It's OK to Laugh At Disaster - OZY | A Modern Media Company

It's OK to Laugh At Disaster

It's OK to Laugh At Disaster

By Sanjena Sathian

SourceGallery Stock


Because gallows humor has been around since, well, since we used gallows — and it still gets us through hard times.

By Sanjena Sathian

Go ahead and squirm.

You don’t need Dave Chappelle to tell ya: Comedy can have a sharp cutting edge. And it hurts sometimes. But it turns out some of the most intuitively cringe-inducing, shoe-throwing moments that comprise a comedian’s classic nightmare are actually, maybe, kinda good to indulge in. 

Or maybe comedy just found a new sweet spot — the goldilocks combo of time, distance … and a screen for safety.

1 month

Amount of time, in the wake of a major disaster, before we can crack jokes about something pretty devastating.

At least that’s what researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Texas A&M University discovered about tweets following Hurricane Sandy. They studied participants’ reactions to blasts from the handle @AHurricaneSandy (now defunct). Pre-storm, amid media madness, the tweets were funniest. During the fiercest part of the storm, people laughed considerably less. But roughly four weeks later, the jokes were back to being about as funny as they were in the lead-up to the storm — until no one was laughing at all, approximately 100 days after the disaster.


What’s at play here, say the researchers, is the concept of psychological distance — that with a little space and time, something upsetting and decidedly un-funny can become non-threatening. And there are some who would argue that humor works best when it makes us uncomfortable — or downright offends. (What the researchers don’t dive into more is Twitter, which, these days is a virtual stomping ground for aspiring comics to make it in a whole new way, from Horse eBooks to KimJongNumberUn. Maybe a screen is a whole new kind of distance, along with time and geography.) Just ask Eric Cartman and or the geniuses behind Homer Simpson.

Humor works best when it makes us uncomfortable — or downright offends.

But why the trail-off in laughs after the 100-day mark? Because while a little distance lightens the mood, too much distance … and the party’s over. Seems that several months is all it takes for events — even horrific ones — to recede too far to the back of peoples’ minds.

We’ve long known — since before Freud — that there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain (ask the brief stars of any FAIL video). Now we know just how long that line is.

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