Report: Too Soon for Newtown-Related Humor
New York, NY (AP) – A new study has found that too little time has elapsed since the mass shootings in Connecticut last week for any humor to be appropriate.
The study, published in the Journal Of Kaufmanesque Exposition, concluded that at least three weeks would have to pass before even the edgiest comedians could directly address the murders. Before then, the authors note, anyone seeming to make light of the massacre would be deemed intolerably offensive.
In the interim, the JOKE study says, satirical commentary will have to focus on mocking events related to, but not directly involved in, the murders. For example, the authors point to Twitter posts contrasting the availability of firearms with the difficulties in obtaining adequate psychiatric care, and to caricatures of Second Amendment activists. Another example involved the cynical observation that Republican and other pro-gun-lobby spokespeople were conspicuously unwilling to sit for interviews with any major media outlets in the several days following the Newtown murders.
Lead study author Nyna Levin explained that a simple formula serves to explain the process through which major catastrophic events become acceptable fodder for humor. “It’s always been a straightforward function of time or distance,” she said, in which the enormity of the tragedy generates a proportionately large temporal, conceptual or geographical gap between the event and the point at which humorous references to the event will not automatically result in social ostracism or constitute political suicide. The formula is often rendered as some variation of H = T + t, where H refers to humor, capital T refers to tragedy and lower-case t refers to time. In some versions, C, for comedy, is substituted for H.
The formula, continued Levin, helps account for the differences in acceptability between jokes about Jeffrey Dahmer, a notorious Wisconsin serial killer who stored victims’ body parts in his home, and Jared Loughner, who went on a shooting spree almost two years ago, killing six and injuring fourteen. Dahmer was arrested in 1991 and had at least seventeen victims; but whereas popular culture is essentially silent with Loughner-related humor, the two decades since Dahmer’s arrest and the bizarre details of his crimes have long since made them fair game for comedy. In addition, Dahmer was bludgeoned to death in prison in 1994, a fact that, if nothing else, provides humor simply by dint of the word “bludgeoned.” By contrast, Loughner’s crime still generates too much raw emotion to serve as fodder for suitable comedy.
Levin also illustrated how conceptual distance mitigates the humorous references to major tragedies: joking about rape is taboo, whereas joking about the existence of the taboo is not completely offensive, if done properly. Similarly, mocking Nazi victims will always be despicable, but mocking Nazi behavior or attitudes that led to that treatment will always be fine. She invoked philosopher Mel Brooks to explain another aspect of this function: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Levin anticipates that the humor, if any, that emerges from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings will continue to target gun control opponents and conservative politicians in general for the foreseeable future. In contrast even with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which the perpetrators’ foreign origins and religious beliefs allowed for some mockery, Levin sees no such potential humor in Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the shootings.
“He was so normal, it’s not even funny,” she said.
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