Is it still OK to laugh at our fear of laughing at scary stuff?

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2011

I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to do it anyway. Via SlashDot, CNN reports that some European TV networks are yanking some old Simpsons episodes from the rerun carousel in case the nuclear-disaster related plots upset anyone in light of the Fukushima crisis. (Bonus and presumably unintentional lulz: check the URL for the CNN piece! Nuclear jokes? Ew!)

Look, I’m no expert on humour (understatement of the century, yeah), but I don’t think it takes an expert or a particularly thorough survey to say that a great deal of the stuff we laugh at is funny because we’re afraid of it. This is the root emotion behind unacceptable ‘othering’ humour like racism or sexism (The Other must be mocked, so that we can feel larger and stronger than it!) and disablism (we make tasteless jokes about less able people because, deep down, we’re terrified to think how badly we’d cope with the same disability); such fears divide person from person, and should be erased rather than strengthened.

But fear of disasters, of the world itself? I think that’s a uniting emotion rather than a divisive one; our fragility in the face of chance events is one of the clearest indications that we’re all in the same lifeboat.

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between jokes about a specific event (a stand-up comic making light of Fukushima right now would be pretty tasteless, for instance, and making light of the human suffering caused by 9/11 fits in the same bracket) and making jokes about generalised existential risks. There have been nuclear crises before now; if there hadn’t been, jokes about them probably wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are. But does a fresh disaster merit this kneejerk cotton-woolling response? Is there a period after which nuke jokes will become acceptable again, and if so, how long is it? When will it become acceptable to run shows or movies that have images of the World Trade Centre in them, or should we go back and sanitise everything, airbrushing the WTC out of history like the cigarettes of the stars of the silver screen era?

Isn’t humour one of our best ways of coming to terms with the essentially hostile nature of the world we live in? Can we not rely on ourselves and the reactions of others to police the boundaries of taste, or should we leave that to the media companies, whose definitions of taste seem increasingly defined by their need to pander to dwindling audiences defined by political demographics, or to governments (whose political motivations are even clearer than those of the media)?

I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know the answers. I feel instinctively that there’s a difference between making jokes about the suffering of specific individuals and making jokes about the sorts of suffering that might possibly assail any of us at any time… but that’s easy for me to say from the privileged position of having never lost someone close to me through a natural disaster or act of terrorism. But to come at it from the other end, if we start deciding that some risks are too serious or topical to make light of, where does the line get drawn? How many people have to be offended for a joke to be considered tasteless? Just one? A certain percentage?

And what would we have left to laugh at?

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4 Responses to “Is it still OK to laugh at our fear of laughing at scary stuff?”

  1. Sjef says:

    Too soonami!

  2. Chad says:

    People need thicker skin…be an adult.

  3. Sjef says:

    To elaborate on this as it’s quite interesting, I don’t think anything should be off limits. Something may be tasteless, that doesn’t necessarily discount it from being hilarious. In fact with regard to some of the biggest tragedies of our age humor is the only way to digest them at all.

    Take for instance the rampant clusterfuck that is American politics, the only way to endure a sizable chunk of their news without enduring physical pain is to have it packaged as humour by Bill Maher / John Stewart / whoever etc. They have arguably some of the most honest reporting (or views that conform most to those in my bubble anyway), but in the face of the immense hypocrisy, social injustice, warmongering, cultural rape and outright theft that is going on, laughing about it seems to be the only way (or one of the few) people are able to deal. So uhm, yeah I agree that humour is one of our best ways of coming to terms with the hostile world.

    As such I’m not sure that the distinction can be made between specific & generic events either, the line blurs/vanishes depending on who is on the receiving end. As you get more personal a joke may become more tasteless/inappropriate/hurtful to a specific person and you may increasingly be more of a dick for telling it, but it can still be funny. To someone else anyway. Nobody has the right not to ever be offended, that’s what you get if you want free speech. (Not that we technically actually have free speech in most of Europe, but you know..)

    Anyway there’s (lots) more to be said about it but I should be doing wireframes instead of typing this up so I’ll bust out the Smith/Heinlein quotes from Stranger in a Strange Land instead:

    “I grok people. I am people… so now I can say it in people talk. I’ve found out why people laugh.
    They laugh because it hurts so much… because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”

    “I had thought — I had been told — that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok it is a bravery . . . and a sharing… against pain and sorrow and defeat.”

    *p.s. I don’t think Smith has ‘grokked’ it entirely, and the too soonami joke is totally stolen.

  4. Realitybytes says:

    That’s what happened! I have been trying to find an old Simpson’s clip where Kent Brockman goes to Montgomery Burns at the plant during a nuclear disaster.