In “Dr. Strangelove,” How Does Kubrick Use Dark Humor?

“Dark” or “black” humor occurs when funny elements are introduced in an otherwise serious or pessimistic atmosphere, thus producing a satiric result. Dark humor in films can unsettle the audience’s expectations, infuse dramatic scenes with comic tension, and deliver the film’s messages in sophisticated ways. The title sequence of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is a textbook example of black humor: the scene plays a light, airy rendition of the song “Try a Little Tenderness” while showing U.S. bomber planes refueling in mid-air and flying calmly through the skies. Cue: Irony.

Later in the film, a deadpan Colonel “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn) implies that having to answer to the giant Coca Cola Company for breaking into one of their soda machines for change is a more dire situation than trying to call off a nuclear attack. George C. Scott’s General Turgidson provides humorous understatement when he says that General Jack D. Ripper (yes, the names satirically emphasize the connection between sex and brutality), “may have exceeded his authority” in ordering a nuclear attack. Equally funny is when Turgidson says that the whole military decision-making process should not be scrapped because of “one slip-up,” as if, even if that one mistake causes human extinction, it shouldn’t be criticized too harshly. The Russian leader’s name, “Premiere Kissoff,” is an appropriate comment on what is happening to the human race. And, when Slim Pickens’ Major Kong promises citations and promotions for his crew after their mission, it strikes the audience that there can hardly be any “after” following the explosion of the nuclear weapons. The plane’s H-bombs themselves are hilariously labelled “Nuclear Warheads - Handle with Care,” as if they were some dinner plates in a crate.

All of these examples of wit not only contribute laughs for the audience, but they also reveal subtleties about the attitudes and ideologies the film is satirizing. These touches of black humor help elevate the film to a level of social commentary that has stood the test of time.