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In Praise of Gallows Humor

Sick jokes can be healthy.

Source: Brodie Visser/Stocksnap. X053
Source: Brodie Visser/Stocksnap. X053

An elderly cousin called the other day. He’s worried about his memory; he forgets words and dinner plans. He no longer drives because he gets lost. So he went to the doctor.

“I have great news,” he reported afterwards. “I got Covid-19.”

Me: “That’s terrible.”

Him: “No, it’s good. I’ll die before I lose more things!”

I laughed, awkwardly. Then loudly.

I love my relative. Of course I didn’t want to contemplate his death by Corona. But for a brief moment we punctured our dread. By rendering absurd what scares us most, we jui-jitsued this unspeakable disease. We kicked it down with ridicule and distanced our fears.

Everyone deals with this tragedy differently. Some people do yoga and Zoom wine chats and turn off the news. Other entrench themselves in the horror, following every fatal statistic and failed search for a cure.

My family gets morbid.

We can all agree that comic relief elevates the spirit, creates a sense of well-being and can bring people together. Copious studies show that laughter can boost the immune system and alleviate anxiety. A good chortle can even lower blood pressure.

But there’s a line between what some of us need and what the public finds acceptable. Because there are those of us who need gallows humor as a shield.

Comedians today are playing it safe by concentrating on silly situational material like Zoom mishaps and botched haircuts. Everyone’s in on the joke. Yet sick humor, pun intended, is healthy, too. Actually, the word sick might even be a misnomer because for many this pressure valve means psychological survival. You’re staring down the Grim Reaper and not letting it get the better of you.

Truly dark humor binds my family together; our parents’ wit was seasoned by pogroms, the Depression and war. Their sardonic punches against poverty and anti-Semitism made their grim lives more bearable. My grandmother worked in a butcher shop; she made ribald cracks about chicken parts.

My G.I. father returned from Germany traumatized by the concentration camps he freed; he later ran an organization that aided survivors. I’d sometimes hear them riffing on taboos that would shock comedy club audiences. But who are we to judge? What people say privately to process pain is different from what they would in a stand-up gig.

What we say in lockdown stays in lockdown. “You have to read the room,” comedian Ray Ellin told me. That room, he noted, is filled with people with loved ones on ventilators. We can poke fun at ourselves, but not at doctors who lack PPE.

This coping response is not restricted to the pandemic; ghoulish banter serves as a common psychological weapon among surgeons, firemen and cops. I’ve heard the most tasteless wisecracks about gore by soldiers and other journalists, while reporting from conflict zones around the world. The sort of places where citizens disappeared one day and were found headless the next. Mexico, Rwanda, Chechnya.

They’re not mocking the victims; they’re trying not to feel shaken by gruesome sights. That’s what people do in situations of extremis when they feel profoundly unnerved. Comedy doesn’t go away at times of death. It just takes a macabre turn.

“If you can laugh at it, you can deal with it,” said the late Joan Rivers. She joked about her husband’s suicide. “And don’t start telling me that I shouldn’t be saying it. That’s the way I do it. I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”

Laugh they did, in Auschwitz. In his 1946 memoir about his internment there, Man’s Search for Meaning, the Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl explored what helped him and others fight for preservation. Humor, he wrote, was one of the “soul’s weapons” to transcend despair. Humor, more than anything else, “can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation.”

Antonin Obrdlik determined in his classic sociological work about wartime Czechoslovakia that gallows humor was an “index of strength or morale” on the part of oppressed peoples in precarious or dangerous situations. Ironic jests about gravediggers served as a form of resistance. “(Gallows humor’s) decline or disappearance reveals either indifference or a breakdown of the will to resist evil,” he concluded.

And it could be a sign of intelligence and emotional stability. According to an Austrian study of 156 volunteers published in 2017, those who “got” the farce among a dozen dark jokes scored higher on IQ tests compared to those who didn’t. They were better educated and registered lower aggression and bad moods.

So if the thing that makes you happier is taunting the virus with slapstick, go ahead and do it. But know your audience. Make sure they’re on the same page. If so, you may make someone else feel better. And you deserve comic relief, too. It means you’re healthy. And “sick” humor may be just the cure you need.

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