The Difference Between Acceptable And Unacceptable Humorous Tragedy

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, August 13, 2015
Young male stand-up comedian performing on stage, crowd cheering
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” —Mel Brooks, “The 2,000 Year Old Man” (1961)

In A Nutshell

While what’s funny and what’s not is largely a matter of personal taste, psychologists have found that there’s something of a comedic sweet spot that marks the difference between jokes about tragedies that are funny and those that will get you in trouble. And it’s a complicated thing that depends on how bad the tragedy was, how closely we’re personally impacted by it, what kind of joke it is, and how likely we are to believe that it actually happened.

The Whole Bushel

Ever laughed at a horrible, horrible joke—or not laughed at it—and then had someone ask, “Too soon?” Dark humor is a particular type of humor, and while there are some tragedies that are widely accepted to be off-limits, there are some that are just waiting for the bad jokes and memes. Comedians need to be timely in their routines. Wait too long, and no one cares. But they can also get in serious trouble about some jokes and comments about tragedy.

So what’s the difference?

According to the Association of Psychological Science, there are a handful of factors that help determine whether or not something’s acceptable to joke about. The idea of “too soon” is one that’s often fallen back on to condemn certain jokes, but time isn’t the only deciding factor.

A lot of the difference between tragedy that’s joke-appropriate and tragedy that isn’t has to do with what the organization called the benign violation theory. It applies to things that hold a sort of dual status as both acceptable and wrong. Once the “wrongness” or violation part of the equation is viewed through the lens of time, it can become more acceptable to joke about.

But that’s been found to depend on just how bad the tragedy was in the first place. The worse the event, the longer it takes for it to become safe to joke about, but only to a certain point. When a group of people were asked to rate how funny or offensive joking tweets about Hurricane Sandy were, there were some definite patterns. For the first two weeks after the hurricane, they were not funny. Beyond that, they increased in their comedic value, but funny only lasted for so long—about two months. After the three-month mark, they were as funny as they’d been in those first two weeks.

It’s also been found to depend greatly on how close the person making the joke is to the person or people it happened to. Once the time factor has been satisfied, more severe violations and worse tragedies are funnier when they happen to a complete stranger than if they were to happen to a friend, but less severe tragedies are downright hilarious only if you know the person it happened to and are not as funny when it’s a stranger involved.

There’s also a weird connection to how real the listener thinks that a situation is. Participants were shown some photographs, some of which were digitally manipulated. If the photo was one that they thought was fake, it was rated as funnier the more disturbing and graphic it was. If it was real, less disturbing was better.

That’s kind of in line with studies done on the physical distance that’s necessary for something to be seen as funny. Shown photographs again, viewers found more disturbing images funnier if they were far away.

All put together, it’s a fascinating look at just how dynamic our tendency to laugh at horrible things really is. Wait too long to laugh at a minor violation, and it’s not funny anymore, but don’t wait long enough to joke about a major one, and it’s also really not funny. That means that those who are making jokes about something of questionable taste have a lot to consider before they’re telling it, from judging social relationships between the listener and their audience to how likely people are to believe the story is really true.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: When Are Jokes about a Tragedy Funny?
EurekaAlert: Too soon? Too late? Psychological distance matters when it comes to humor