"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 December 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
That's Not Funny


[there must be some poem out there]

When did prison rape become an

easy punch line, suitable for

mainstream viewers? At what

point did it make sense for the

Leno comedy staff to spend a

whole morning perfecting Jay's

evening audience-slayer

keywords: Christian Slater,

Robert Downey Jr, and an inmate

named "Spike"? Sociologists may

find it difficult to pinpoint

the precise moment at which this

once-taboo horror jumped from a

Mortifying Evil to the lazy

yuk-yuk fodder of LA sitcom

hacks and wacky morning DJs. But

it did, as reliable a go-to

chortler as "jokes" about

airline food, Janet Reno's

homeliness, or the infamous

black box.


It's possible that American

subversive comedy-from-tragedy

can be traced to Lenny Bruce's

post-Dallas concert, when - to

break the tension from the

recent Kennedy assassination -

he wondered aloud what

one-trick-pony JFK-impersonator

Vaughn Meader would do now. Like

Phoenix rising, bereavement gave

way to buffoonery as the Magic

Bullet returned to split sides

rather than heads.


But it's been one downward slide

on an oil-slick-on-an-ice-patch

slippery slope from there. John

Belushi. Bobby Sands. John

Lennon. The Challenger Disaster.

Nicole Brown Simpson. JonBenet

Ramsey. Not only is nothing

sacred in the national sport of

Make Me Laugh, the millennial

equation seems to have become:

The more sacred the cow, the

spicier the head cheese.


[that life is but a dream]

We're sick puppies, we

latter-day, not-so-saintly joke

tellers, at once users of and

prisoners to a distinctly warped

sense of humor. Dig below the

surface into the plots of

sitcom's current zeitgeist king

- once-antiseptic comic Jerry

Seinfeld - and you'll find humor

based upon Schindler's List,

stroke victims, bubble boys, and

cheap wheelchairs that send the

disabled plunging down a hill.

Not that there's anything wrong

with it!


In our culture of immediate

gratification, Woody Allen's

Crimes and Misdemeanors humor

thesis that "Comedy is tragedy

plus time" falls short; we're

too impatient to wait for the

day when the latest outrage

eases its way into

acceptability. There are jokes

to be made right now, damnit!

And Morning Zoo shows to run.


Some strange and

self-contradicting rules dictate

acceptable sick humor. Lady Di's

tragic car accident remains, for

the time being, somewhat off

limits, while JonBenet Ramsey's

case raises eyebrows with some,

smiles on others, and jockey

shorts on only one, who has yet

to be prosecuted. On the other

hand, yuks about Nicole Brown

Simpson and Ron Goldman's brutal

deaths are at this point even

trite. It's tough to figure out

the rules of this game.


The "Asking for It" Index


[and if it is, how do we keep from trying to interfering with it?]


What is it that makes, say,

jokes about wife-beating

unacceptable in all but the

darkest locker rooms and

fraternity basements, while

wife-killing, by definition more

grave, is bandied about on Must-

See TV? Or, to pick on one

particular family, why is Ted

Kennedy the universal butt of


Irish-Democrat jokes on

Letterman while comics barely

touch more offensively aberrant

strains like William Kennedy

Smith or Michael Kennedy?

Outside of TV Guide's "Year in

Jeers" spectacular, that is.


Essentially, this train of

comedy has always had just

out-and-out cruelty as its

essential fuel. But its limits

are learned. In third grade, you

and your playground cronies

guffawed at the sickness of your

older brother's Truly Tasteless

Jokes Volume XXVX collection

until you finally told one

around that McGruder kid, whose

sister had just died in a

similar manner to the young

protagonist of the hot "Mommy!

Mommy!" zinger and didn't YOU

feel like the asshole?


But sooner or later your

sickness returned, albeit one

with a built-in censor. Sick

jokes, after all, are what get

our proverbial M*A*S*H unit

through this Korean War we call

life. Our inner Censors then

develop a rather self-interested

way of looking at the comedy we

make at the tragedy of others.

Some subjects - Serbia, the

Holocaust, slavery - are so

purely heinous, they pretty much

remain off-limits forever.


But truly sacred cows grow into

that status. Some of us may

recall swapping AIDS jokes in

the grade school cafeteria, back

when gay men were purportedly

its only victims and our own

participation in any kind of

sexual activity was as difficult

to imagine as was hiring an

accountant. But then Ryan White

got it, and we hit puberty, and

cousin Bob came out of the

closet, and suddenly it wasn't

so funny anymore. (Not that that

stopped then small-time Rush

Limbaugh from crackin' wise

about it to his ever-sage

dittoschmucks, back when his

weight was still hovering around



And, as In the Company of Men

showed us (if nothing else),

there are always some sick fucks

who think you should hire the

handicapped since they're good

for a laugh. You, of course,

have never laughed at the



[how to take control of that very dream which is yet to be determined.]

One hardly needs another

dissertation on Schadenfreude to

recognize gloating when one sees

it. The Germans may have pegged

it - what with that ambrosial

coupling of one man's joy with

another's misery - but it

doesn't explain it all. There is

also a particularly American

ethos, media-strengthened, of

loving to tear down the heroes

we propped up only minutes

before. And as the quest for

fame, rather than the pursuit of

happiness, becomes the new

American raison dêtre, this

impulse is growing only stronger

within us. Truth is, in spite of

Warhol and the Web, most people

are as likely to get 15

minutes as they are to find

40 acres and a mule stuffed

into their mailbox. And as a

nation of nobodies tosses its

cash and attention at a tiny,

but revolving, cast of

short-lived superstars, buyer's

remorse is less of an urge than

a patriotic duty.


The problem is, of course, that,

Ripley-like, that

schadenfreudian inner creature

we're feeding with bad-karma

guffaws may someday burst from

our abdomen in a violent,

homicidal, goo-stained eruption

that kills us off.


But, don't worry, at least

somebody will get a good laugh

at it. Till then, as Ernie said

to Bert: "Don't drop the soap!"

courtesy of James Bong