How 'too soon' is now?

Andy Todd on making tasteless jokes about the news

‘What a week!’ said my girlfriend on Saturday night, voicing the thoughts of many.

‘It’s just been one tragedy after another,’ she continued., ‘First, I lost my earring, then I missed my train, and then, on Friday…’

Personalising tragedy is a common response to events which dwarf our ordinary lives. ‘It could have been me,’ we ponder, as we wonder how close to The Bomb we must have been because we once thought to be somewhere near I at some point in the distant past. Even in AD 79 a Roman couple was heard to remark, ‘Thank Jupiter one of our slaves was ill and we cancelled that trip to Pompeii!’

Or perhaps we react by telling a joke?

‘What’s got 4 legs and goes woof? Piper Alpha’ or ‘What does NASA stand for? Needs another seven astronauts’ or ‘How many Ukrainians does it take to change a light bulb? None. In Chernobyl, one just holds the bulb and it glows by itself.’

But time has rendered these jokes inoffensive to all but close relatives and friends of the fallen and dead. The original disasters have lapsed into history and for some, for the young, their origins might not even be known. We require novelty in tragedy. Whether 9/11, Madeleine McCann or Michael Jackson, dark humour like a vulture is quick to pounce on a still warm corpse.

But proximity doesn’t just apply to timing. Proximity can refer to how close the audience identifies with the joke. It’s funny to see a comedian destroy an audience member, but it’s not funny when it’s you, is it?

Last year, Frankie Boyle fell foul of a woman who took offence at jokes about Down’s Syndrome when the jokes fell too close to home. It didn’t matter that she laughed about jokes about cancer, Aids, lurgy or pox because it’s woe is me, not woe is us.

And, that, inevitably is the paradox inherent in tragedy. If common reactions are to personalise it or tell a joke about it, there can be nothing else but conflict and tears.

On Sunday, I read a comment on Facebook that said, in support of the belief that the dead deserve sympathy and not mockery: ‘Any idiot can write a joke by using one of Amy’s song lyrics.’

Any idiot can, and any idiot did, as, in fact, not only had I written one on Facebook and Twitter, I told it on stage a few short hours after it was announced that she died.

I stood in the basement of Glasgow’s State Bar and I said: ‘Amy Winehouse is dead. She died of an overdose. As soon as I heard the tragic news I was like “No! No! No!”’

And, less than 30 seconds before that, I said: ‘If we’re talking about things that happened this week then how about this: a group of teenagers. A lake. A crazy killer. Did anyone else watch Friday the 13th?’

Which wasn’t followed by: ‘Amy Winehouse was found dead in London today. Which meant one bullet from Norway didn’t go to waste’ because although I may be an idiot, I’m not stupid.

But, as clocks change, tragedies fade from memory like grief.

And, in 12 months’ time, when those who cry while gorging themselves on fresh blood like a dark romantic vampire, when everyone asks you whether you remember the tragedy in Norway – ‘it was the worst thing to happen to a Labour camp since Hitler decided to change the showers’ – you take offence. For while Norway fades, for you a joke about the Holocaust is still too soon. And, if you don’t draw your own line, that line you will not cross, you must forever deny one exists at all.

And, as soon as you realise that, as soon as you acknowledge the existence of that line you will not cross, how can you ignore the line in others?

Words have power, they raise arms and break hearts; they can create a God then deny His existence; they can make you laugh, they can make you cry, and sometimes, when read on a computer screen on a Sunday night they can even make you say, ‘I’m sorry’.

  • Andy Todd is an open spot comedian based in Glasgow and London. He can be found on twitter at @toddandy

Published: 28 Jul 2011

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