As news broke late Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military forces in Pakistan, twitter streams began rolling by faster than anyone could read them. Amongst the myriad serious updates, links and reactions, were plenty of jokes as well.
It seemed strange at first; a man was dead, the man behind the worst terror attack in U.S. history, yes, but it was a solemn moment nevertheless. Yet, the comedy that was being spun as quickly as details were being revealed felt neither shocking nor inappropriate. It was just normal; just one of the many ways our wired, social communities process and connect to a situation.
The waiting period on jokes related to tragedies, deaths and other "not funny" events is ambiguous at best. Was the recent Gilbert Gottfried tweet fiasco a product of Gottfried being "too soon" or just "too callous"? And there's an obvious difference between jokes about a disaster that killed thousands of innocent men, women and children and jokes about the most wanted man in the world being shot in the head by a Navy Seal.
"There are very few people about whom, upon their death, you can make a joke. This guy is one of those people," says Lizz Winstead, comedian and co-creator of "The Daily Show." She went on to talk about writing jokes about something so immediate: "How I react is different every time. I follow my gut and don't worry about 'too soon' or that sort of thing." A lot of Winstead's tweets on the subject focused on the stark contrast between Obama working to bring bin Laden to justice and what the GOP has been working on:
OBAMA: "I made killing or capturing Bin Laden our top priority" GOP: " NO Gay Marriage "
In the weeks that followed September 11, 2001, comedic voices slowly began to re-emerge from their self-enforced exile to become an important part of the national healing process. Most of us remember the cathartic returns of The Onion, The Daily Show, and David Letterman as clearly as we remember where we were on that day. Our ability to laugh through pain, whether it's the product of a recent wound or the reminder of a decade-old one, reminds us that we're still human.
Still, there is always the question about whether or not it's ok to laugh in the face of darkness, as if by telling a joke or laughing at one, you somehow aren't also taking the subject of the joke seriously. When we asked humorist and author John Hodgman to talk about how comedy contributes to the catharsis of this kind of moment, he responded,
I think that it's certainly an opportunity to reflect and especially to remember how this all started, and to think of all of those who have lost their lives and family members in pursuit of this person. But laughter is always an unwilled and explosive response to surprise. A joke sets up a reality, breaks that reality, and we survive that break in reality, and so we laugh. That is why laughter is cathartic, and that is why it is wholly appropriate.
Early on Monday, "The Onion" added a headline responding to the news: "Violent Death Of Human Being Terrific News For Once." We spoke to Associate Editor Will Tracy about whether or not there's an internal conflict when joking about a death:
There has been so much history and so many emotions tied up in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden that naturally there will be a sense of catharsis or release when the guy finally gets it. Ordinarily, there would be something odd or wrong about this—feeling cathartic joy at the violent murder of a human being—but in this case I think that catharsis is justified. And so, too, is the joke.
It's a point well-taken. One of the quotes making the rounds today pre-dates twitter by a good hundred years, but it seems to mirror the feeling that many people are expressing both in real life and via their social networks:
I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.
— Mark Twain
So, too, we read the following jokes with great pleasure.
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