We Have to Laugh! Finding Humor in Terrible Times

May 31, 2020 | By | Add a Comment

“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?

That famous joke was obviously not made at the time of Lincoln’s assassination but many years later, a prime example of how, as comedian Steve Allen put it, “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” It’s usually difficult to joke about tragedy while it’s happening, but years later almost anything can be joked about. Whatever the limits of timing and good taste, it’s obvious that people need humor to get them through the darkest of situations. It’s the only way we can stand it.

Throughout history humor has been used to laugh in the face of death, despair and any manner of human foolishness. The Restoration playwright William Congreve wrote, “It is the business of a comic poet to paint the vices and follies of humankind.” The French author Voltaire’s work routinely mocked religious dogma, intolerance and authority so much so that he was denied a Christian burial in Paris. His masterpiece “Candide” satirizes the optimism that this is “the best of all possible worlds” by presenting scene after scene of the hero encountering death and tragedy. In the musical adaptation  the spectacle of people treating the torture of others as entertainment at a public execution is satirized thusly:

What a day, what a day

For an auto-da-fe

What a sunny summer sky

What a day, what a day

For an auto-da-fe

It’s a lovely day for drinking

And for watching people fry!

What a day, what a treat, did you save me a seat?

In the back, near the rack, but away from the heat

Though we won’t see the moans, we’ll hear most of the groans

And we’ll still get a thrill throwing stones!    

(Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche)

WE NEED TO LAUGH! A well-known scene from the 1941 Preston Sturges film “Sullivan’s Travels”  starring Joel McCrea.

Human misfortune is routinely laughed at, especially when it involves the physical comedy of someone falling flat on their face. Sure, we hope they didn’t get hurt, but “America’s Funniest Home Videos” would not exist without the hilarity of someone bouncing off of a trampoline and into the bushes.

Comedians have always made jokes that more sensitive types find wildly inappropriate. Joan Rivers, never one afraid to hold back from joking about anything, caused a scene many times making jokes like “I just ate with some friends at Windows on the Ground” two weeks after 9/11. She famously walked off a CNN interview when the hostess questioned the appropriateness of some of her more controversial material. Rivers, like all great comedians, knew that the only way to deal with the daily parade of horrors we endure on a regular basis is to laugh at them, and if you get offended, too bad. Lighten up.

Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” may be the best known work to laugh at Adolf Hitler. Woody Allen wrote many jokes about death: “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”

The only possible way to deal with having an incompetent monster in the Oval Office whose every action is horrifying is to mercilessly laugh at and mock him. I joked that “Trump just outlined his plan for dealing with the coronavirus. Then he colored it” to varying degrees of cheers and boos from the politically diverse audience. Late night comedians have made a career’s worth of jokes about him only in the last three years, and the jokes take only a few seconds to write since he and his enablers provide an endless amount of setups. All we have to do is write the punchlines. A meme making the rounds online on Memorial Day weekend superimposed a picture of Trump golfing over the New York Times cover mourning 100,000 dead from the pandemic. It’s not meant to be funny but dark and pointed mockery.

Which brings us to our current situation, finding ourselves stuck at home in the midst of a global pandemic with no end in sight. What’s funny about that? There’s nothing funny about the grief and horror it’s brought to so many families. But comedians and writers have found a workaround by joking about the many other things it has brought with the quarantine:

I hope they give us two weeks notice before sending us back out into the real world to become ourselves again. And by ‘ourselves’ I mean lose 10 pounds, cut our hair, and get used to not drinking at 9:00 a.m.”

“Breaking News:  Wearing a mask inside your home is now highly recommended.  Not to stop COVID-19, but to stop eating.”

“When this quarantine is over, let’s not tell some people.”

“The garbage man placed an AA flyer on my recycling bin.”

“I’m homeschooling my kid. After several days I tried to get him transferred.”

“Coronavirus has turned us all into dogs. We get told ‘No!,’  we get too close to strangers and get excited about taking a walk.”

The point is, we absolutely have to laugh, in one way or another, at the absurd situations we find ourselves in or we would never get through them. And one day there will be hundreds of dark, tasteless pandemic jokes. Many will find them distasteful and offensive, but probably not me, because I make quarantine jokes like “I feel like I’m Anne Frank with Netflix.” It helps to be a horrible person in times like these.

Category: Commentary

Jim David

About the Author ()

Jim David is a Bistro Award- and three-time MAC Award-winning comedian who has been seen on his special "Comedy Central Presents Jim David," "Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn," "The View," and many other shows. A national headliner, his 34-year comedy career has taken him across the country and around the world. His comedy CDs available on iTunes are "Eat Here And Get Gas," "Live From Jimville," "Notorious F.A.G.," "Hard To Swallow," and "Pride Parade of Stand-Up Volume 1" just released May 22.

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