Hurricane Sandy Jokes: OK or No Way?

Why comedians find laughter during natural disasters.

Hurricane Sandy tore through the eastern U.S. on Monday, leaving in its wake a path of devastation, as well as a lot of hilarity on Twitter. This raised the age-old question: Too soon? So I asked Philadelphia comedians Doogie Horner and Chip Chantry about joking about the storm.

Do you think there’s a thinner line to walk when joking about disasters than about other topics?
Chantry: There is; if you’re joking about politics or sports, the worst thing that can happen is your team doesn’t win. Obviously people can be in real danger with a disaster. That’s partly the gamble with Twitter. If you’re joking as something is happening, you don’t know how it ends. But at the same time, I try to look at it as trying to entertain people, and keep their minds off of the storm. I’m like a drunk grandfather, telling stories to the children in the storm shelter.

Wow. I’m not comfortable with that last picture I painted.

Horner: It’s weird because I never look at news, and I get the news from the people I follow on Twitter, most of whom are comedians. So I only hear about tragedies through people’s jokes about them.

There’s a great Erma Bombeck line about how thin the line is between laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. Do you keep that in mind when you are live-tweeting or writing jokes about a disaster?
Chantry: Oh, yeah. I always second guess myself. And I’m sure there are people who don’t like my brand of humor (though I don’t think I’m ever THAT over the line). And you can’t be afraid of what one person might think—that stands in the way of creativity. You have to be cognizant of how people will react, but you also have to use your gut and your own sense of what is funny.

Horner: I typically don’t even write about disaster. I wouldn’t have even tweeted about Hurricane Sandy unless it affected me. I didn’t write any jokes about Katrina because I wasn’t affected by it.

There were a bunch of jokes after 9/11 that comedians used in their acts. David Cross did a lot of 9/11 jokes. I think it was appropriate because he was living in New York at the time and that was a part of his life. If it’s a part of your life, you have a right to talk about it. If your roof falls off your house (in a storm), you’re allowed to joke about that, even if someone else died.

Are there any topics you think are simply taboo, or is everything on the table?
Chantry: EVERYTHING should be made fun of, but know your audience. Jokes that I think are too mean-spirited/over the line, I usually just text to some of my comedy friends. The thing you have to realize is that if you think comedians’ public jokes are over the line, what they say in private is way worse. You’re welcome, America.

But I try to never kick someone while they are down, unless it’s someone who is generally in a position of power, who may have caused their own downfall. Donald Trump is a perfect example of this. No one likes him. No one. And he’s basically brought that on himself.

Horner: Everything is on the table. But if you’re a comedian, don’t be surprised when people get pissed off at you. If you can say whatever you want, then so can other people.

Most people see headlines like “devastation” and “disaster” and their gut reaction is empathy. Comedians seem to see those same headlines and think, “opportunity for big laughs.”
Chantry: Right or wrong, I think comedians sometimes see themselves as—not a part of society—but as an observer, stepping outside, looking in—which is a great defense mechanism, by the way—but disasters are scary. So if I can add something cartoonish and silly, and lighten the mood, even with gallows humor, I’ll do it. Onstage, I talk about dying a lot. It’s because I’m afraid of it, and if I make fun of it, it’s not as horrifying.

Horner: I think some comedians are using Sandusky jokes and hurricane jokes to get an easy punchline. But other comedians are joking about it because it’s a defense mechanism. Humor is a coping mechanism to deal with tragedy.