be the Upper West Side." (A reference to a Manhattan neighborhood, she was in Brooklyn, NY) Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 22:26

10 Answers 10


Gallows Humor

"humor that relates to very serious or frightening things (such as death and illness)"
-- Merriam-Webster

Personally, if I were to read this term or hear it in certain contexts, I would understand it. But I may not pick it up in conversation (even as a native speaker) because it is not an often-used term.

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    "Gallows Humor", at least as I've heard it used, comes from one who is on the gallows (e.g, in the throes of illness or directly facing death), so OP's example doesn't fit, and seems more like "Dark Humor"
    – Donnie C
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 14:42
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    @DonnieC i disagree—gallows humor absolutely fits this. "gallows humor" is just an expression, it doesn't literally refer only to humor provided by people directly facing death. that's just its origin. language changes over time.
    – user428517
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 14:33
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    Note that some languages have a term similar to gallows humor which also stems from their word for gallows. This term seems quite international.
    – Mast
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 11:01
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    @Mast breaking peoples' necks with ropes was a multicultural fad for many centuries.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 14:56
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    @corsiKa for most of the period it was just suspended strangulation (still practiced in some parts of the world today); it wasn't until the 19th century that the weight/drop tables needed to determine the correct amount of rope to snap a neck without decapitating the condemned were worked out. Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 20:54

"black humor" seems to fit.

  • black humor - humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes.

  • black humour, also called black comedy, writing that juxtaposes morbid or ghastly elements with comical ones that underscore the senselessness or futility of life. Black humour often uses farce and low comedy to make clear that individuals are helpless victims of fate and character.

An example of a black humor joke:

A sadist, a masochist, a murderer, a necrophile, a zoophile and a pyromaniac are all sitting on a bench in a mental institution.

  • "Let's have sex with a cat?" asked the zoophile.
  • "Let's have sex with the cat and then torture it," says the sadist.
  • "Let's have sex with the cat, torture it and then kill it," shouted the murderer.
  • "Let's have sex with the cat, torture it, kill it and then have sex with it again," said the necrophile.
  • "Let's have sex with the cat, torture it, kill it, have sex with it again and then burn it," said the pyromaniac.
  • There was silence, and then the masochist said: "meow."

The best black humour jokes

  • I don't think this fits the criteria described by the OP: "It isn't meant as humor in the typical sense, but as sort of a brave, different flavor of humor between two friends. Something that isn't actually funny, and could be really bad, but I choose to joke about it to dismiss fear."
    – gfullam
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 14:32
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    The native expression from French, "humour noir" seems to be used, sometimes, in English: [The term black humor (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theorist André Breton in 1935 to label a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism,[11] often relying on topics such as death](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_comedy#Origin_of_the_term) Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 16:25

The word you're looking for might be


The usage here would be something like

Your sense of humor is rather macabre.

The word itself often has the connotation of an almost flippant attitude toward death and gruesome subjects.

Centaurus's joke about necrozoophilia and sadomasochism is rather macabre, don't you think?


You might consider, morbid humor/humour

Google Books


relating to unpleasant subjects (such as death)


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    The OP uses the word morbid in their question: "What is this method of joking about a morbid situation called?"
    – gfullam
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 13:24

Does black comedy meet your criteria?

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    I think of black comedy as what Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy do. I think black humor is a better term nowadays. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 14:24
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    @PeterShor films like In Bruges are described as black comedies, films like Friday generally aren't, at least not in official sources. But "black comedy" does sometimes result in misunderstandings, especially with non-native speakers. I usually switch to saying "dark comedy" when talking to non-natives if what I mean is not convenient to clarify or self-explanatory through context. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 21:37
  • @user569459: yes, you can describe films as black comedies, but the OP was not talking about films but about jokes. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 3:28

Displacement or Coping

In Freudian psychology, displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes … a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.

A term originating with Sigmund Freud, displacement operates in the mind unconsciously, its transference of emotions, ideas, or wishes being most often used to allay anxiety in the face of aggressive … impulses.

Source: Displacement (psychology) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Displacement is not about the type of humor used, rather about why it is used, but I think it accurately describes the scenario you present. Furthermore…

Freud also saw displacement as occurring in jokes…

According to Gina Barreca Ph.D. in an article for Psychology Today:

We can use humor to put our fears into perspective. Humor addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them and then laugh them away from the door.

Humor is, of course, the one thing that fear cannot abide: Laughter banishes anxiety, and can help replace fear. Laughter is a testament to courage, or at least a manifestation of the wish for it, and courage is stronger than fear.

However, she seems to be describing humor here as a conscious alternative to the typical unconscious displacement of "our feelings of fear onto other, perhaps even more potentially destructive, emotions and behaviors."

You might use the word coping or phrase coping mechanism to describe the conscious use of humor in this scenario.

So whether unconscious or conscious, it could be described as a type of "displacement" or "coping" humor.

Additionally, you could use the word macabre to qualify it: "We joked about the terminal diagnosis as a sort of macabre coping mechanism."

  • While I think your answer explains the behavior and describes it the best, the words, but the words displacement or coping, by themselves dont seem to be a fitting description.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 23:16
  • Fair enough. I didn't necessarily think it would get selected as the best answer, but I thought it was legitimate food for thought and perhaps may be the right answer for someone who arrives at this post searching for an answer to a similar question. :)
    – gfullam
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 0:30

Schadenfreude is a possibility. It's German, but often borrowed in English to mean essentially "joy at others' suffering". It doesn't always imply humor, but can be used that way. (The wiki article notably links to both Gallows humor and Slapstick comedy, so it is at least conceptually adjacent.)

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    Schadenfreude has nothing to do with joking about how sick someone you like might be. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:04
  • @PeterCordes It does, its commonly used in relation with someone you don't like, but if my friend trips I'm still gonna laugh at them.
    – tox123
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 20:23
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    @tox123: It's not really Schadenfreude if they're merely embarrassed, not injured. Then it's just teasing / ribbing. Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 3:56
  • I like schadenfreude. People can be hurtful to the ones they love - just because you like someone doesn't mean you can't be cruel to them. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:03

Bravado--Confident or brave talk or behavior that is intended to impress other people. (Merriam-Webster online)


To borrow a haunting phrase from a writer, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient:

Elie Wiesel tells "a joke which is not funny." It concerns an SS officer whose torment of a Jew consisted in his pretending to shoot the Jew dead, firing a blank, while simultaneously knocking him unconscious. When the Jew regained consciousness, the Nazi told him, "You are dead, but you don’t know it. You think that you escaped us? We are your masters, even in the other world." (source)

Alternatively, the phrase cruel joke might apply.

As you're looking to describe "something that isn't actually funny," these are good phrases for "jokes" that are truly, maybe terrifyingly devoid of humor.

  • Found this while hunting down that quote, maybe relevant: boxturtlebulletin.com/2007/07/31/596 Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 15:41
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    Just want to say, while I got downvotes for quoting a world class author who expertly delivered a subtle and complex tone while dealing with real world tragedies, if I had opted for Rorschach's Pagliacci joke people would be eating it up.</salt> Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 13:56


considered to be lacking in aesthetic judgement or to constitute inappropriate behaviour.


having or showing a lack of skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues.

(from OED)

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