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Off Limits?: The Comedy World and Sandy Hook

It is January 7th, 2013, 24 days after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT and Anthony Jeselnik, arguably the overseer of dark humor, hasn’t tweeted a single thing about it. After the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora, CO, Jeselnik tweeted, “Other than that, how was the movie?,” which is one of the very few angles you could take at the time in comedically addressing the shooting. Sure, he’s busy with his upcoming Comedy Central series, The Jeselnik Offensive, and his hour special Caligula, but, perhaps, like many working comedians and writers, he didn’t find anything funny about the shooting.

Any sort of jokes about Adam Lanza and the 26 people he killed, 20 of whom were elementary students, are incredibly scarce. Yes, there have been jokes about gun control and other ancillary topics related to Sandy Hook, but the shooting itself has stayed relatively untouched. The first night back after the shooting, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel opted to merely acknowledge the events that transpired and go to some absurd, silly humor on their respective late night talk shows. Leno and Letterman also brought the shooting up, but steered way clear of anything that might even remotely be considered in bad taste. Of course, if you went to an open mic on the night after December 15th, odds are you would have heard some amateur comedians try to talk about Newtown in either a shocking or genuine fashion, but ultimately doing so to no laughs.

In fact, many comedians took to their blogs and Twitter and eschewed any sort of routine sarcasm or wit for a demand for legislation and reposting examples of statistics in other countries that have much stricter gun control. Only the silence of the NRA after the shooting and Wayne LaPierre’s subsequent speech calling to arm teachers in schools were ridiculed by comedians in general over the last three weeks.

The collective absence of “Sandy Hook jokes” is an interesting comment on an art form that stands as one of the few bastions of truly free speech in the U.S. If you ask most comedians, even now, they would tell you that there are no sacred cows in comedy; humor that references rape, the Holocaust, 9/11, abortion, domestic violence, racism, mental illness, religion, politics, etc., etc. have managed to be proven funny in the right hands, by the likes of such revered comedians as Doug Stanhope and Dana Gould. Still, there are probably few, if any pages in notebooks and laptops anywhere that have even made an attempt at joking about the second worst school shooting in U.S. history.

In my opinion, this isn’t a matter of Sandy Hook being a so-called “sacred cow” or not enough time passing. Again, I’d argue — and before any of you scroll to the comments to get indignant with me, please read this whole paragraph — that you can joke about anything, including the Sandy Hook shooting, so long as you find something funny about it. If that’s not the case, then don’t even try to joke about it. That has seemed to be the case for nearly all of comedy for almost a month. To all those political-correctness fanatics out there, comedy can largely censor itself if there is nothing remotely funny to be said/written, as it is doing right now.

By the way, the same standard of joking about things that you personally find funny should also apply to rap lyrics, puns, and the differences between black and white people.

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  1. Anon A. Mus says:

    Thanks for pointing out another sad incidence of Sandy Hook. Instead of that stupid perpetrator, we have brilliant comedians withholding fire.

  2. Mikey says:

    Its fascinating the statute of limitations that society place on the jokes regarding these sort of tragedies. Rule of thumb is what? 10 years? Most of the time, humour can be healing and cathartic. Only time will tell, how people deal with it. In all due respect, the US gun control and the American deep dark desire to have a million of them in every home with armor piercing rounds and high volume machine guns, is a joke to the rest of the world. Even here in South Africa were violence and murder can be an every day occurrence.
    You do not need an automatic rifle and armor piercing rounds to kill a duck, but you do to kill a cop or a kid.

  3. cool dude says:

    Would you consider editing out Jimmy Kimmel’s name?

  4. Scott says:

    If you can look on some small basis positivley about any given terrible situation, you begin to appreciate those small positive moments on a larger scale that surpasses the negativity that seems to have a tighter hold on people than a hug from a bear returning from a village people reunion tour.
    All in all, this is the only moment in history where 10 out of ten Doctors wish that a man was shooting blanks…..

  5. John48221 says:

    Being a father of two and having friends and families with small kids like the Sandy Hook kids I can’t see why someone would want to try and mine “comedy gold” from such horror.

  6. Stephen says:

    The comedy, for me, really comes in the aftermath of this event. People wanting armed teachers is hilarious. I would love for someone to create a trailer of an action movie starring people like Felicia Day and Mary Lynn Rajskub as armed elementary school teachers trying to stop some terrorist plot or something in the school.

  7. buddydave says:

    Just ignore that “never” in my second sentence. Thanks.

  8. Buddydave says:

    I agree with Diane. For me, it’s never–I can’t imagine never being at a place where mentioning “Sandy Hook” won’t make me sad never mind laughing about it.

    I strongly disagree with Ablestmage. Just because I’m not one of the 5,000-10,000 people involved doesn’t make me incredibly sad by the whole thing. You can try joking about it and most people probably won’t punch you (although those of us with elementary-school children might consider it), but good luck getting laughs with it. Good luck to anyone who tries. I won’t be laughing at your jokes, but I *might* be laughing at how stupid you were to try it.

  9. Patty Marvel says:

    @Diane M. Martin – Oh, I know they’re a couple, but they weren’t PLAYING a couple in the bit. She was a psychopath and he was a random victim. I know there are some hardcore nutters on the internet who see almost every male as a potential rapist (which is *sick*), but even if I were to believe that there was still no “turnabout is fair play” in this scene.

    For what it’s worth, “Sex Nerd Sandra” also took issue with the scene as it was described to her by one of the Nerdterns on her podcast. She sounded as apprehensive as I felt.

  10. I prescribe to the notion of “Now or Never.” For me too soon is short hand for Never. Paradoxically saying never would be shorter. What can I say? I’m just a puzzle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery. Great article BTW! <3

    Here is my theory on Sandy Hook: Maybe we as a society have grown numb to the death of people. But hearing about the death of children still evokes a deeply primitive reaction. It is the future generation. It seems like an unthinkable act. It's something that is hard to understand never mind dissect into something funny. The task seems to be like trying to capture smoke. Humor can be healing. But where do you begin here?

    @Patty I know the exact episode of Nerdterns. For me it wasn't the act so much as the people involved that made it funny. It's knowing that their relationship isn't violent that makes it funny. (I will feel HORRIBLE if I find out otherwise.) I agree with you in principle. But I still cannot stop giggling……d'oh.

  11. Patty Marvel says:

    Well-written essay on a tough subject. The closest Sandy Hook “joke” I thought of came days later when I read one of the locals’ (a sheriff’s?) response to Adam Lanza’s mother getting him a gun so they could go shooting together and bond. The man asked why she didn’t take her clearly disturbed son bowling instead, to which I thought, “Take the psychos bowling, take them bowling.”

    HOW a tough subject is joked about is very important.

    Take rape for example – Richard Pryor and Key & Peele have tackled the subject beautifully. In both cases, they first asserted how WRONG rape is (something that, unfortunately, has to be POINTED OUT to some people { :COUGH: Steubenville video :COUGH: } ) and then the imagined assailants get their come-uppance from the victims. Pryor began his stand-up bit by saying it’s a horrible thing to do to someone’s “humanity” before imagining “a pussy that just LOCKS up” so the criminal can be taken into custody. Key and Peele did a whole routine about how “rape-y” the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is and then proceeded to demonstrate this with an in-drag Jordan turning the tables on a bullying Keegan-Michael. Yes, I’ve completely sucked the humor out of these bits by dissecting them, but watch them performed some time and you can see how funny even THIS subject can be.

    I have to admit, one bit where joking about rape did NOT work at all was an episode of “Nerdterns,” where a female commits “man rape” on two people with no repercussions and little indication what she was doing was all that bad. Having a woman commit the violent felony usually performed by a man doesn’t make it funny.

  12. Cyler says:

    i work in a kitchen and the day it happened my manager drops off a new knife for us which turned out to be this ridiculous Rambo looking knife so i say “if only the lunch ladies at sandy hook had one of these.” it got a laugh from the other cook, and more at the concept of some lunch lady/rambo amalgamation rushing in to save the day, but after the laughs, i found it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

  13. RG says:

    *plenty of other situations, that is…

  14. RG says:

    It’s not entirely about separation, either; in a weird way, plenty of “too soon” types also underestimate the need of the people involved, themselves, to laugh about tragedies somehow. There’s all sorts of coping mechanisms, and if comics feel the need to take the power away from a tragedy by making jokes about it, who’s to say there’s not anyone close to the tragedy who feels that same need? I definitely know people who, if tragedy struck, would NOT be happy with having to remain somber about their situation… and I bet 90% of those people who make tragedies taboo and demand sensitivity would be entirely put off by that. They would be revealed to be concealing their own strict feelings on the matter, under the guise of being sensitive on behalf of others.

    Of course, in this case, I think it’s hard to imagine a situation where that comic coping applies, and that may be what’s reflected in the overall comic silence over Sandy Hook. But many of other situations have people crying out on behalf of those affected, deeming topics insensitive, but they may be unknowingly depriving certain directly-affected individuals of their own coping mechanism.

  15. Vox Populi says:

    I’ve never believed in “too soon.” If it’s funny, it should fly. Too many times, I’ve heard jokes about tragedies that were genuinely funny and people forced themselves to swallow their laughter because they felt it was “wrong” for them to laugh at it. I guess it’s just people’s insecurities. They’re afraid they’ll look like monsters (aka not get laid by the date they brought to the comedy club) if they laugh.

  16. ablestmage says:

    I heard about the shooting the day after it happened, and within a few hours I was googling Sandy Hook Jokes much to my disappointment. I’m sure there must have been several 4chan threads that I never saw, though..

    I have never understood too-soon naysayers *IF* those naysayers are several steps away from direct involvement. I say if you can’t giggle about something that’s none of your business, then you have no business crying about something that’s none of your business. It’s an emotional reaction. To suggest that one person’s emotional response as an encounter to none-of-their-business is acceptable over another’s own emotional treatment of the matter? Two-way street. I suspect that kind of naysayer may also be your classic “offended on behalf of someone else” weirdos, at that.

    The Sandy Hook shooting directly impacted perhaps 100-ish families, and the maybe 5,000-10,000 were just friends of the families, and for the rest it was no business of theirs whatsoever. There has to be a legitimate degree of separation for a potentially-too-soon joke to work, and telling one to one of the 100-ish families involved directly would be pushing the limit, but telling it to friends didn’t know a single person involved should be perfectly fine.

  17. erratic gorilla says:

    This article is a better form of the “anything is subject to comedy” theme over the Un-punny article or the Are you happy now, internet? piece from a while back. This post gets much more to the heart of comedy being vital and disarming and a safe space for the comedian and audience to laugh AT life rather than bearing the weight of it.

    However, would you consider editing out the shooter’s name? I hate the constant publicizing of murderers’ faces and identities. I consider it the John Lennon rule. Anyone perpetuating senseless killing deserves zero notoriety or head space in the public consciousness.
    I certainly don’t want to give them any of my brain cells.


  18. Lisa T says:

    Love this article. Very well written and so true.