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?