The following essay is excerpted from Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell, published by Seven Stories Press in November 2019.
Vonnegut’s ‘Black Humor’
I had made her so unhappy that she had developed a sense of humor, which she certainly didn’t have when I married her.
— from Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987)
This line from Bluebeard’s narrator remarks on another kind of humor, the black humor Vonnegut is best known for. Its source is helplessness and despair. He explains:
Laughter or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do.
A scene in Cat’s Cradle illustrates it as well as any in Vonnegut’s oeuvre. The character Phillip Castle is telling another about a catastrophic shipwreck off the fictional island of San Lorenzo. It washed a load of people onshore.
“At Father’s hospital, we had fourteen hundred deaths inside of ten days. Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?’” [He describes blackened bodies, swollen glands, “stacks of dead.”] . . .
“. . . Father worked without sleep for days, worked not only without sleep but without saving many lives, either.” . . .
“. . . Anyway, one sleepless night I stayed up with Father while he worked. It was all we could do to find a live patient to treat. In bed after bed after bed we found dead people.
“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.
“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.
“‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours.’”
This quintessential Vonnegut mousetrap — dark as pitch, funny as hell — is well known to Vonnegut fans. Let me tell you how one of those fans employs it.
Like Jon Stewart, who said, when introducing Kurt on The Daily Show, that “as an adolescent he made my life bearable,” Joshua confided, at a fledgling Vonnegut book club in New York, that Vonnegut’s books had saved him as a teenager. When he discovered that Vonnegut had majored in anthropology, he did too.
What has he done with that degree?
Worked all over the globe for NGOs, starting in Sri Lanka during their civil war, first working for an organization that assisted victims of one side of the conflict, then for an organization that assisted the other side. A very Vonnegut-like thing to do indeed! Kurt would have loved that. He’d be proud. He’d laugh.
At that moment, Joshua was working to rebuild houses of people hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.
A year or so later, he sent me the following e-mail:
I’m writing from the disputed Ukrainian/Russian border. I am working for the Danish Refugee Council, leading the planning and implementation of shelter for Ukrainian refugees displaced by the conflict. . . .
I thought of you today when I quoted Vonnegut. I was orienting a new aid worker. I told him, “Someday this could all be yours.”
The term “black humor” was coined by writer Bruce Jay Friedman, who compiled an anthology of contemporary writers in 1965 entitled Black Humor. Vonnegut objected to that classification at first, since the writers were a diverse lot. Eventually he had quite a lot to say about it.
In the Modern Library edition of The Works of Freud, you’ll find a section on humor in which he talks about middle-European “gallows humor,” and so it happens that what Friedman calls “black humor” is very much like German- Austrian-Polish “gallows humor.” . . . One of the examples Freud gives is a man about to be hanged, and the hangman says, “Do you have anything to say?” The condemned man replies, “Not at this time.”
“This country has made one tremendous contribution to ‘gallows humor,’ and it took place in Cook County Jail.” Kurt reported that Nelson Algren told him this incident. “A man was strapped into the electric chair, and he said to the witnesses, ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’”
Laughter is a response to frustration, just as tears are, and it solves nothing, just as tears solve nothing. . . . The example [Freud] gives is of the dog who can’t get through a gate to bite a person or fight another dog. So he digs dirt. It doesn’t solve anything, but he has to do something. Crying or laughing is what a human being does instead. . . . My peak funniness came when I was at Notre Dame, at a literary festival there. It was in a huge auditorium and the audience was so tightly tuned that everything I said was funny. All I had to do was cough or clear my throat and the whole place would break up. . . . Martin Luther King had been shot two days before. . . . There was an enormous need to either laugh or cry as the only possible adjustment. There was nothing you could do to bring King back. So the biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears. . . .
One of my favorite cartoons—I think it was by Shel Silverstein—shows a couple of guys chained to an eighteen- foot cell wall, hung by their wrists, and their ankles are chained, too. Above them is a tiny barred window that a mouse couldn’t crawl through. And one of the guys is saying to the other, “Now here’s my plan. . . .” It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life. . . . And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry—or laugh.
Jim Siegelman, a “nugget,” the term Vonnegut’s Harvard students gave themselves, tells this anecdote about Kurt’s humor:
Kurt taught us death was the world’s biggest joke, the ultimate punch line, the last laugh, so to speak. I wrote a story that was a parody of Love Story, which was all the rage then, and presented it in class. The hero, Sidney, a Harvard freshman, falls in love with a svelte Radcliffe senior, Leslie, who comes down with a terminal case of mercury poisoning.
But the real punch line of my story was this one, which took place during a moment of post-coital reflection:
“There’s just no communication between me and my parents,” said Sidney.
“Whose fault is that?” asked Leslie.
“It’s nobody’s fault really,” he said. “They’re both dead.”
Siegelman says, “That broke Kurt up. I never saw anybody laugh so hard.”
At the Iowa workshop, sometimes Vonnegut tried out jokes on us in class. One day he told us that the crucifixion story didn’t teach compassion. What the story really illustrated was that it was okay to murder somebody: just be sure he’s not well connected. He laughed until he wheezed when he told us. We laughed hard too.
In a revised, more moral story, he said, a nobody would be crucified. Just before he died, God would adopt him. That story would teach that any nobody could be the son of God. Our response let him know we thought the joke and the idea superb. And there it is, in chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse-Five.
One thing Kurt never tried on us was his own wit at our expense. If something irritated or angered him, he was direct and outspoken about it.
The fact that we’re animals conscious of ourselves as alive and simultaneously of our impending demise makes fecund soil for gallows humor. Talk about helplessness! The tragic! Sure, Kurt found death the world’s biggest joke.
He jokes about it even in the unlikeliest places. In Cat’s Cradle, a man is working on a huge mosaic of a beautiful woman. The narrator wants to take the artist’s picture. But he doesn’t have his camera. The artist replies,
“Well, for Christ’s sake, get it! You’re not one of those people who trusts his memory, are you?”
“I don’t think I’ll forget that face you’re working on very soon.”
“You’ll forget it when you’re dead, and so will I. When I’m dead, I’m going to forget everything—and I advise you to do the same.”
Vonnegut told a graduating class in 2004,
I am, incidentally, honorary president of the American Humanist Association. . . . We Humanists behave as honourably as we can without any expectations of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community. . . .
If I should ever die, . . . God forbid, I hope some of you will say, “Kurt’s up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.
In Timequake, written when he was closer than ever to the heaven he didn’t believe in, Vonnegut applies the phrase several times.
O’Hare [his war buddy Bernard O’Hare], having become a lawyer for both the prosecution and the defense in later life, is up in Heaven now.
A boyhood friend of mine, William H. C. “Skip” Failey, who died four months ago . . . is up in Heaven now.
The nicotine habit plagued Vonnegut all his life.
In Jailbird, the narrator, Walter, confesses that he used to smoke “four packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day.” But he quit. The day he’s released from prison, tobacco-free for years, he has a nightmare.
In the dream my damp, innocent pink lungs shriveled into two black raisins. Bitter brown tar seeped from my ears and nostrils.
But worst of all was the shame.
Vonnegut himself quit smoking a few times. Never for long.
He considered smoking a form of suicide, as he says in the preface to Welcome to the Monkey House. Late in his life, he turned this lifelong struggle and self-accusation against committing suicide by tobacco into a joke.
I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.
He didn’t get off scot-free, though. He suffered from emphysema, guilt, and was once hospitalized for smoke inhalation from a fire caused by his cigarettes.
How do you acquire the knack for the blackly comic? Again, it’s partly a native talent. According to his daughter Edie, even when he was a youngster, Kurt displayed that sensibility.
It can also be cultivated. All you have to do is take a look around through that lens. As I write, we’re in the middle of a political campaign that’s enough to make you cry—or laugh.
As I edit this manuscript months later, we’re in the middle of a presidential administration that threatens to turn most citizens of our nation into black humorists. It has succeeded in provoking superlative Saturday Night Live sketches, as well as John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and other comedians.
You don’t have to endure catastrophe or a war. But it might help. The following anecdote may illustrate that.
Biafra was a fledgling nation of the Ibo people—the writer Chinua Achebe among them—which for many reasons declared independence from Nigeria in 1967. War ensued. A blockade caused massive starvation. Images of the starving created a cause celebre in the US. Miriam Reik, daughter of the famous psychoanalyst Theodore Reik, invited Kurt Vonnegut and Vance Bourjaily, both World War II veterans, to go there as witnesses in 1970 as the nation was falling, and to write about it.
“It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast,” Kurt reported.
The worst sufferers there were the children of refugees. . . .
At the end, a very common diet was water and thin air.
So the children came down with kwashiorkor [a rare disease caused by a lack of protein]. . . .
The child’s hair turned red. His skin split like the skin of a ripe tomato. His rectum protruded. His arms and legs were like lollipop sticks.
Vance and Miriam and I waded through shoals of children like those at Awo-Omama. We discovered that if we let our hands dangle down among the children, a child would grasp each finger or thumb—five children to a hand. A finger from a stranger, miraculously, would allow a child to stop crying for a while. . . .
. . . When little children took hold of his fingers and stopped crying, Vance burst into tears.
The three of us spent an hour with him [the Biafran president, General Odumegwu Ojukwu]. He shook our hands at the end. He thanked us for coming. “If we go forward, we die,” he said. “If we go backward, we die. So we go forward.” . . .
His humor was gallows humor, since everything was falling apart around his charisma and air of quiet confidence. His humor was superb.
“Later, when we met his second-in-command, General Philip Effiong, he, too, turned out to be a gallows humorist. Vance said this: “Effiong should be the number-two man. He’s the second funniest man in Biafra.”
They’re all up in heaven now: Kurt, Vance, Miriam. Ojukwu and Effiong.
In Biafra, Vonnegut noted,
Miriam was annoyed by my conversation at one point, and she said scornfully, “You won’t open your mouth unless you can make a joke.” It was true. Joking was my response to misery I couldn’t do anything about.
Kurt mentioned Miriam’s comment in person, ruefully. He couldn’t stop himself there, he said, from making jokes.
The worst thing about a writer’s having a joke-making capability, of course, as James Thurber of Columbus, Ohio, pointed out in an essay years ago, is this: No matter what is being discussed, the jokester is going to head for a punch line every time.
Some smart young critic will soon quote that line above against me, imagining that I am . . . too dense to know that I have accidentally put my finger on what is awfully wrong with me.
What is “awfully wrong” about that? In terms of writing, Vonnegut says it’s this:
But joking is so much a part of my life adjustment that I would begin to work on a story on any subject and I’d find funny things in it or I would stop.
The problem is that jokes deal so efficiently with ideas that there is little more to be said after the punch line has been spoken. It is time to come up with a new idea—and another good joke.
A therapist might say that to joke relentlessly is to avoid your real feelings, and that acceptance and expression of your authentic feelings is a primary goal to self-actualization.
For whatever reason, American humorists or satirists or whatever you want to call them, those who choose to laugh rather than weep about demoralizing information, become intolerably unfunny pessimists if they live past a certain age.
It’s true. Kurt became more pessimistic and less prone to joking about everything as he aged.
Maybe this is one reason: aging is all it’s cracked up to be.
According to his doctor-son, Mark, damaged brain chemistry was the cause.
Here’s Kurt’s explanation, speaking in 1979 as a late-middle aged man:
Religious skeptics often become very bitter toward the end, as did Mark Twain, I do not propose to guess now as to why he became so bitter. I know why I will become bitter. I will finally realize that I have had it right all along: that I will not see God, that there is no heaven or Judgment Day.
Whatever the complexity of causes, Vonnegut’s later novel Hocus Pocus features this sober jokester:
Everything, and I mean everything, was a joke to him, or so he said. His favorite expression right up to the end was, “I had to laugh like hell.” If Lieutenant Colonel Patton is in Heaven, and I don’t think many truly professional soldiers have ever expected to wind up there, at least not recently, he might at this very moment be telling about how his life suddenly stopped in Hué, and then adding, without even smiling, “I had to laugh like hell.” That was the thing: Patton would tell about some supposedly serious or beautiful or dangerous or holy event during which he had had to laugh like hell, but he hadn’t really laughed. He kept a straight face, too, when he told about it afterward. In all his life, I don’t think anybody ever heard him do what he said he had to do all the time, which was laugh like hell [italics mine].
For more information and to order Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style, visit Seven Stories Press’s website.
Suzanne McConnell, author, editor and writing teacher, was a student of Kurt Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965 to 1967, when Vonnegut — along with Nelson Algren and other notable authors — was in residence and finishing his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut and McConnell became friends, and stayed so for the rest of his life. She has published short memoirs of him in the Brooklyn Railand the Writer’s Digest, and led a panel at the 2014 AWP conference titled “Vonnegut’s Legacy: Writing About War and Other Debacles of the Human Condition.” McConnell taught writing at Hunter College for 30 years; she is the fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her fiction also won first prize in the New Ohio Review’s 2015 Fiction Contest and in Prime Number Magazine’s 2014 Awards for Flash Fiction. She lives in New York City and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, with her husband, the artist Gary Kuehn.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.