Hours after Williams’ death, British comic Richard Herring tweeted a joke about his suicide sparking a backlash. After all of Herring’s gigs were cancelled, he later apologized, tweeting that he was “trying to find laughter in tragedy.” But few were laughing.
Yet, at the Emmys, Billy Crystal’s tribute to Robin had us laughing through our tears. He was coming from love, and that’s why we responded.
Anyone who has taken a class in comedy improv knows that there are rules. To quote from the Bible, not the St. James, but The Comedy Bible (written by me), “Never joke to further oppress someone who is perceived as already being oppressed.” What matters is less the WHO or WHAT of the joke than its intention.
We all have to screen ourselves to be sure we are joking with the intention of HEALING, not HURTING. Humor is a powerful tool, which is why we bristle when someone tries to shrug off saying something hurtful with, “I was just joking.” When we don’t forgive, it’s because we know what was behind the remark.
“I killed tonight!” “I slayed them.”
This is not dialogue from HBO’s “The Game of Thrones,” but what you hear in the Green Room of a comedy club. The language of comics could make you think we’re serial killers. We have the capacity to do with WORDS what some do with WEAPONS. When humor is aimed at an underdog or comes across as too harsh, a comic can crash and burn. Going too far can end a career – ask Michael Richards.
This “Don’t Further Victimize a Victim” rule isn’t limited to comics. Politicians have fallen and corporations have been sued because of tasteless jokes about race, sex, and Mexican food. After appearing with Jay Leno, even President Obama had to apologize when joking about his bowling score, that his average score of 129 “was like the Special Olympics…” Whoops!
We’ve all reacted when someone joked about something BEFORE we were ready to laugh at ourselves. In my 20s, I was going through a painful breakup and a friend made an insensitive joke. I had a fit. But when I was ready, I went onstage at the Hollywood Improv and turned it into a bit.
“I just ended a relationship. We had one thing in common: we were BOTH madly in love with HIM! While we were making love, we were BOTH shouting out HIS name.”
The audience’s laughter helped me heal. Turning pain into a punchline is empowering.
But we’re not ready to joke about Robin; we may never be. A man who helped so many couldn’t help himself and died a victim of depression. It’s said that comedy is tragedy plus time. I’m not sure there will ever be a time to joke about Robin.
I polled my Facebook friends. Comic Eric Passoja offered good advice, “NEVER pick on the underdog. That's sure to evoke instant pain from any audience. Always make fun of the oppressors.”
What are your feelings about this?