Can ugly moments from history be funny?
What may be hilarious to some could be horrible for others
“Studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You might learn a lot about it, but you wind up with a dead frog.” – E.B. White.
As long as comedy has existed, there have been people arguing about it. Forget baseball, cherry pie, and white picket fences, contesting comedy truly is our national pastime.
From police storming in to arrest Lenny Bruce for indecency to Bill Hicks having his “Late Show” set banned from airing on Letterman to modern-day grievances involving intentionally un-woke Netflix specials (speaking of which, has anyone tried using “Triggered” as the name for their next hour?), fighting about comedy and telling each other what can and cannot be said seems to be firmly entrenched in our society’s DNA.
So, naturally, that would make certain topics more susceptible to debate.
And what brings up more heated opinions than tackling our planet’s super icky history? But what’s even more fun?
Writing articles about people having problems with people’s attempts to have fun with history!
Beavis and subhead
The Holocaust. 9/11. Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. All real laugh riots, right? Right?
*Tap tap* Is this thing on?
For generations of comedians (and according to some, now more than ever) the battle between what is “too soon” or “too far” has made laughing about some of history’s less than favorable periods … well, a little difficult.
While some of us grew up in homes that encouraged “gallows humor” and tried mightily to find speckles of light amidst otherwise dark subjects, others are (perhaps rightfully so) unable to find any semblance of frivolity discussing these episodes of tragedy and immense sadness.
So, who is right? Is it true? Can anything be funny?
“I would say it’s possible. It’s out there like the winning lottery number,” said comedian Caleb Synan who just released his one-hour special on Comedy Central. “It’s unlikely with certain things, though. There’s a lot of great jokes about Hitler or 9/11. But I’ve never heard anything funny about the French and Indian war. Or the Teapot Dome scandal.”
As a longtime Simpsons writer and comedian, Dana Gould said to open his album I Know It’s Wrong, “You can joke about anything, if you do it in the right context,” before diving into an AIDS jokes, a rape joke, and a 9/11 joke.
And yes, all were incredibly funny. But even with the perfect delivery and the most well-honed opinions, some will still find cause to dispute your chosen topics.
In the 2016 documentary, The Last Laugh director Ferne Pearlstein tackled this touchy subject topic head-on.
Pearlstein had comedians like Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Mel Brooks, and even Rob Reiner defend their World War II-era jokes contrasted with interviews with Holocaust survivors.
The survivors couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever find a way to make their experiences “funny.”
While a lot of Jewish comedians said they used the material to overcome the pain of the past and to mock the efforts of the evil dictator, the survivors continued to contend that perhaps … umm … those topics need not be explored.
As a comedian myself, I believe in the idea that anything does have the potential to be funny, but I couldn’t help but feel conflicted hearing their words, detailing the ugliness they witnessed at such a young age via first-hand accounts.
Looking for laughs in all the wrong places
While it might be easy to understand not wanting to mock the tragedy that befell previous generations, it’s a topic that comes up regarding our modern history as well.
Trying to make light of America’s recent turmoil can leave those who actually lived it a bit uneasy.
“I understand why veterans get upset when comics try to make jokes about the community. I actually love a very well-crafted joke about war or something military-related,” said Justin Wood, a LA-based stand up comedian who served as an E-4 Specialist in the Army and was deployed during Iraqi Freedom 3. “As we have been seeing lately, there really are no lines with comedy but there is definitely a bad joke. I don’t think war jokes strike the same nerve as a 9/11 or racist joke, but. like I mentioned, if I hear a good joke about either of those, I think it’s one of the most beautiful things.”
Right or wrong, history has always found itself in the scope of playful mockery.
Monty Python had a recurring bit about how “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” as the group would burst surprisingly into unexpected social engagements.
But imagine describing that scene to a Spaniard trying desperately to Tomas de Torquemada’s extermination in the 1470s. “Someday, this will all be just hilarious!” (Let’s face it: You can’t Torquemada anything!).
Dave Chappelle had a memorable send-up of the Roots 25th Anniversary Edition Boxed Set, for in his show’s sketch included a slavery-mocking blooper reel.
On Seinfeld, Jerry and his girlfriend made out passionately while Schindler’s List played in the background.
And no stranger to criticism, Mel Brooks took down … well, pretty much anything and everything in his beloved film History of the World, Part 1.
Those rascally Romans
The topic made the news cycle again last year when a popular U.K. children’s show called Horrible Histories came under fire for their effort in making past murkiness suitable for kids to laugh along with and daresay, enjoy.
While history is always valuable to be looked back upon and surveyed, some took exception to the white-washing of certain topics in order to present their jovial and “fun” narrative.
But Greg Jenner, who served as the senior historical advisor for the show’s recently released film adaption Rotten Romans has his own opinion on these things.
“There are, in theory, no subjects that are off-limits, because history is transgressive,” said Jenner, who serves as the host of the podcast “You’re Dead To Me” from on the BBC. “The point of comedy is to find humor in things that are quite dark and macabre.”
Which brings us back to the quote from Gould earlier, emphasizing the idea that truth, context is king.
Dark! Don’t go there!
Comedian Patrick Keane, who currently serves as a writer on Anthony Jeselnik’s Comedy Central talk show “Good Talk” pointed out that while topics can seemingly be too edgy to conquer, the potential for a good laugh can emerge from the least expected of places.
“I have a joke in my act that goes ‘My grandparents hid Jews during the war. It was the Vietnam war,” Keane relayed. A joke like Keanes is intended to take the audience on a roller coaster of sorts. It starts out with a very serious topic, and within a heartbeat, it was as silly and frankly bizarre as anyone could imagine.
What were just moments ago pearl-clutching nervousness is now amused befuddlement. So in one way, it’s making light or serious history but also … joke a great joke?
Can that reality truly exist?
One of Comedy Central’s cornerstone programs is Drunk History which has been making light of our past for well over a decade now.
The show’s avenue into making their subject matter palatable is through taking tales from history — many of which are quite serious — and baking them into a nice, booze-addled video short full of humorous reenactments, big-name celebrity cameos, and even funnier (and fuzzier) reflections of the days gone by.
Since the network brought the beloved web series to their channel the show has been a hit with audiences across the spectrum, showing that even with changes in society, our collective thirst for having a chuckle at our past is alive and well.
Opinions are like @$$h*les: I don’t have one
If everything we’ve covered gives you any indication, the topic of what can and can not be funny isn’t a debate that will be solved anytime soon.
There is the side that thinks everything is fair game, the side that thinks all topics should be handled with kid gloves and the more moderate opinion that thinks, “You know, I don’t have a huge problem with this topic, but I know many others do, so tread lightly and if you do go there … make it really funny.”
Where you fall is a personal opinion and one that you are certainly entitled to. Comedy is ultimately subjective and very little can be considered funny “for everyone.”
But when it comes to the topic of history and our past, I think it’s important to equally show reverence for days gone by without being afraid to take shots at it’s less than perfect legacy.
And please, be kind to your frogs.