Neutral Ground

Too Soon?

How “disaster humor” works

By Wayne Curtis | June 25, 2015


Q: Why didn’t the Latter Library flood during Katrina?
A: Because you can’t turn on Dufossat.

If you laughed, you probably live within a dozen blocks of me. Certainly you live in New Orleans. (Getting this joke depends on knowing which street the library faces, that it’s one-way, and the local pronunciation: do-faucet, as you may have guessed.)

I haven’t heard many Katrina jokes lately, with the exception of the one above, and that’s probably for the best. Many used the storm as cover to make racist jokes, or made FEMA the butt of generic government inefficiency jokes or were just playing off dimwitted perceptions of the city. For instance, Jay Leno: “Mardi Gras is … scaled down quite a bit. Now when you throw a bead, women only flash one boob.”

Throw a bead?

Jokes about disasters are about as inevitable as bureaucratic bumbling in the aftermath. Telling a joke is a way for people to move on, to put some distance between themselves and an unsettling event.

“Humor is an important psychological response that facilitates coping, social coordination, and the pursuit of happiness,” wrote Peter McGraw, Lawrence E. Williams, and Caleb Warren in an article about humor and tragedies that appeared last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science. “When tragedies strike, humor may be an effective coping tool, but it is not always easy or appropriate to joke in the face of tragedy.”

The classic formulation is “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” McGraw thinks that’s a bit too simple. He studies humor, co-authored (with Joel Warner) The Humor Code (2014), and oversees the Humor Research Lab (HURL) at the University of Colorado Boulder. (I first interviewed him a couple of years ago on whether drinking makes you funnier or not. Short answer: Yes, up to two drinks.)

Many theorists have sought humor’s version of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a single formulation that explains every joke, chuckle-inducing anecdote, and sight gag. McGraw’s contribution is what he calls the “benign violation theory.” This states that you’ll generally find humor when something “wrong, unsettling, or threatening” occurs in a safe and non-threatening context. That is, a hapless soul tumbling down stairs is funny (violation), but only if he or she is uninjured at the bottom (benign). Vomit on your sofa is not funny; fake vomit is. “Humor requires threat but not too much or too little,” McGraw has written.

It’s possible to transform a tragedy into something safe and non-threatening with distance—geographic, social, chronological. McGraw’s study used Superstorm Sandy to gauge the effects of time on disaster humor. McGraw and his colleagues recruited more than a thousand online panelists, and asked them to rate jokey Sandy-related tweets at different times—the day before the storm, the day of, and then regularly up to six months after the storm.

The result? The researchers found the comedic sweet spot was about 100 days out—when the event has lost some of its bite, but not so distant that we have started to forget about it.

(The Onion has apparently not seen this study. It also seems to serve as a nationwide arbiter of when it’s okay to laugh. Headline two weeks after 9/11 attacks: “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake.” Ten days after Katrina: “God Outdoes Terrorists Yet Again.”)

Ten years on, Katrina jokes no longer really work, and so nobody tells them. The event and its aftermath no longer loom like a threatening cloud.

But once in a while, there’s nanoscale humor hitched to a megascale event, like the library joke I started with, and which always cracks me up. It works (for me) because it’s not really about the storm—Katrina is a McGuffin, and the joke is built on a dual meaning word answered by a pun. Also, relying on inside information always seems to make something funnier.

Of course, what’s really great about the library joke is I get to tell it to my neighbors, who always laugh. It’s a thin thread, but it’s one that knits part of a community together. It becomes the absence of distance.

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