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Can Comics Joke about Winehouse and Norway?

My head is still swimming from the tragic unfunny events of last weekend: the death of my beloved Amy Winehouse and the actions of Norway's serial killer, Anders Breivik. I woke up Monday wondering, how are comics going to handle these events? Winehouse

First, I checked out the master of bad taste - Gilbert Gottfried's -- page. This is the comic who lost his gig as an Aflac spokesperson by telling "too soon" tsunami jokes via Twitter.  Guess what? No Winehouse jokes. Yet, although Gottfried resisted grabbing low hanging fruit, his fans filled his page with tons of poor taste Winehouse jokes. Yeah, you feeling an urge to look at them? In a way, this bad boy of comedy is sort of like a gory accident. You can't help but look.

But for those of us who want to have a healthy comedy career, what are our boundaries? When is it OK for comics to joke about tragedies? What are the rules?

You would think that a mass murder of Norwegians would never be fodder for laughs, yet Stephen Colbert got a lot of laughs out of the event on Monday night's "The Colbert Report."  How? By poking fun of the stupidity of how the news organizations covered the tragedy. If you missed it, Colbert joked about the U.S. media's reaction to it before the facts were in - how everyone assumed that the killer was a Muslim terrorist.

He quoted a Wall Street Journal blogger writing, "There is a specific Jihadist connection here,  Al-Qaeda's Ayman Al-Zawarihi has repeatedly singled out Norway,"

"You know the Wall Street Journal is accurate, because as a Murdoch paper, they've got proven ways to get information," Colbert retorted, referring to the hacking scandal.

Colbert even lambasted CNN, playing a clip of a guest attempting to explain how a Nordic-looking person could have a committed such an attack.

"Maybe it was a good disguise?" the guest said.

"Yes," Colbert said, "which is more plausible? That a non-Muslim did this or that Al-Qaeda has developed Polyjuice Potion?"

As, I say in " The Comedy Bible ," a basic rule of comedy is to not make the butt of your joke anyone who is considered oppressed.  So, it's not the topic of the joke, but how it's handled that matters. In Colbert's riff, the butt of his jokes was the stupidity of now the US news handled the tragedy -- not the tragedy itself.

If you are in your first years of doing stand-up and want to cover current events, I would suggest you stick to joking about Rupert Murdoch. He's rich. He's powerful. He's definitely fair game. So, let loose! As comic, Steve Schneider said at an open mic this week, "Watching Rupert Murdoch talk, I got the impression that his heart is in the right place... it's just made out of frozen shit."

Fair game.

Tags: Standup, Jokes, Norway, Amy Winehouse, Rupert Murdoch, Steven Colbert, Gilbert Gottfried, The Comedy Bible, Anders Breivik

23 comments:

Danie & Beth said...

I was taking a class in Phili when this man in a wheelchair came in and fell out of the wheelchair. My immidiate thought was
"do drop in", I did not say this out loud. When he left, I asked if this an okay time to make a joke because I knew many comics would. The response was the same as yours Judy, and, I for one would never prey on a bad situation taking place at "that" moment. Great advice as usual! I just did a speaking engagement at the Relay For Life where another comic made fun of himself by telling the audience he had a head shaving party to get ready for chemo then found out the kind of chemo he was going to receive did not make you lose your hair, so in this instance if the "bad" is about yourself and you joke about it as I often do, I think this is okay. What are your thoughts on this?

Alex Ritzema said...

In my recent blog post I wrote:

"For a while now, I've been playing it safe. I've been avoiding doing stand up comedy and secretly hiding in the safety of my improv troupe. It makes me feel a little like the Anne Frank of improv comedy. I can imagine Anne as an improvisor asking her family, "Can I get a suggestion of a location that you would hide a Jew?" Or she asks for an occupation, and they all simultaneously whisper, "The Netherlands!" Seriously, I keep feeling I've got to get beyond these confines and face the world head on, or my spirit might die just sitting here waiting for something to rescue me."

I'm just being silly. I don't want to make light of the Holocaust, for goodness sake. Does my joke come across as making fun of the oppressed?

Gary said...

Norway, no. (with exceptions)
Winehouse, yes. (with great joy.)

As you say, it's ok to joke about 2nd tier subjects related to the Norway incident, such as media coverage, government response, etc. But, don't joke directly about the victims.

The same was true of the Japanese earthquake, which cost Gilbert Gottfried his Aflac gig.

As for Winehouse, she is not a victim. She did it to herself. And, she did it despite all of the warnings from her loved ones, business associates, medical professionals, and general public.

Personally, I would have no problem making jokes about her death, if I actually had a sense of humor.

In fact, I find it fitting that she died of an overdose, as the rest of us have been overdosing on news of her self-destructive behavior for years.

gloria johnson said...

No, tragedy is not funny. Many comedians, like Jay Leno, are just bullyers. He makes fun of gsay people, old people , large people and a lot more.

Gary said...

Do you mean fat people or tall people?

Fat people are funny. Tall people are just showing off.

DUNCAN TROUT said...

There's so much good, plain sense in what Judy writes. Yes, she is the guru of standup, nobody can argue about her invaluable contribution to the careers of many comics and to her ennobling effect on comedy today.
When she talks about comedy, she teaches us about the good life, not just about a career.

DUNCAN TROUT said...

So, you suggest Winehouse is fair game to cheap shots?
Her death makes me think about how I conduct my life and the choices I make. I mixed up some Cape Codders with Absolut for my Taiwanese friends the other night and told them, "this is a wonderful way to throw away a promising life. So sweet, so rich with flavor, so deadly . . . Hey, I just lost my job . . . and my wife . . . and my grip on life . . . but this is a delightful drink."
I guess I have much in common with AW.

Joe N. said...

I think it's great advice. I want to see this Colbert Report. I didn't see this one yet. Yes, stuff related to it is OK. Finesse is key. It reminds me of Seinfeld talking about gay ppl on this one episode; "Not that there's anything wrong with that;" so beautifully crafted. Some other comedian with a southern accent did a bit where he even pointed this out. It's how some ppl can get away w/saying stuff by following it up with a special phrase. His was "Bless her heart." The bit goes something like "She dresses way too sexy. Bless her heart." The "bless" part allows him to say anything bc he's blessing it. Whatever. I thought it worked. I think it's Bill Engval. I thought it was funny.

Stella Ardent said...

Once again, the second level, or the people who displayed bungling ineptness around the tragedy - or even those not directly involved who can be injected in humorous ways.

It is not fair to assume Ms Winehouse died of an overdose prior to the autopsy results. In her case, it could have been a tragic case of accidental hairspray poisoning...I mean you can use aquanet to kill insects...I'd question her hair dresser, if I were the police.

In the case of Norway, the response time was slow - they shouldn't have asked Miss South Carolina for directions.

Stella Ardent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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