When Is It “Too Soon” to Joke?
On November 22, 1963 at a nightclub in New York City, stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce decided to go on with the show. Just hours after President John F. Kennedy was declared dead, Bruce walked onstage in front of a uneasy audience. No one in the crowd knew what to expect.
According to witnesses, Bruce wallowed around the stage for several moments, seemingly lost in his own thoughts, perplexed about how to proceed. He didn’t know quite what to say. Finally, after this awkward silence, Bruce stepped up to the microphone and blurted out, “Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked.”
Not everyone will get that reference, so here’s the cliffs: Vaughn Meader was a fellow comedian, a one-trick-pony who specialized in doing Kennedy impressions. The previous year, Meader had even released a Grammy-award winning album which sold millions. The Kennedy assassination also meant the death of Meader’s comedy career. As things turned out, Bruce was right. By 1965, Meader was broke. He was fucked.
While the boundaries of good taste have since been blurred to the point of obscurity, society back in Bruce’s time was much more rigid. Among the many idiosyncrasies which established Bruce as an insurgent of comedy was his willingness to take enormous risks during his act and directly challenge authority. He ventured into once-sacred territory no other comedian during his day would dare touch. For this, we was arrested several times and charged with crimes.
Although Bruce was unfazed by obscenity laws and other legal restrictions on free speech, he still had to be particularly nervous about cracking a joke like that on the day Kennedy died. His joke might have bombed. His audience could have stormed out in anger and disgust. No one really ever knows how comedy will play out until, when invisible boundaries of expectation are crossed, and it’s too late.
A generation later, things for comedian Gilbert Gottfried didn’t go so well. Shortly after 9/11, Gottfried attempted a polemical stand up sketch during which he made several references to the terrorist attacks. The act wasn’t received well at all by the audience. Someone in the crowd yelled out, “too soon!” — presumably speaking for a majority which viewed making light of the deaths of thousands of people as highly inappropriate and insensitive.
Over the years, comedians have been confronted with mixed reactions to cutting edge material alluding to tragedy. When is it “too soon?” That’s hard to say. Indeed, the passage of time seems to be the only salve which gradually eases the sting of shock and pique of pain. A more cynical explanation could be that time allows us a mourning period to anesthetize ourselves. Whether we care to admit it or not, we begin to forget. Time becomes an unwritten statute of limitations for alleviating the guilt of believing human tragedy can be funny. Nervous muted giggles can and does eventually become bellowing laughter.
Today, we’re free to laugh about many of history’s worst tragedies. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for instance. There’s a popular witticism many of us have used on occasion, which goes: “But other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” That quip is intended to downplay misfortune in comparison to something that’s far more consequential, and it’s widely understood. No one today would dare consider this remark insensitive, perhaps because everyone connected to the tragedy died a very long time ago. But that sure as hell would have bombed had any comedian of the day used that line at Ford’s Theater in late 1865.
Yesterday, there was another terrible tragedy, this time in Manchester, England. Many people died when a terrorist planted a bomb which exploded at a pop music concert. Within hours, some people had taken to social media where they attempted to crack jokes which many viewed as “tasteless.” The most noteworthy of controversial comments came from David Leavitt, a writer. He posted to Twitter: “The last time I listened to Ariana Grande I almost died too.”
In defense of Leavitt, I think the selected means of communication is very important here. Social media is understood to be an unfiltered forum of expression. That’s what makes it a useful tool, sometimes. Using an extreme example, no one (least of all Leavitt) would make insensitive remarks at a hospital where the victims’ families are gathered. However, social media is widely understood to be a continuous lightning blast of free expression. It’s the world’s biggest bar during happy hour. Anything goes.
Let’s acknowledge as fact that Twitter is a younger, edgier, often sardonic forum of expression. It’s not like your grandmother’s kitchen table, or the bus stop, or a Kiwanis Club. Many people sign onto Twitter precisely for the entertainment value of quips and barbs — especially from the famous. Isn’t that kinda’ the point (for a lot of readers?). Hence, suddenly professing some moral objection to insensitivity while also perpetually blood-thirsty for scandal does an absurd contradiction.
Predictably, the public backlash to Leavitt’s Twitter post was swift and resounding. With hours, Leavitt had to issue a public apology. But the damage had already been done. The dregs of the junk press pounded on the Leavitt wisecrack like a pack of wolves. The very worst of the media mucus, TMZ — which has created a cottage industry empire out of outtakes with salacious shock value — had a field day. What a disgraceful double standard.
I wonder — might we all be inflicted by these same double standards? Are we hypocrites? How can a joke be unfunny one day, and then funny the next? Do we grant greater latitude to some people when they tell an off-color joke, while judging others far more harshly for an identical act? Why do some among us receive a free pass on certain critical remarks about human tragedy, the ills of society, or race — while others who say identical things get vilified?
Here’s one possible explanation. I think there’s an inherent desensitization to victims who are different from us. The more alien they seem, the easier they become targets. In the Manchester bombing incident, it’s easy to make fun of the torturesome music that’s popular with teenage girls. Just as I remember years ago when the Union Carbide toxic gas leak tragedy in Bhopal, India killed hundreds of people, jokes were circulating in the streets within hours. Presumably, those jokes would not have been told (not so fast, anyway) if the victims were our neighbors or our fellow countrymen. It’s far easier to laugh at something the further we’re removed from the horrors.
For another reaction, I’ll borrow a (slightly edited) Facebook post from my friend, stand-up comedian Roger Rodd:
If you call yourself a comedian, and you have any rule book whatsoever for any premise, or you’re any part of the “too soon” police, you aren’t a comic. You’re just another speech fascist. That does not mean I feel sorry for, nor do I defend those who do insanely offensive premises, poorly timed material, or make asinine statements on a stage. I simply defend their right to say it — and pay the price when it isn’t funny, well received, or costs them work or the respect of others….As a comedian, you’re either with free speech or you’re just another sanctimonious asshole of a SJW. Judgement of material is the right of the audience — PERIOD. That is not the right of anybody posing as a comedian. Free speech BEGINS when somebody says something you DON’T like.
Comedy = Tragedy + Time. Such a ridiculous equation.