Is it OK to joke about coronavirus?

Far from being too soon, Alex Williams asks if whether making jokes about Covid-19 could actually help us get through these dark times

Friday 01 May 2020 14:21 BST
‘This week’s good news: people dress up to take out the trash’ – Trevor Noah has been lightening the mood
‘This week’s good news: people dress up to take out the trash’ – Trevor Noah has been lightening the mood

Unreasonably dark joke,” read a coronavirus meme that’s been circulating on social media in recent weeks. “Shouldn’t we wait until after the pandemic to fill out the census?”

The joke is dark, yes. But is it any darker than countless other coronavirus memes out there?

Even more pointed is a spoof movie poster that takes Weekend at Bernie’s, the 1989 comedy film about two buddies toting around a dead man on their partying adventures, and renames it Weekend at Boris’s. It casts Boris Johnson, who until recently was in intensive care with Covid-19, as the corpse.

Since the pandemic took hold, the internet has been awash with coronavirus-centric jokes, Twitter wisecracks and self-produced comedy sketches shot with smartphones in shelter-in-place kitchens and living rooms. And that’s not counting what’s happening in private conversations during quarantine.

Laughing while others die may seem inappropriate, even tasteless, like concentration camp prisoners finding humour during the Holocaust. But in fact many did, according to the 2017 documentary The Last Laugh.

Throughout history, humour has played a role in the darkest times as a psychological salve and shared release. Large swaths of the population are living in isolation, instructed to eye with suspicion any stranger who wanders within 6ft. And coronavirus jokes have become a form of contagion themselves, providing a remaining thread to the outside world for the isolated – and perhaps to sanity itself.

But who, or what, is an appropriate target for satire during a pandemic?

You can’t laugh at the sick or dying, obviously, except in the main. “A year from now, you’ll all be laughing about this virus,” read a recent meme. “Not all of you, obviously.”

The virus itself deserves scorn and mockery, being the source of all this misery, although it is an elusive target, being inanimate and invisible. (“I love being outdoors, crowded places and food markets,” read a fake Tinder profile for “Coronavirus, 29”.)

Comedians such as Stephen Colbert have continued to broadcast shows during the lockdown

As late-night hosts like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah have shown, politicians who seem to prioritise votes over lives are easily mocked. So, too, are other perceived villains of the pandemic that require no microscope to see: violators of social distancing, say, or toilet paper hoarders.

“What’s next?” Noah joked in a segment a few weeks ago about people getting into fistfights at supermarkets over jumbo packs of Charmin. “Are people going to be running around Walmart, like, ‘Ahhh, where’s the car wax?’”

In many ways, we are all our own best source of humour, racked with anxiety as we sit cloistered at home, surrounded by either too few people or too many. With little contact with the outside world beyond our smartphones, our jokey coronavirus memes and videos are like the SOS messages that a bearded castaway fashions in the sand with rocks and seashells.

It’s the kind of edgy humour people don’t feel comfortable putting on their own Facebook wall, for the risk of having their parents say, ‘How could you?’

So far, quarantine humour tends to revolve around the same topics: overeating, marital bickering, sex (either too much or too little) and binge drinking.

“Your quarantine alcoholic name is your first name followed by your last name,” read one meme recently posted to a private Facebook group moderated by Lori Day, an educational psychologist and consultant from Massachusetts in the USA. The group is devoted to pandemic-themed videos and memes. Others show Jesus conducting the Last Supper via Zoom (“Judas, you on?”) or pleas for people to wash their hands because “Covid-19 doesn’t kill itself… just like Epstein,” a reference to the disgraced financier.

“It’s the kind of edgy humour people don’t feel comfortable putting on their own Facebook wall, for the risk of having their parents say, ‘How could you?’” Day says.

Tasteless or not, virus jokes provide her a fleeting distraction and a needed smile, as the pandemic has put her life – and consultancy business – on hold. “It’s very similar to the feeling I get looking at baby animals online, which is another thing I dose myself liberally with these days,” Day says.

The same goes for other members of the group. Some members are ill with Covid-19. “They’re thanking me from their beds,” she says. “They’re thanking me from their hospital rooms.”

Humour can divide as well as unite generations, made plain on the social media each favours. Baby boomers and Gen-Xers seem to be gravitating towards we’re-all-in-this-together observational humour in the memes they post to Facebook (“Anyone else starting to get a tan from the light in your refrigerator?”) or gags that focus on specific villains (foot-dragging political leaders, say) and implicit solutions (throw the bums out!). “Calm down, everyone,” read one such meme, “a six-time bankrupted reality TV star is handling the situation.”

As The Cut, a lifestyle site, recently noted, the outpouring of coronavirus content among Generation Z types on TikTok runs the gamut: disgust, resignation, frustration, despair and hope. One could also add barely concealed nihilism, perhaps a response to the discovery that members of that generation are coming of age in a world that suddenly seems even more messed up than already thought.

In one TikTok video by a 20-year-old in California named Andreas, his mother finds him still in bed at 4pm as he sings, “Oh hi, thanks for checking in, I’m still a piece of garbage.”

Comedy professionals, meanwhile, have found it challenging to stay relevant and connected to their audiences as show business has ground to a halt.

People want to just take their minds off of it for a second, but it’s also hard to think about anything else

Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, for example, have broadcast shows from their homes without the reassuring rhythm of audible applause. “On behalf of the socially anxious everywhere, let me just say, ‘Way ahead of you,’” Colbert proclaimed in one, dressed in a suit while submerged in a bubble bath at home. “I’ve been avoiding human contact since before it was cool.”

Two comedians – Taylor Tomlinson and Sam Morril – have turned their unexpected cohabitation in Los Angeles, after six months of dating, into a web series on Instagram called New Couple Gets Quarantined.

With their stand-up careers on hold and potential audience members feeling simultaneously bored out of their minds and freaked out, they had little choice of material. “People want to just take their minds off of it for a second,” Tomlinson says, “but it’s also hard to think about anything else.”

Taylor Tomlinson (left) and Sam Morril have turned their unexpected cohabitation into a comedy

In one recent episode, Tomlinson suggests they watch the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, about a deadly viral pandemic, that is currently a popular streaming option. Morril finds the suggestion insane.

“No way,” says Morril, who is Jewish. “We’re in the midst of a tragedy. You need some distance before it becomes entertainment. That would be like if the Jews watched Schindler’s List during the Holocaust.”

“Every day at the Art Cafe on Leszno Street, one can hear songs and satires of the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, in veiled fashion,” Mary Berg, a 15-year-old trapped by Nazis in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, wrote in a diary entry on 29 October 1941. “The typhus epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is our only weapon in the ghetto.”

That passage was included in The Last Laugh, a documentary about the role of humour among Jews during and after the Holocaust, which includes interviews with survivors as well as commentary by Sarah Silverman and Mel Brooks, who have termed Jewish jokes about Nazis “revenge through ridicule”.

Ferne Pearlstein, the director of the film, says in an email that while doing research for it, she and her team “found that humour was not uncommon – and was used as a coping mechanism in a situation of almost unimaginable horror as a means of self-defence, a counterattack for people who had few, if any, other ways of fighting back, and even as just simple diversion”.

One Auschwitz survivor, Renee Firestone, says in the film that she could not help but see the bleak irony after Nazi physician Josef Mengele told her during an examination, “If you survive this war, you better have your tonsils removed.” (Mengele was part of the SS machine that sent Jews to their death.)

A study even found that watching ‘Friends’ reduced anxiety significantly more than simply resting, which should make those of us watching a lot of Netflix lately feel a little better

“The instinct to laugh shows that we were still human beings while in the camps,” Firestone says, adding, “this inner sense of humour is what kept me alive.”

And soldiers in the First World War would joke as they dug through muddy trenches and unearthed body parts of former comrades, as recounted in a 2014 episode of Hardcore History, a popular podcast by Dan Carlin.

The episode quoted frontline accounts from celebrated British wartime journalist Philip Gibbs: “‘Bit of Bill,’ said the leading man, putting in the leg. ‘Another bit of Bill,’ he said, unearthing a hand. ‘Bill’s ugly mug,’ he said at a later stage in the operation, when a head was found.

“As told afterwards, that little episode in the trenches seemed immensely comic,” Gibbs added. “Generals chuckled over it. Chaplains treasured it.”

Far further back, the bubonic plague of the 14th century, known as the Black Death, killed large portions of the population of Europe, but it also spawned pointed satire of the Roman Catholic Church and other authorities in the Decameron by Boccaccio. The classic collection of novellas concerns a group of young people who flee pestilence-ridden Florence in Italy for a series of villas in the countryside (much like rich New Yorkers helicoptering off to the Hamptons in the current pandemic).

Hightailing to the country in the face of an epidemic is nothing new

If those examples seem a little far away, consider how in the days after the 9/11 attacks, Graydon Carter, the Vanity Fair editor, said, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” It was a pronouncement that lasted basically until the next evening’s broadcast of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who mercilessly lampooned the nation’s mass panic over an ever-present “America Freaks Out” chyron.

There is a reason laughter has long been considered the best medicine. It releases bursts of dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that signals pleasure and reward, and studies have indicated that it also can improve blood flow, the immune response and pain tolerance and might even shorten hospital stays, says Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why.

“My favourite study even found that watching Friends reduced anxiety significantly more than simply resting, which should make those of us watching a lot of Netflix lately feel a little better,” Weems says.

But there’s more to it than that. Apes, dogs, even rats laugh, often as a way of expressing anxiety over new and uncomfortable situations, Weems says.

Humans, too, laugh as a way of dealing with awkward or unfamiliar situations – colloquially known as nervous laughter – which certainly describes the mood in the current pandemic. “We’ve adopted this simple physical response as a way of sharing anxiety or confusion in a social way,” Weems says.

© The New York Times

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