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Summer Research Fellow probes philosophy of dark comedy

Last updated July 22, 2022

By Jerry Salley '90, Senior Writer

Catherine Davis ’24 loves Mr. Meeseeks, a “little adorable creature that you can summon to achieve one task in life, and then he can vanish forever,” explained the philosophy major.

But in the universe of the animated sci-fi sitcom “Rick and Morty,” the Meeseeks (all of whom are named Mr. Meeseeks) react quite badly when kept from achieving their tasks. It turns out that every moment of life is painful for Mr. Meeseeks, and he yearns to complete the chore so he can end the torture of existence. To that end, Mr. Meeseeks will destroy whoever stands in his way, including fellow Meeseeks or even the person who summoned him to perform the task in the first place.

“It’s such a dark concept,” said Davis. “The existential crisis is so dark and brooding, but you can’t help but laugh at the little creatures as they are attacking each other and complaining about how awful life is.”

So why do “Rick and Morty” fans laugh at Mr. Meeseek? And what about “BoJack Horseman,” another of Davis’ favorite shows, whose main character is a self-loathing, cynical, alcoholic cartoon horse?

“I told my roommate I had watched ‘BoJack Horseman’ three times over the break,” Davis said, “and she just looked at me and said, ‘How depressed are you?’ It made me wonder, ‘Why do I like that?’”

That philosophical question interested Davis, an aspiring comedy writer, enough to spend her summer researching it, especially since she felt that dark humor does not seem to fall neatly within any of the philosophical theories that have traditionally defined comedy. She approached Darren Hick, assistant professor of philosophy, with the proposal for a Summer Research Fellowship to attempt to categorize black comedy within the broad philosophical spectrum of humor.

“We’re looking at shows and movies where you’re laughing at really difficult topics,” Davis said, “and we want to figure out why you do that.”

It’s a relatively novel topic, Hick said, in a field that is sometimes slow to catch up to the zeitgeist.

“It’s really only been in the last half-century that there’s been this burgeoning conversation about the major philosophical theories of comedy,” he said, “but nobody’s really talking about dark comedy in quite the way Catherine’s talking about it – things like depression and cringe comedy that are wildly popular now. But philosophy has momentum issues and sometimes has trouble catching up on things.”

Besides “Rick and Morty” and “BoJack Horseman,” Davis is reviewing blackly comedic films such as “Fargo” (in which Minnesota cheerfulness is juxtaposed with woodchipper-enhanced homicidal violence) and “The Death of Stalin” (in which Stalin dies). She is also scanning guides on comedy writing and texts about the philosophy of humor.

Davis, with Hick’s collaboration, will draft a paper to submit to journals and conferences. Davis will also present her findings during Furman Engaged next April. Her thesis is that dark comedy, like other sorts of comedy, can be understood through theories of incongruity, superiority and relief, but that dark comedy fulfills a particular kind of therapeutic purpose.

“The creators let us know that we’re not normal, but that’s OK because they’re not normal, either,” she said. “It’s an affirming way of helping people through dark places by showing them that in a world that doesn’t want things to be dark and doesn’t want you to be abnormal, we are ultimately abnormal creatures. If someone else is willing to make light of it instead of just living in the darkness, you can’t help but laugh, because it’s something like a shared experience, and it’s letting you know that you are not alone.”

Last updated July 22, 2022
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