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When in doubt – say, for example, the fabric of society is disintegrating around us – the Brits turn to black comedy every time. Amanda Nicholls looks at the history of the comic form

While some will have the energy to debate whether or not it’s appropriate to post memes and tell jokes about the COVID-19 crisis, let’s be frank: it’s always going to happen in a situation such as this. Even if there was a motion to police it, it’d go underground; you’d have covert craic dealers sought out by those in need of a funny fix – a cheeky titter, a naughty chortle, a gut-busting guffaw of a Friday night. In hushed tones, on shadowy corners, it’d be; “Go on, just a little giggle; I’ve got the cash…”

Of course, there are levels: if you’ve the sense, you read the room, pitch it properly, get the measure of the recipient before taking aim and firing your most savage material in their direction, and not everyone gets it right as well we all know. Social media breeding grounds such as Twitter see users simultaneously passing judgment with lightning speed and blurting out in bad taste, left, right and centre. Sometimes it very much depends purely on whether the gag is being dished out by said scenario sufferer or a bystander – but there is merit in black humour, and a lot of history to it.

Dark comedy is in our DNA and no matter how bad things get, there will always be those who can quickly identify the chucklesome side of it. In fact, sometimes the worse things are, the deeper the belly laugh – maybe it’s to do with a sense of disbelief at less-than-ideal circumstances in which we find ourselves, serving to intensify the kicker. “Either that wallpaper goes or I do,” a destitute Oscar Wilde was reported to have quipped while on his deathbed in dodgy digs way back in 1900.