This week, our writers get ready to chuckle at comedy’s favourite young Scotsman Daniel Sloss’ Netflix comedy special Dark. Filmed in the US in 2018, Dark explores classically taboo topics (religion, paedophilia…) with, well, dark humour. But were our writers tickled, tearful, or just plain tired? Guess there’s only one way to find out… (p.s. there’s spoilers!)
I have been a fan of Daniel Sloss for a very long time. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live twice, and the show that started my deep respect and enjoyment of the comedian was in fact Dark. Though, I hadn’t seen it in some time, so it was nice to be able to watch it again with fresh eyes and really think about why I connect with Sloss’ work so much.
The obvious point to make would be that I have a similar sense of humour, and it’s true, my sense of humour can be described as ‘dark’, though Sloss makes a point of deconstructing exactly what we think a dark sense of humour is. Being that, laughing at any trauma or pain of your own existence is not necessarily a dark thing to do but rather a human one. Sloss uses tales of his friends’ grief and his sister’s disability to make us laugh then challenge us on that laughter, to pick apart the very reason why some of us may gasp and say ‘you can’t say that’. He makes a point to pause his set and ask why he can’t say that, why he needs permission from strangers to share his and his family’s personal experiences. It redefines how I view the definition of ‘offensive’ which in and of itself is a controversial path to take.
Of course there are lines, there are jokes and situations that will always be considered not acceptable, but Sloss does make an excellent case for the fact that being offended is a personal experience to all of us. Some people may dislike jokes pertaining to one topic but be fine with another; he makes this clear as he tells of his time in America where he was heckled by audience members because they disliked jokes regarding religion but were perfectly fine with the content of his routine up until that point (topics I will not list but were a far sight more shocking than religion). It sums up perfectly what Sloss is trying to say with this whole routine, that your reaction to specific circumstances has and always will be as unique as a fingerprint, and it is always valid. Though, taking away someone else’s ability to react is not okay.
He gives the ideal example of this around halfway through. Up until now we have heard several stories pertaining to Sloss’ younger sister Josie, who suffers with Cerebral Palsy. Several times in the show he has already informed the audience they do not need to be offended on his or his sisters behalf, because these are their stories and experiences. However, he then pulls the rug from under everyone’s feet. Myself, the audience, any other viewers at home. He informs us that Josie died when she was 7. He casually quips that this is his favourite part of the show and I have to admit I can see why, as someone who has seen this special multiple times over I know when the bombshell is coming and find myself listening to the reaction.
It’s genuine and not at all unanimous, just like Sloss would hope. Some gasp. Some awkwardly laugh. Some sit in complete silence.
And in that moment Sloss has driven home the whole point of this special. One he sums up towards the end of his set with a simple but poignant phrase that has stuck with me since the moment I first heard it. “Laughter is not the opposite of sadness. Happiness is the opposite of sadness, (…). Laughter is a reaction. It’s free to exist in both.”
I would highly recommend not only Dark, but all of Daniel Sloss’ work. He took what I viewed as a taboo sense of humour and made it into something I now view as a part of myself. Not an absence of sadness or empathy, but a reaction that manifests as laughter. And that is fine.
Speak-as-you-find stand up comedian Daniel Sloss and I once spent 20 minutes debating whether he was a sociopath. At the time, I didn’t know if I was talking to a cleverly crafted character or somebody ahead of the curve in terms of recognising the devaluation of logic and truth.
Skip ahead a few years to a world where emotions now have a real and worrying currency. One that’s far more valuable than reason. We’ve become comfortable, complacent even, with how often, how easy, we get angry or overreact. Worse still, we seem to feed off other people’s reactions to and validation of our minor malcontent.
Sloss gets into this at the start of this Netflix special. How people come to a comedy show and come out afterwards – or in his example during – and shout about how upset they are. As if it’s anyone’s problem but their own. They knew what they signed up for.
The immature, floppy-haired youth I once met has grown into a comedian that – unlike other shock stand-ups such as Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr – understands that comedy comes from truth. He demonstrates this by sharing a painfully real sexual encounter that you think will lead to a big payoff that never comes (although there is a cheap attempt to have it both ways with a follow-up pun that’s one of the show’s very few misses).
Sloss’ latter half of his set, which talks about growing up with a sister with cerebral palsy, is a sword he swings with surgical precision. The shift in tone hits hard and I chided myself for laughing at times, despite Sloss’ openness and encouragement to do just that. He raises interesting points about how at ease we’ve become with complaining and with being offended. He openly basks in the tension in the room during a game-changing revelation, tempering that cloying feeling of uncomfortableness with another truth bomb.
Laughter exists when we’re happy and when we’re sad. Something Sloss beautifully reminds us of in the special’s closing moments.
There’s no accusing Sloss – whose mum bought him a fake ID so he could perform in pubs and clubs when he was 16 – of being dispassionate (a common sociopathic trait). Though I’d say that he does have an intense energy that can be mildly off-putting.
Despite claims to the contrary, his humour is dark. It’s also refreshingly honest, personal, raw, risqué and cut-throat. It’s also crude and a little low brow at times. No subject was off the table in this short but punchy special.
In Dark, Sloss stabs at everything from American stereotypes, religion (Jesus getting patted down by the TSA and his subtle attempts to leave God-fearing audience members questioning their faith were particularly good gags), his liberal parents, other parents and even Santa Claus.
Although Sloss claims to lack the cleverness to have an overarching point, he wears his pseudo stupidity on his sleeve, right next to his heart. Dark was a deftly constructed treatise on humour – how it can build us up, how it can let us down and why it’s important. I’ll certainly be adding the rest of his Netflix comedy specials to my watchlist.
To be perfectly honest with you, I would be lying if I said this was my first time watching Dark…or if it was my fourth… if ever I am at a loss for what to watch, Dark is usually a favourite go to of mine. It absolutely never gets old.
While, admittedly, the first viewing experience can be shocking, Sloss’ delivery is so fearlessly honest and unashamedly genuine that one is able to quickly look past the shock factor and enjoy the experience. He establishes somewhat of an unspoken trust with the viewer from the get-go and even reminds us half way through that he would ‘never lie to (us)’. Accompany this with an absolutely fascinating way of interacting with the audience as a whole, as opposed to singling out individuals, and you’ve got yourself one unmissable comedy set.
Addressing the audience as one being, including those sat at home watching on Netflix, and being able to do so effectively, is a rare quality in a comedian and yet Sloss makes it seem effortless. His approach to performing jokes relies heavily on his ability to walk the fine line between obnoxiously narcissistic, yet totally self-aware, and aggressively self-deprecating. His mannerisms and gesticulation combined with this gripping stage presence make it very clear that no other comedian could evoke these reactions with the same material.
The continuous vulnerability he shows in sharing his experiences while exploring the comedic aspects of these supposedly ‘darker’ topics is ground-breaking. He has completely redefined the term ‘dark humour’ as we currently know it, with jokes centring on his own trauma and none at the expense of other people’s. His recounting of the death of his sister is a truly remarkable piece of comedy. In all honesty, who else could have a whole room of people laughing so soon after saying the phrase ‘and that’s when my mother told me my sister had died’. Sharing anecdotes of his sister’s life using the present tense to describe them almost allows for the audience to feel this false sense of security and in doing so assuring them that it is ok to laugh. To then shatter that using one sentence, bringing the entire room to a halt, created a certain level of fear within the viewer for laughing along to jokes about his dead sister. This was soon to disappear as he somewhat aggressively reassures the audience as to why it is acceptable to find his jokes funny, once again filling the room with laughter.
It is at this point while watching the set that I remembered the live audience is American, which personally I found added to the hilarity of the set. While American dark humour can be dark, it does not compare to Scottish dark humour, and I feel Daniel Sloss really threw them in the deep end with this one. Mixing his dead sister jokes with his very vocal negative attitude towards religion, especially in America, was a risky game he played and yet it seemed to pay off.
With Sloss delivering exactly what it says on the tin, Dark is a beautifully funny and yet tragic set that is both cleverly written and expertly performed. I can confirm that I will probably watch it again at least another four times this year.
Dark is available to stream now, on Netflix.