I was lucky enough to spend the week at the 14th International Summer School on Humour and Laughter, hosted by the University of Sheffield. The lecturers were a strange mix of sociologists and psychologists, and I was one of two delegates attending that came from (as I insisted on calling it) an ‘arty-farty’ background. I am a proud student of the School o fArts, let’s not forget that. Although I was mostly lost in the psychology lectures, and spend half the week thinking that ‘gelatophobia’ was the fear of ice-cream, I was deliriously happy listening to Prof. Christie Davies (University of Reading) speak on ‘The Appearance and Evolution of the Disaster Joke’. I’m fascinated by sick jokes! It was right up my street. He spoke about the Kennedy assassination as the first example of a lot of jokes appearing shortly after a tragic event and highlighted the central role that television played in the creation of these jokes. It was a fascinating lecture, and I was excited to explore the genre with my new understanding. That lecture took place on Thursday. That evening, I found out that MH17 had been (most likely) shot down over Ukraine, and the next day, Israel began a ground offensive in Gaza. I mentioned in a previous post that if there is a God that likes making things happen for a reason, he has strange priorities. I stand by that statement.
According to Prof. Davies’ hypothesis, disaster jokes generally occur when people are being told that they should be emotionally affected about something that is distant from them, and will not really affect their daily lives (gross paraphrasing has occurred here). He dismisses the idea that these jokes are created purely due to lack of empathy or as a coping mechanism (although he does agree that they might play a part) and squarely lays the blame at the door of television. Historically, this is probably true, and it seems to explain the birth of the genre of sick jokes, but nowadays, as I mostly obtain news from an internet-based source, I wonder if this is still the case. More puzzling is the fact that I have already found plenty of jokes about MH17 , but none about the new developments in the Israel-Gaza saga of death. To try to explain this, I will make use of a theory was very popular during the summer school this week, the Incongruity Theory.
Wikipaedia: The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.
With that in mind, maybe jokes are created about MH17 as it is such an unexpected situation, incongruous with what should be happening (i.e., a plane takes off, it flies, it lands). Although the ground invasion of Gaza is unexpected by those with an informed political understanding of the situation, to the rest of us, jaded and partially informed, it’s just another horrible day ‘over there’. Service as usual. Not enough to inspire a sick joke. Or is everyone just too emotionally involved to create jokes? That’s not really how people work.
I asked Prof. Davies if Twitter will replace TV as the prescriptive trigger for the creation of sick jokes. A true academic, he refused to comment as he hasn’t done the research, but I note that Jason Biggs is currently under fire for an ill-timed Tweet, with a huge backlash of judgement. ‘You can’t joke about things like that!’. I’m afraid ‘you’ can. People do. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a definite answer as to why, but I’m working on it. Any thoughts?