Granted, Hannibal is no Archer or 30 Rock. You won’t find a lot of zingers or gags. Rather, most of the humor comes from an extremely dark place: in almost every episode, Hannibal Lecter is shown serving people to people, unbeknownst to all except the audience. And it turns out cannibalism is comedy gold.
If you’re not familiar with this NBC show, it’s set before the Thomas Harris books Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs: in other words, before Hannibal was caught. The main characters are Will Graham—the FBI’s top profiler, who is able to empathize with serial killers to a scary degree—and Hannibal, who “helps” Will and the bureau.
Hannibal is in his prime: as a psychiatrist, a serial killer, a cannibal, and—most of all—a foodie. I’m not much of a fancy-pants when it comes to food, but holy God, even I’m impressed by the presentation of the plates on this show. I’m as tired as anyone of my Facebook friends posting pictures of their lunch, but if they dined at Hannibal’s, I’d let it slide. The food is gorgeous.
And that’s where’s the humor comes in: these immaculately presented dishes are, in almost every case, composed of Hannibal’s victims. As Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen avoids chewing the scenery, preferring a subtle gleam in the eye or a deadpan reading of lines like “I never regret anything I eat.” The combination of the beautiful food, the villainous doctor, and the irony of serving corpses to members of the FBI often makes me laugh audibly or make a gasp-like bark that probably frightens my neighbors. Hannibal is one of the sickest things I’ve ever found hysterical.
Why is this so funny, at least to me? I’d say the humor is a result of the unlikely marriage of barbarism and civilization that is Hannibal. Showrunner Fuller has compared him to Frasier Crane, and that’s apt: Lecter is well-dressed, classy, artsy, intelligent, and generous with his time. In other words, a typical cannibal (in the Bizarro World). If you met Hannibal, he's the last person in the world you'd expect to be Hannibal. The juxtaposition is perfect.
The humor of Hannibal is basically a clash of context, a type of humor that’s very common and effective. I first heard the term “clash of context” in a Second City writing class; soon after, I started noticing it everywhere. This New Yorker piece by Yoni Brenner is a good example of a clash of context. Brenner juxtaposes fancy food with passive-aggression: Hannibal juxtaposes fancy food with cannibalism.
Either way, that’s a pretty good recipe for comedy.