Gallows humor
Gallows humor derives from gallows
A gallows is a frame, typically wooden, used for execution by hanging, or by means to torture before execution, as was used when being hanged, drawn and quartered...

which is a platform with a noose used to execute people by hanging
Hanging is the lethal suspension of a person by a ligature. The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain...

. Gallows humor is the type of humor
Humour or humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement...

 that still manages to be funny in the face of, and in response to, a perfectly hopeless situation. It arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations, often in circumstances such that death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

 is perceived as impending and unavoidable.

Gallows humor is a kind of humor which developed in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 as part of Jewish humor. Gallows humor is made by the person affected by the dramatic situation, an aspect that is missing in the later derivative called "black comedy
Black comedy
A black comedy, or dark comedy, is a comic work that employs black humor or gallows humor. The definition of black humor is problematic; it has been argued that it corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor; and that, as humor has been defined since Freud as a comedic act that anesthetizes...


Nature and functions

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis (professor)
Paul Lewis is professor of English in Boston College, Massachusetts, USA, specializing in humor, American literature and Gothic fiction. He has an A.B...

 warns that this "liberating" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else.

Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher
Wylie Sypher
Feltus Wylie Sypher was an American non-fiction writer and professor.Sypher was born in Mount Kisco, New York to Harry Wylie Sypher and Martha Berry. He graduated from Amherst College in 1927. He received a master's degree from Tufts University in 1929 and became an instructor at Simmons College....

, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them."

Gallows humor is a kind of humor which developed in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 as part of Jewish humor. It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor. The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune, which also has a Germanic
West Germanic languages
The West Germanic languages constitute the largest of the three traditional branches of the Germanic family of languages and include languages such as German, English, Dutch, Afrikaans, the Frisian languages, and Yiddish...

 equivalent in the Belgian Dutch
Flemish can refer to anything related to Flanders, and may refer directly to the following articles:*Flemish, an informal, though linguistically incorrect, name of any kind of the Dutch language as spoken in Belgium....

 expression groen lachen.

Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi
Daniele Luttazzi
Daniele Luttazzi , real name Daniele Fabbri, is an Italian theater actor, writer, satirist, illustrator and singer/songwriter. His stage name is a homage to musician and actor Lelio Luttazzi...

 discussed gallows humor focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses (risata verde or groen lachen), and said that grotesque
The word grotesque comes from the same Latin root as "Grotto", meaning a small cave or hollow. The original meaning was restricted to an extravagant style of Ancient Roman decorative art rediscovered and then copied in Rome at the end of the 15th century...

Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

, as opposed to ironic satire, is the one that most often arouses this kind of laughter.
A: Satira è far ridere a spese di chi è più ricco e potente di te. Io sono specialista nella risata verde, quella dei cabaret di Berlino degli anni Venti e Trenta. Nasce dalla disperazione. Esempio: l'Italia è un paese dove la commissione di vigilanza parlamentare Rai si comporta come la commissione stragi e viceversa. Oppure: il mistero di Ustica è irrisolto? Sono contento: il sistema funziona.}} In the Weimar era Kabarett
Kabarett is a form of cabaret which developed in Germany from 1901, with the creation of the Überbrettl venue, and that by the Weimar era in the mid 1920s was characterized by political satire and gallows humor...

, this genre was particularly common, and according to Luttazzi Karl Valentin
Karl Valentin
Karl Valentin was a Bavarian comedian, cabaret performer, clown, author and film producer. He had significant influence on German Weimar culture...

 and Karl Kraus
Karl Kraus
Karl Kraus was an Austrian writer and journalist, known as a satirist, essayist, aphorist, playwright and poet. He is regarded as one of the foremost German-language satirists of the 20th century, especially for his witty criticism of the press, German culture, and German and Austrian...

 were the major masters of it.


There is an apocryphal story of a condemned man being led into the execution chamber. The condemned prisoner points to the electric chair
Electric chair
Execution by electrocution, usually performed using an electric chair, is an execution method originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the body...

 and asks the prison warden: "Are you quite sure this thing's safe?"

From William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

's play Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers.Romeo and Juliet belongs to a...

, Act 3, Scene 1:
As Sir Thomas More
Thomas More
Sir Thomas More , also known by Catholics as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an important councillor to Henry VIII of England and, for three years toward the end of his life, Lord Chancellor...

 climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner: "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."

Author and playwright Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s...

 was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house
Boarding house
A boarding house, is a house in which lodgers rent one or more rooms for one or more nights, and sometimes for extended periods of weeks, months and years. The common parts of the house are maintained, and some services, such as laundry and cleaning, may be supplied. They normally provide "bed...

 when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what the sentence exactly was, but his reputed last words were, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death; one or the other of us has got to go."

Murderer James French
James French (murderer)
James D. French was an American criminal who was the last person executed under Oklahoma's death penalty laws prior to Furman v. Georgia. He was also the only prisoner executed in the United States that year...

 has been attributed with famous last words before his death by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries
French fries
French fries , chips, fries, or French-fried potatoes are strips of deep-fried potato. North Americans tend to refer to any pieces of deep-fried potatoes as fries or French fries, while in the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, long, thinly cut slices of deep-fried potatoes are...

'." Likewise, when a Jewish mob boss George Appel was electrocuted, his last words were: "Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel."

A famous example of gallows humor is the conclusion to Monty Python's Life of Brian
Monty Python's Life of Brian
Monty Python's Life of Brian, also known as Life of Brian, is a 1979 British comedy film written, directed and largely performed by the Monty Python comedy team...

, in which a group of crucified criminals joyfully sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is a popular song written by Eric Idle that was originally featured in the 1979 film Monty Python's Life of Brian and has gone on to become a common singalong at public events such as football matches as well as funerals.-History:Whilst trying to come up...


In Stephen King
Stephen King
Stephen Edwin King is an American author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy fiction. His books have sold more than 350 million copies and have been adapted into a number of feature films, television movies and comic books...

's book The Tommyknockers
The Tommyknockers
The Tommyknockers is a 1987 horror novel by Stephen King. While maintaining a horror style, the novel is more of an excursion into the realm of science fiction for King, as the residents of the Maine town of Haven gradually fall under the influence of a mysterious object buried in the woods.In his...

, the main character reflects on a joke he "heard once". As a man is about to be executed, the firing squad leader offers the man about to be executed a cigarette. He replies, "No thanks, I'm trying to quit."

Military humor
Military humor
Military humor is humor based on stereotypes of military life. Military humor portrays a wide range of characters and situations in the armed forces...

 is full of gallows humor, as soldiers continuously live in danger of getting killed, especially in wartime. For example, the Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G4M
Mitsubishi G4M
The Mitsubishi G4M 一式陸上攻撃機, 一式陸攻 Isshiki rikujō kōgeki ki, Isshikirikkō was the main twin-engine, land-based bomber used by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service in World War II. The Allies gave the G4M the reporting name Betty...

 Isshikirikkou "Betty" bomber airplane was called "Hamaki" (cigar
A cigar is a tightly-rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco that is ignited so that its smoke may be drawn into the mouth. Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, and the Eastern...

) by the Japanese crews not only because its fuselage was cigar-shaped, but because it had a tendency to ignite on fire and burn violently when it was hit. The American nickname was "flying Zippo" - as the slogan of the cigarette lighter company was Guaranteed to light on first strike, every time.

One of the first convicts transported in Australia by the British Empire
Convicts in Australia
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government. One of the primary reasons for the British settlement of Australia was the establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on their...

, nicknamed after the pirate Black Caesar
Black Caesar (pirate)
Black Caesar was an 18th century African pirate. For nearly a decade, he raided shipping from the Florida Keys and later served as one of Captain Blackbeard's chief lieutenants aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge. He was one of the surviving members of Blackbeard's crew following his death at the...

, escaped the penal colony in 1789 and lived as a bushranger
Bushrangers, or bush rangers, originally referred to runaway convicts in the early years of the British settlement of Australia who had the survival skills necessary to use the Australian bush as a refuge to hide from the authorities...

 in the wilderness. He survived by raiding garden patches with a stolen gun. When he was eventually caught, according to colonial governor David Collins
David Collins (governor)
Colonel David Collins was the first Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Van Diemens Land, founded in 1804, which in 1901 became the state of Tasmania in the Commonwealth of Australia.-Early life and military career:...

 he was "so indifferent about meeting death, that he declared in confinement that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing some trick upon the executioner."

Social uses

It is argued that gallows humor often occurs in societies whose inhabitants have limited means of expressing discontent, yet in which significant discontent is experienced. In these instances gallows humor can provide an outlet for airing subjects which people may feel is safer than open dialogue.

In her ethnography "Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday life in Brazil" (1993), anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of Anthropology and director of the program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is known for her writing on the anthropology of the body, hunger, illness, medicine, psychiatry, madness, social suffering, violence and genocide...

describes the use of gallows humor by the inhabitants of an impoverished shantytown in northeastern Brazil.

Further reading

  • Lipman, Steve (1991) Laughter in hell: the use of humour during the Holocaust, Northvale, N.J:J Aronson Inc.
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