Novelist Kingsley Amis wrote, “Death has this much to be said for it: You don’t have to get out of bed for it.”
His observation is about the end of life, general enough to be humorous to anyone. However, detailed comments on someone’s death are inflammatory.
This can be seen after the death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter and seven others on Jan. 26. While the blades still spun, morbid comedian Ari Shaffir tweeted, “Kobe Bryant died 23 years too late today… What a great day!”
Shaffir tried to defend himself later. “They’re just words. They’re jokes for fans.”
Shaffir’s need to explain his remarks rings of Paul Noth’s cartoon depiction of God greeting newcomers at the gates of heaven, “Look if I have to explain the meaning of existence, then it isn’t funny.”
When the joke intrudes on common decency, one should tread carefully, ensuring the taboo being crossed is not diminishing well-being. Sincere or not, Shaffir’s lack of decency broadens the inquiry: How long should our moral timer run before engaging in jokes about the dead?
Of course, the dead cannot take offense, personally or vicariously. But loved ones left behind feel a real emotional impact. One only needs to imagine a former Bryant teammate interrupting a room of damp eyes, “Kobe’s probably coaching God on proper footwork right now.”
There is a distinction between jokes about a dead man and jokes about the manner in which a man died. The latter is generally off the table in respect to comedic material. Perhaps the best compromise would be to figure out some guidelines for dark humor. For some, having guidelines at all defeats the purpose of comedy.
For example, a good societal rule concerning posthumous humor could be to wait 24 hours before delivering a punchline. Comedians who post an egregious remark precisely 24 hours after the death of a revered figure ought to be met with the complaint, “You simply waited the required time, and are lacking any sense of common decency.”
I do not wish to conflate bad jokes with sinister ones. Shaffir’s inflammatory comment lacked cleverness, sarcasm, and originality; however, these are traits of a poorly thought out quip, not a malevolent statement. The qualification for malevolence must transcend a naivety of humor.
The celebration of losing a real-life superhero meets the criteria for villainy. Teasing dead celebrities is not the only concern. Many people have emotionally weighted personal accounts of passing relatives and friends. Presumably, those surrounding the deceased loved one have reservations about seeking the humorous aspect.
German communist leader Eugen Leviné lightened the mood before being executed by a firing squad for his rebellion: “We’re all dead men on leave.”
Humor is certainly an antidote, but administer it with caution.