Too soon, maybe?

Lloyd Mills says sick jokes need context

‘Did you hear the one about the Japanese prostitute who died in the tsunami recently? She got caught up in her fishnets.’

The problem there is that she probably did.

That joke was posted on a friend’s Facebook profile no more than 48 hours after that giant wave hit Sendai, killing tens of thousands and destroying the lives of millions. Watching the footage of the tragedy unfolding was like watching the actual end of days (as opposed to just a symptom of it, like Loose Women).

Reading the tsunami joke made me think long and hard about the whole ‘too soon’ issue. When is it OK to make a joke about a tragedy? That particular incident was pretty clear cut to me, it was ‘bang aaht uv ordaaah’ to quote some of my working class friends.

It was the sort of nasty little bon mot that is immensely popular in pubs and workplaces across the country. We’ve all received text messages upon the death of someone in the public eye, Michael Jackson being a perfect example. I must’ve received 15 jokes via SMS before he was even cold. The only thing that linked these pithy little one-liners, apart from the subject matter, was the fact that none of them were funny.

Like my friend’s tsunami joke.

Yeah, perfectly valid as a joke in the purest sense, it followed the accepted rhythm of a joke but devoid of any context it was rendered a lazy insult towards the people of Japan who were, at that moment, going through unimaginable horror. As an aside I don’t remember hearing any jokes about the quake in Christchurch. Perhaps catastrophe in a city full of white people doesn’t warrant the level of hilarity that Japan’s clearly did?

I understand and appreciate that comedy/humour is an amazing defence mechanism to get through hard times or even come to terms with tragedy. The comedy writer Peter Baynham has said no subject should be unsuitable for comedy and I completely agree. I’ve used comedy to get me through rough patches before and I know I will again if need be but surely it has to be in context?

A woman gets told she has cancer. Awful news for the whole family but as time goes by the odd nervous laugh here or wry quip there might diffuse the tension or sadness that such news would bring. We’re human, we need that. Some idiot stranger leaning in through the window and shouting ‘Oi love, wait ‘til it spreads to your pancreas!’ on the day of diagnosis is obviously unacceptable. It’s an extreme example that would never happen, but the principle is the same. Without context the joke loses any comedy potential it might have had and becomes straight-up mean. I’m 100 per cent anti-censorship, we absolutely must exercise free speech, the idiots will hang themselves and we should let them. I can’t help feeling that if there’s no irony or higher meaning in your post-tragedy ‘joke’ then maybe just keep it to yourself?

But I do understand that it’s instinctual for a comic to blurt these things out. For example, the American comedian Gilbert Gottfried got into trouble recently for cracking wise on Twitter about the Japan situation.

I ‘followed’ him at the time and it was just a stream of one-liners about Japanese people in varying states of peril and I can only imagine the furore that exploded as a result was due to there being no context behind his tweets. He wasn’t damning the government or taking pompous individuals down a peg. They were just people dying in a natural disaster. As he tweeted. A damn shame considering how he so triumphantly brought laughter back to the comedy community after 9/11 as featured in puerile filth-fest The Aristocrats.

I know full well that the comedian’s job is to say the unsayable and if anyone’s going to clear the air after something awful has happened it’s going to be a comedian. It HAS to be a comedian.

I love to laugh but recently, with the advent of shit joke website Sickipedia and the brain-fart machine that is Twitter, a lot of humanity is being left out of these jokes, humanity that can only come with context. And that’s heartbreaking because with all the best comedy, the humanity is what turns a gag into comedy gold.

  • Follow Lloyd Mills on Twitter @lloydmills.

    Published: 28 Apr 2011

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