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Should Comics be Funny After a Tragedy?



Like everyone who heard the shocking news this week, I was horrified, outraged, and depressed about the school shooting in Connecticut.  Dealing with these kinds of feelings can make it difficult for comics and speakers -- and their audiences -- to continue as if everything were normal.

In the face of tragedy, how do we comics and speakers do our job?  How can we get onstage and make people laugh -- and is it even appropriate to do so?

The events of last week took me back to another tragedy - September 11, 2001.  I know you know what happened on that day, but what you might not know is that was also the day of the release of my book, “The Comedy Bible.” 
The next day, I boarded a plane for my tour to promote a book I had spent five years of my life writing.  In comedy, timing is everything; starting a tour where the goal is to make people laugh the day after 9/11 is not exactly great timing.

At first, I thought my shows where going to be called off, but to my surprise they weren’t.  I was filled with dread.  How could I possibly make people laugh in midst of a national tragedy?  That’s when I remembered the lessons learned from one of my standup students.

Kathy B. came into my comedy workshop looking very ill.  She had cancer and in the middle of her chemo treatments, she decided to take my standup workshop.  Looking at her frailness, I gently suggested that perhaps she would want to wait until she felt better. That’s when she stood up and spoke in a voice that came from a deeply powerful place, “This cancer has taken away my health; I’ll be damned if it’s going to take away my sense of humor.”

On showcase night, she stepped onstage with her head high and her voice clear and got laughs -- and a standing ovation. Ten years later she is cancer free. She triumphed.

Stepping onstage on September 12th, I took a moment to reflect on the victims of 9/11 -- and then I went on with my act.  What I found was that people really wanted -- and needed -- to laugh. 

There's a healing power to laughter that helps us deal with not just small everyday problems, but with the great tragedies and challenges as well.

(Kathy clearly understood this; that's why it was so important to her to continue.)

Keep hold of your sense of humor; sometimes, when it's the most difficult to laugh, is exactly when the healing power of laughter is needed most.

20 comments:

JACK SKWAT said...

I know exactly what you mean Judy. The day after my mother-in-law died, I was undecided on whether to do my mother-in-law jokes, but that is EXACTLY what I did. I HAD BEEN WAITING YEARS - YEARS! - FOR THAT OLD CRONE TO DIE. And when she did, it gave me perfect license to let her have it with both barrels! (Which, coincidentally, is how she died in the first place.) Irony, poetic justice, happiness and relief - all in one night!

Anonymous said...

I think national tragedies are the perfect forum for stand-up. People need a reason to laugh; comics need the bread...what could be better?

Meat Curtain said...

After 9/11, I didn't worry about whether people wanted to laugh or cared about my set. They came out to see us comics, so I put two and two together and figured they wanted to laugh. Otherwise, what's the point? Just because there is a national tragedy doesn't mean people have to get stupid all of a sudden.

Anonymous said...

I think I pushed the envelope a little when I brought out the Holocaust jokes at the Yom Kippur shindig recently. Hindsight is always 20-20, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I've been doing stand-up at eulogies and wakes for years now. The good thing about going to funerals is that I'm pretty certain there is a freshly-minted widow who needs some lovin'!

Unknown said...

right on Judy. we have turned to you tube to find some safe laughs - particularly the talking animals. "Oh Don Piano" And Dennis Leary was pretty funny last night. thanks to all the comics who keep us laughing.

I did not know that about the launch date of your book. It makes my copy of it much more special to me. I shall paperclip a copy of today's blog to it.

Philip said...

Judy, for me - this is one of your most powerful blog posts I have read. I am the owner of TickleMe Entertainment - www.ticklemeentertainment.com. I also took your seminar in the Producer's Club earlier this year in NYC. The reason I do comedy and the reason I run TickleMe Entertainment is for the very reason you wrote this blog post. I do it because of its healing and transformational properties on the human psyche, soul and person. Your book came out over 10 years ago; but you, your book and your posts still continue to positively affect and make a great impact on everyone that you come in contact with - in person or via this blog. Thank you - and thank you for giving me the discount on your writing materials when I needed it. It has helped me increase my revenue tenfold and continue my mission with my company and my comedy.

Tom Dreesen said...

This is my 45th year in show business so in my comedy lifetime I have been asked to speak at many funerals of people I have known and loved.It's much easier to tell a funny story about the deceased when they have lived a full life and of course you would think much harder when a young person passes. However I have found there is no difference. The friends and family of the deceased want to know that the departed made you laugh at some time in their life and now you are sharing that laugh with them. It's a wonderful and somewhat healing moment. After a time of mourning only humor can get us make to the job at hand. Living!

Micheline Birger said...

I believe that it is important to acknowledge the senselessness of this atrocity. However life does go on. When people are feeling numb from despair sometimes this is the gift of life where all can share in a comraderie of spirit.

Cathe Jones said...

ON 9-11 I had a show, and it was one of my best. On the day I found a tumor in my throat needed several surgeries, I also continued on-- screw the docs who said throat cancer would stop me. I ended up in Chemo, (This is another Cathe B, ..or is it?) My best friend died a week before I had four shows in San Diego... and I killed, the audience too. I mean.. come on, tragedy IS why comedy is so important. Our emotional responses as uncomfortable as they are, are also not directed in any way. (godless grief, great book). We're not trained to understand loss, so how can we understand it best? By seeing, as all humanity can, that we are all frail, and no one is an adult, really, and when it comes down to it, Gilbert Gottfried- (love his kids Max and Lily- they are mini G's)- he is the KING of responding as it happens if not sooner. When Roy was attacked by his tiger, all of us in Vegas were in shock, but backstage at Penn & Teller we were writing jokes we could use.. and cracked each other up-- the endorphins give us power over pain. Why not? Laugh. Laugh LAUGH.. (check out Comed-o-Therapy, a Jimmy Fund cancer coping workshop, and Sarah Rothberg's work in New York for the same reasons. ) LOVE, LIVE, LAUGH

"Famous" Alice Linesch said...

Comedy is like air. If I don't breath it I will die. Rather go out killing!

Ivy Eisenberg said...

I think your approach, acknowledging the atrocity and tragedy and not ignoring it, then going on to do your set is an ideal approach. People need to laugh. That is not to say that some jokes are inappropriate. But comedy that talks about the deceased in a loving, yet funny way, is often very memorable. It draws people closer. A few weeks ago, I got laid off by surprise - a day before a big show. I was able to use that as part of my opening. I got good laughs and I found it healing. True, getting laid off is not nearly in the same category as 9/11 or Newtown, CT.

Dawn darling said...


Comedy has power, like a sword, cutting through primitive thoughts in this Solar System.

Brian Regan got the ENTIRE airline industry to change it's policy
about waking passengers during bouts of turbulence -
WITH ONE JOKE!

Chances are that one or two of the thought-darts that come out of
the incredible hominids that are comedians might miss the mark.

But, I am willing to take the risk of that, manageable, word-damage, in tight little bundles,
to get to the joke that does the job that nothing else can do among humans.

lisa j said...

Laughter heals period end of sentence.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Judy, comics and speakers should be funny after a tragedy, however, are audiences ready to laugh?

Some are, and many aren't. Remember how deeply in the psyche comedy and the ability to laugh reside, and an audience will react unpredictably in tragic circumstances because we are, as a nation, culture and a civilization far less emotionally mature than we ought to be.

In light of that, if we were, how much reduction in tragedy would we experience?

The thing here is this: even if there were not a tragedy in play at the time of presentation, audiences are going to have reactions from the uber macho "I'd laugh in the face of death" to the milquetoast "how could you say something so insensitive!

In other words, it's an audience, tragedy notwithstanding, and though a lot of comics have a sense of taste and write for the audience they are going to perform in front on (Know thy audience) comics are just going to have to do what they have always done, and that is put it out there and see what plays and doesn't.

As an addendum, I would also add, comics are more and more, imho, becoming the last line of defense in free speech. Audiences often hear what they need to know in the setup, let them laugh because they are not trying to cry with the payoff.

The Lone Comic

Susan Carter said...

As comics we are always in trouble. Once my show got slightly smutty because the audience in general was loving it. Two ladies did not and complained. I knew who they were! I'm a teacher and have lots of jokes about hiding with whiny kids in the back of the room out of sight of the window that some idiot put in the new doors; but I would chose NOT to use that material in the coming weeks. But that's just me, someone else may push that particular button. I've also followed a grandmother who spoke very movingly of her grand child who had cystic fibrosis. I kept biting my lip telling myself NOT to cry. I thought about what to say and realized anything I said would be wrong... so I just started the show. She and I talked afterwords and she told me she was glad she didn't follow me. As comics, you learn about YOUR personality, YOUR capabilities and always do YOUR best in any situation.

Marty D... said...

I was in NYC on that September Day. Scheduled to do a show on Friday in L A, no flights. Next day I found a small club around
25th street. Walked in asked if they needed another act. I was up last. Place was filled..we all laughed. Afterwards we went outside to reality. Smelled the smoke still in the air.

Marc Dobson said...

My show is music with comedy. On 9/11 I worked a casino ship that night. This past Saturday (day after ct) I worked Lego Land FL with atleast 50% of guests being under 12 years old. I have 6 & 10 year old kids and my wife is a school teacher.

I agree 100% with Judy and in addition to comedy and laughter, I'll add I believe all entertainment has healing power. I did not have opportunity to address and speak my mind about ct on Saturday and Lego land with 1,000's of kids was sure not the place to address anything of the sorts. I just did my job, entertained people from all over the USA and world on vacation. I couldn't help but think "a ct family could have been here today or next week and are not ... And this could have happened to any family including my own".

I drew back and remembered the most distinctive thing to me, I've ever heard David Letterman say which is similar to this post by Judy. On 9/11 David aired as usual citing the mayor of NY with something like continue on, don't let them win, do your job as usual. David cut the opening music section and came straight in kind of in a rant with a non comical speech of his fresh view of the days events. Then the show was as normal. I will never forget that.

Judy's blog is different than Dave rant that night but the premise is close enough and I agree and thank Judy for the words to continue our jobs entertaining. Respect, reflect, grieve and move on. Only time heals. Laughter and entertainment moves time.

The shows we put on become immortal in the memories of our audience and if recorded make us part immortal as entertainers. Our performances can out live us as long as they are watched. Entertaining is a huge gift to give. We can not replace lost souls but we can add good memories to stack up higher against bad memories. I can't address anyone who has suffered a tragic loss with much at all that will matter. But I can entertain, try to make you smile and move time to a better place.

Thanks Judy for giving me a spot to share this.

Dr. Audrey Levy said...

I remember when Johnny Carson's son died. His first show back, instead of his monologue, he came out in front of the curtain, sat on a stool, and talked to the audience and the television viewers about his son and the tragedy, and he let us laugh with him while he cried. I get goose bumps now remembering it. I think the three top healers are laughter, sunshine, and a puppy's kisses. Thanks, Judy.

David Phillips said...

Hell, yes! I've had almost 30 surgeries since age 15 for the fallout of an inoperable brain tumor, but put me in ANY medical setting and I go into full schtick.

My first ex needed to have a sleep study and I was asked to be interviewed beforehand. Q: what would you do if you noticed [dickhead] stopped breathing at night? Me: I'd hold a pillow over his face for good measure and in the morning tell the police "He must have had sleep apnea!"

Second ex had a mini-stroke during a vacation in Alaska. I posted YouTube video of the lumbar puncture and had the nurses in stitches with a whole routine of attempting to communicate with fake-deaf and a scene from The Miracle Worker.