Why it's OK to laugh at Michael Jackson's death

Writes Dave Cohen

As Luke Fox thundered on this site earlier today, people have been responding instantly to famous deaths with jokes since Henry VIII. Probably even earlier - I’d be surprised if the deaths of Alfred the Great and Julius Caesar went uncommented at whichever version of a watercooler their subjects possessed.

Luke offers this as a reason for comedians and gag writers to show some respect and write only the jokes that may be deemed appropriate in the circumstances. Sorry Luke, you can’t stop it. And even if you try and curb the comics, a thousand blokes in pubs up and down the country will be doing it for us.

Jokes about famous people dying are an instant release. Anyone who has lost someone close will know that even in our most grief-stricken moments there are conflicting emotions – relief that someone ill has been spared further pain, for example, or the reminder of what a special gift it is to be alive.

As all manner of emotions stir within us in the moments and hours after the death of someone we have known either personally or vicariously, laughter is probably the most inappropriate - but it’s up to the individual as to whether or not they choose to suppress it. I would argue that in times such as these, joke writers can perform a valuable role, as a safety valve.

Of course we have to think of those people closest to the person who died: immediate family, mourning relatives, close friends. You mention that Richard Herring made jokes that were more about Uri Geller, and these are, in your opinion, permissible. Well Luke, I disagree. I have no strong feelings either way about the kinetic energy gobbledegook-spawning spoon-bending charlatan –but at least allow that the man was indeed a genuine friend of Jackson’s, no doubt still in a state of shock while inevitably being contacted by the world’s media for an instant response, and who in his grief may have ended up spouting even more banalities than usual.

The one area where I would argue for a moratorium is Jacko paedophile jokes. Not on grounds of morality, or taste, but professional laziness. It seems every comic starting out these days feels they have to make some self-deprecating joke about being a paedophile, or knowing one, in order to be accepted within the comedy community. Paedophiles have replaced mothers-in-law as the tired, easy pickings stereotype. If you can’t find something funny to say about Jackson without resorting to route one then it’s time to pack it in, or at least hire yourself a decent gag writer.

You ask for us to attack the real enemies, and trust me, in the coming days, weeks and months there will be outpourings, some more cogent than others, about the sufferings, the horrors endured in the media spotlight, the racism, all the charges against Jackson and his troubled life. And you point out, correctly, that Michael Jackson achieved more before he was ten than most of us will in a lifetime.

But this is not about what the person did in their life, their morality or how they treated other people. This is about humanity’s attempts to make sense of death.

Surely even you must have at least smiled for an instant, the first time you read on the internet someone blaming his death on the boogie. I did, and in that moment remembered all the enjoyment and fun his music had brought to me in his life.

I remember on the day Marvin Gaye was shot by his dad, somebody at the radio show I was writing at immediately responded to the news by saying ‘I blame the parents.’ That joke went straight into the programme and has been remembered ever since. It’s a good joke – no, it’s a great joke, it tells the story in an instant, captures one of the great features of the era that Gaye himself was no small contributor to – and above all it allowed us to come to terms with our grief.

So Luke: don’t blame it on the comics, don’t blame it on the media, don’t blame it on society. It was the boogie what did it.

Published: 26 Jun 2009

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