It’s Okay to Laugh: Use of Dark Humor in Mean

Meanis the true crime, memoir, and coming of age story of Myriam Gurba. So far in the book, Gurba has talked about topics such as sexual assault, being queer and mixed race, and her childhood. Gurba’s style of writing makes the reader feel as though she is there speaking right to us. Her incredible attention to detail and intelligent use of storytelling is welcoming even though some of the stories told can be hard for some people to read. They could be triggering, or just uncomfortable for some. But, Gurba tells these stories in a way that the reader feels good about reading them. One of the ways she does this so well is through the use of dark humor. 

When starting to see how Gurba uses dark humor perfectly, I started to think; why is dark humor actually funny? In the article Awfully Funny, Eric Jaffe discusses the reason why people are able to see them as funny. Jaffe consults a study conducted by Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, he states “McGraw and colleagues attempt to answer that question in two recent papers published in Psychological Science. The researchers propose an explanation of humor called the “benign-violation theory.” The theory is grounded in the idea that people are amused by moral violations — threats to their normal worldviews, for instance, or disparaging statements — but only so long as those violations are harmless. When the tone of the threat is playful, or the setting safe, a violation that might otherwise elicit sadness or fear instead leads to laughter.” Basically, this theory says that dark humor is funny when used in the right situations and timing. The article goes on to talk about how it all depends on the individual hearing the joke as well. Everyone has different experiences, so even if the joke is executed perfectly, someone could still find it unfunny and in bad taste. In the study, McGraw states “The role that psychological distance plays is as a moderator of the degree to which something is wrong and the degree to which something is okay.” 

            Gurba is able to make jokes about her stories because they happened when she was younger and has had time to grow a distance from these experiences. If someone were to make a joke to about sexual molestation a week after the person was molested, the reaction would be very different than if someone made a joke ten years after the fact. Gurba is able to take these dark topics, and tell them in a way that is serious, but also adds some comic relief so it is not all doom and gloom. 

Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.

Jaffe, Eric. “Awfully Funny.” Association for Psychological Science, www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/awfully-funny.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you enjoy Gurba’s use of dark humor? Do you have a dark sense of humor? How has this effected the way you read Mean?
  2. Could this use of humor draw people away from reading the book? Or could it help people read more about hard topics?

13 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Laugh: Use of Dark Humor in Mean”

  1. Hello Kasey! I enjoyed reading your introduction of Mean and your analysis on how Gurba addresses tough situations with dark humor. I feel like when I read the book, it made reading about tough situations easier, but also damaged my thought of other things. For example, when Gurba was describing and introducing the rape and referred to the man’s penis as a “corn,” I was able to read it without wanting to puke. The only thing that disturbed me was when I read, ” ¡Elote! ¡Elote! Elote con mantequilla! Elote con mayonesa,” (pg. 2). I realized that the author was comparing corn on a stick with mayo and spices to a man’s penis with blood and semen on it. I read that and was extremely disgusted. I had to take a break after reading that over. I do think that by doing this it may help people read more about hard topics, but I feel like writers need to make sure that they don’t take it too far because it may hurt more than or just as bad as the actual incident. The trauma is already raw and painful; writers need to keep this in mind.

  2. Hey Kasey! I really enjoyed your analysis of Mean, and I also like how you brought in the outside information to better understand why people enjoy dark humor. Im kind of 50/50 on if I do like Gurba’s use of dark humor or not. I think for the most part I kind of find myself smiling a little bit, but more in shock that she said that. For example, when Grubra said, “That was the most humiliating pose. Perverts looked around to see what other people looked like in this pose so they would have something to masturbate to later on.”(page 39) When I read this I was kind of shocked she said it so I chuckled a little bit. I think some times I can have a sense of dark humor but its very rare that I do, and when I do its in a certain setting and with certain people. It hasn’t really effected the way I read Mean at all.

  3. Hey Kasey, I really liked your blog post and the way you analyzed the dark humor that Gurba uses. I also think the article you talked about that explained dark humor was very interesting. Gurba seems like she’s always had a dark sense of humor along with being clever and very blunt. When she is talking about her childhood you can already see that sense of humor forming. In the one story where she makes a kid climb up the fence of a baseball field and jump down she says, “I hoped Steve would injure himself and die so that I wouldn’t have to let him into my club. That had been my strategy. To give his sex an insurmountable initiation” (15). While this is funny to read, it is a bit jarring that that’s what went through a third-graders mind. I enjoy the dark humor in the book, but it can also be shocking at times and make me feel a bit uneasy.

  4. Hello Kasey, I enjoyed reading you blog post. Your analysis on the chapter and Dark Humor was very well thought out. Gurba is able to make jokes about about her past but I think It was in a such a way that it still hurt her. I know a lot of my friends and also me, when we are talking about something awkward for serious, we tend to make jokes to ease the tenseness. I didn’t really enjoy this chapter. Im not a fan of her talking about her stories like they are some kind of joke. Sexual violence is no joke in todays society and throughout history, something as serious as the examples she gives I think should be taken more seriously since we live a “rape” culture. The way she goes about, her language that she uses is just disturbing. For example Gurba states “The yard ladies gestured with their arms. The huge tithed one jogged toward us. Her breasts dog-paddled in her muumuu”(14).

  5. Hey Kasey! Great job at creating a well thought out and supported blog post by using another source. I myself think that Gurba is smart for intertwining dark humor into her work, because most of the stories she tells has a very serious and not funny tone to it. Constantly I am hearing from people in my everyday life, that when a situation gets too serious, they resort to laughing because they do not know what else to do. Personally I think I have a more of sarcastic and light hearted sense of humor, but of course depending on the situation and who I am with, my sense of humor may travel into the “dark humor” genre. Honestly, I don’t think dark humor is a bad thing, though sometimes depending on how someone understands a joke, it determines how they react to it. On page 21, Gurba writes “‘Hey!’ he shouted at Mom. ‘Hey!’ he repeated. He looked at her bloody onion. ‘Don’t get AIDS in my dinner!'” Gurba makes it clear that her father was completely joking, and while I also understood that it was a joke, to some, it may have been a distasteful and rude comment to make, regardless of if the intent was to be funny. Gurba’s use of dark humor helps me cope with some of the more serious stories that she writes about. I think without the humor, the book would be a lot harder to work through.

  6. Hi Kasey! You did a really good job analyzing the dark humor in the book. Dark humor is a hit or miss. Personally, I don’t really like it. It’s uncomfortable and crosses the line. I feel like she shouldn’t be making as many jokes as she does. For an example, “The showerheads in our locker room were pointless. They had as much use as the showerhead in Oswiecim. That’s Polish for Auschwitz.” (40) this joke isn’t necessary. The Holocaust was an extremely tragic and traumatizing event. It’s really rare when anyone makes a joke related to it because of how deep and horrible it was. She’s also not even jewish so it feels out of place for her to even try to make light of that situation.

  7. Hi Kasey, I enjoyed how you went into how or why someone would be amused by dark humor! One of the subtler dark humor inserts by Gurba was on page 37, “Apple. Banana. Cunt. . . Father. Girl. Hoe. . . Klu Klux Klan. Leather daddy. Mamase mamasa mamakusa.” Inserting more aggresive words with bad conotations and sometimes even a history of abuse and violence in between words that seem harmless on their own was jarring to read. Even though I was thrown off a bit, i still chuckled because of how unexpected it was. I, myself really enjoy dark humor so I’ve chuckled a good amount of times thus far.

  8. Hi Kasey, great job with your analysis of Mean and the dark humor used! I think dark humor just depends on the person. I usually am not a huge fan of dark humor and think that sometimes it goes a little too far, however sometimes dark humor works to lighten the mood. I also think if it is a really tough and emotional subject, dark humor can make you feel better about your situation. I think people may take Gurba’s jokes in different ways, but personally I don’t find it offensive, I think it almost makes the book easier to read and understand. I do think that some people might not find it funny at all and be turned off by the book. I think it depends on your personality.

  9. Hi Kasey, I really enjoyed reading your analysis of Mean and the dark humor used throughout it. I believe dark humor can sometimes be hard to read/understand, but the use of it in this book is a great idea. The dark humor used in this book happens to help lighten the mood. I never found Gurba’s dark humor offensive but I can tell where people could take it the wrong way. If the humor wasn’t included, I believe this book would be very hard to read.

  10. Hey Kasey, I really enjoyed reading your blog post and think you did a really good job explaining the dark humor of the book. Dark humor can be controversial because it may come off as offensive to some but I tend t enjoy dark humor and get a kick out of it. Many people may take Gurba’s jokes as offensive but other may enjoy this different strategy in the book. These jokes may and the use of dark humor may allow the audience to laugh a little bit and make it an easier read. This sense of humor may drive some people away from reading it but I also think for those who are fans of dark humor, it will draw them in and give them a fantastic read.

  11. Hey Kasey, really nice blog post. Personally, I am all for dark humor. I feel as if todays society is way too sensitive and almost looks for reasons to be offended by things. I don’t think that by having that mind set life is as enjoyable, everyone should laugh a little. On page 55, Gurba describes a females body in a negative way, “She seemed so frail and brittle that I imagined rubbing up against her for a long time might be like rubbing against kindling: a fire hazard”. Gurba’s use of dark humor in a quote like that, helped keep me interested and laughing more than anything.

  12. Hey, Kasey! Great blog post. The dark humor in Mean is so dark that I wasn’t even sure if it would classify as humor, and I almost felt ashamed of myself for assuming it to be humor. However, her use of it throughout the book not only lightens the mood, but makes the book easier to read. It’s a quality that normally wouldn’t be involved in books regarding crime and traumatic incidents, but the fact that it’s utilized in this book made me want to keep reading it. To be honest, I actually really appreciate her use of it. I found it kind of funny, and it gave me moments of clarity where I felt more comfortable reading when she used the humor, despite describing very devastating events.

  13. Hi Kasey! Your blog post was really well thought out, and well written. I think a lot of the time the dark humor in Mean is used to try and shed light on negative situations. I personally am a fan of dark humor, but at times I felt wrong for trying to find humor in what Gurba was saying. Dark humor can be controversial, as some people take offense to it. I think that Gurba uses it well within Mean. It keeps the reader interested, and lightens the load of the heavy topics that are discussed. For example, on page 40 when she writes “Hey!’ he shouted at Mom. ‘Hey!’ he repeated. He looked at her bloody onion. ‘Don’t get AIDS in my dinner!” Gurba makes it completely clear that this is meant to be a joke, however it discusses serious topics such as AIDS.

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