“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” says Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors. “See, the night when Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t joke about it—you just couldn’t do it. Now, time has gone by and now it’s fair game.”
As Seth MacFarlane found out last Sunday, apparently not.
At one point during his Oscar hosting gig, MacFarlane ran off a list of men, prior to “Best Actor” Daniel Day-Lewis, who had portrayed America’s 16th president on the silver screen, culminating in the punch line, “The actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”
To this, the audience at the Dolby Theatre emitted a collective groan, in turn leading MacFarlane to remark, “A hundred fifty years and it’s still too soon?”
Of course, it was only a few weeks earlier, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, when Day-Lewis himself deadpanned that the practice of actors recreating Lincoln is perhaps compensation for the fact that “it was an actor that murdered [him].” Rather than too edgy, MacFarlane’s joke could just as easily be dismissed as too stale.
Regardless, “tragedy plus time equals comedy” is a formula that has long been with us, and about which it is always worth asking certain questions.
For instance: Is the equation even true? Is it ever really “too soon” to joke about anything?
Lincoln assassination jokes are funny for the same reason most funny things are funny. They are subversive; they defy political correctness and good taste; and, crucially, they conjure a sense of danger in the mind of the audience, as if merely hearing the joke could get you into trouble.
None of these considerations would seem to require any great temporal distance. Au contraire: If anything, they suggest immediacy is the key to a particularly cutting quip.
Following the unholy carnage of September 11, 2001, there was a great debate about when it might become appropriate to reintroduce humor into American life. Officially, the fateful moment arrived on Saturday Night Live on September 29, when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani responded to Lorne Michaels’ inquiry, “Can we be funny?” by asking, “Why start now?”
Unofficially, however, there never was any such comedy embargo in the first place. The Onion, America’s satirical pamphlet of record, waited all of a week before beginning work on its 9/11 issue, which would feature headlines such as “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.”
As it turned out, the only real restriction on 9/11-related humor was that it not be at the expense of the victims themselves. On this point, one could argue such a constraint is not a function of time so much as a general principle of comedy. Some years back, when Howard Stern got himself into a bother over an ill-considered joke about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, Bill Maher helpfully explained, “[Stern] broke two rules of comedy. It wasn’t true, and he picked on not the powerful but the weak.”
In other words, some things are simply not funny, no matter how long you wait.
Whether the “tragedy plus time” formula is genuinely true, there are certainly cultural consequences to the mere perception that it is, often manifest in excessive and ridiculous ways.
Last summer, for instance, a movie called Neighborhood Watch was compelled to change its title to, simply, The Watch, in order to avoid being associated with the then-recent killing of a teenager named Treyvon Martin by “neighborhood watch” vigilante George Zimmerman. Never mind that the movie was a sci-fi comedy about an alien invasion; apparently the term “neighborhood watch” carried such cultural weight that audiences would have been unable to tell the difference.
More recently, in light of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Judd Apatow faced pressure to remove a scene from his film This is 40 in which Albert Brooks pretends to “murder” his children with a water hose. (Apatow expressed regret about the timing, but did not cut the scene.)
If I may assume the risk of reaching a neat conclusion to the “too soon” quandary, I would raise the possibility that some people simply will not allow themselves to be amused by jokes about tragic subjects, regardless of the temporal proximity to the tragedy itself.
The notion of a particular event being comedy-proof on the basis of time, while not completely false, is tremendously overblown, and not a useful or proper way to judge the value of a particular joke.
Tragedy does not require time to become comedy. It merely requires a decent comedian and a game audience. Unfortunately, last Sunday we were given neither.