“I make jokes because it’s the only way I can open my mouth without screaming.”
– Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H
Sometimes, in the face of tragedy, we make jokes. It’s just our nature. We made jokes after the Challenger disaster. We made jokes about Hurricane Katrina. There have been jokes about AIDS, though I bristle when I hear them, and once got a co-worker into trouble when I reported him for making one. Some, I’m sure, have even made jokes about the September 11 attack on New York City and the Pentagon, though thankfully I’ve never heard any of them.
It’s called by various synonymous names: black comedy, dark humor … it’s a survival mechanism we humans have developed to cope with the tragic events around us. The term was coined by André Breton in 1935, who credits Jonathan Swift as the inventor of the genre. Breton dubbed the style humour noir, which literally translates as “black humor.” (And no, I’m not talking about The Jeffersons or The Cosby Show.) It can be a very healthy outlet when employed properly.
An iconic example of the genre is Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. There’s absolutely nothing funny about nuclear war, of course, but Kubrick’s masterpiece did an awesome job of finding the lighter side, not by making light of the misfortune of six billion devastated lives, but instead by poking fun at the hawks and bureaucrats who bring it about. Peter Sellers scored a trifecta with bravura performances in three roles, and it gave us something to laugh at during the stress of the Cold War.
As Roger Rabbit said, “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.” Later he explains that, “My philosophy is this: If you don’t have a good sense of humor, you’re better off dead.”
But when does it go too far?
As I reported yesterday, Pamela Foreman’s YouTube video God Is So Good started a tsunami of backlash against her that has driven her to delete her YouTube channel and flee into hiding in an undisclosed location, since someone posted her name, address and phone number in a comment. As a result she has received numerous death and rape threats, as well as a tsunami of pizzas ordered in her name.
Consider Gilbert Gottfried, the most annoying voice in the world. He was the voice of the Aflac duck. But the annoying duck has now been silenced. Gottfried has been fired for some pretty tasteless jokes he made about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in his tweets, now removed but, as with anything posted to the internet, not forgotten. A few of the cleaner examples:
- “I just split up with my girlfriend. But as the Japanese say, ‘They’ll (sic) be another one floating by any minute now.’”
- “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said ‘Is there a school in this area.’ She said, ‘not now, but just wait.’”
- “What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights.”
- “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”
There were a couple too obscene for me to repeat in my PG13 ’blog, and one or two I just didn’t get.
Apparently, the folks at Aflac didn’t get them either, and severed ties with Gottfried faster than you can say “Aflac!” The company’s chief marketing officer said in an official statement, “Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac.”
The line was crossed, and it led over a cliff.
There’s a word for this kind of thing in German: schadenfreude, a portmanteau of the German words schaden, meaning harm, injury, loss or damage; and freude, the German word for “joy.” It means to take delight in the somebody else’s suffering. I must admit, I’m guilty of it myself sometimes. My annual Death List is one example, and I’m already working on my material so that I’ll have it ready in time for when Fred Phelps kicks off.
But there are lines I will not cross. I would never make light of a rape victim – especially a child rape victim. Nor would I make jokes about battered women. Or Hurricane Katrina (those hit too close to home… literally). Though I’m not sure what I’ll be singing at Fred Phelps’ funeral. It’ll either be “No One Mourns The Wicked” from Wicked or “Dance On Your Grave” from Naked Man. I’m saving “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead” for Michelle Bachmann’s last rites. But in these cases, I’m not making fun of the fact that a person died; I’m poking fun at how they lived. There’s a difference.
One of my favorite subjects of my darker humor is the person I see in the mirror every morning. I can be very self-deprecating at times. I’ve made several jokes about my recent car accidents. And the whole Chorus unloaded on me over a few acts of unintentional kleptomania at the Christmas concert, when I grabbed one guy’s tux jacket and another’s music binder by mistake. (They were identical to my own.)
But if you’re going to make jokes, you should keep in mind the two cardinal rules of comedy: first, is it funny? Second, know when to stop. Too many jokes on Saturday Night Live and Family Guy fall on their faces because they’re carried on for too long. Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit.
When someone is in pain, sometimes a joke can cheer them up. Sometimes, it can make them feel worse. Know the difference. It’s true that laughter is the best medicine. And as with any medicine, it’s possible to overdose.
In the meantime, Aflac needs to find another annoying voice for that damned duck. I hear Charlie Sheen is available.Share