Sometimes, the elephant in the room is the one with the most influence.
Most of us have experienced personal tragedy—the loss of a loved one, a family member who receives a frightening diagnosis from their doctor, or the disastrous loss of a family home from fire or natural disaster. Being human, we grieve, each in our own way, until such time as we are able to, as the Brits say so succinctly, soldier on.
Professional writers who experience a personal tragedy usually continue writing, some introducing a cathartic strain to their prose. Professional humorists follow a similar course, continuing to craft jokes, but there are some differences.
And not all tragedies are personal.
As we were so recently reminded in Orlando, national tragedy also impacts our consciousness. For those who need help, psychologists are available to deal with the varying degrees of shock and horror. Most writers or performers need only recognize the fact of its existence. At such times, the catastrophic event weighs on each mind in every humorist’s audience. Even if audience members are not aware consciously, tragedy can subdue their mood and limit their ability to enjoy the work of even the most talented humorists.
How can we laugh in the face of tragedy?
How can a comedian make jokes in a time of crisis?
How can a humorist do his\her job while our nation grieves?
The same way as doctors, lawyers, plumbers and carpenters. We get out of bed. We go to work. We do our job.
First, address the pain.
In the aftermath of tragedy, it’s entirely normal for a humorist to want to act professionally and carry on. However, respect for the feelings of your audience (and your own feelings) is best served by acknowledgement. Avoiding a harsh reality accomplishes nothing; directly confronting the event compassionately helps clear the air. Be clear. Be direct. Express your own thoughts, your own sympathies.
There is no right or wrong way.
Sometimes, all we can do is our best, and hope it’s adequate.
A nicely written article by Adam Epstein (with video clips) demonstrates for us how some popular comedians addressed the Orlando mass shooting. Speaking with palpable discomfort in some of these clips, these professional humorists express their feelings and those of our nation.
Note the range of feelings expressed. From sincere empathy to blatant anger, it can honestly be said that all are appropriate at such emotionally confusing times. It is also brave for them to be so open with their audience, and whether you agree with all of their sentiments or not, each effort to reach out to our nation is wholly admirable.
Human, then humor
As a nation, Americans have always come together and been supportive in times of national tragedy. American comedians have the same desire to be supportive; today both of the Orlando victims’ families and of their audience members concerned with the often uncertain feelings this horrific crime has engendered in their hearts and minds.
Afterwards, humorists will return to work. There will be new jokes written and performed. Audiences will once again enjoy a smile, a giggle and a laugh. And each succeeding day, it will get a little easier for all of us.
No tragedy, no depraved act will ever permanently rob our country of normal.
Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.
– Helen Keller