“Unreasonably dark joke,” read a coronavirus meme circulating on social media in recent weeks. “Shouldn’t we wait until after the pandemic to fill out the census?”
The joke is dark, yes. But is it any darker than countless other coronavirus memes out there?
Even more pointed is a spoof movie poster for “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the 1989 film comedy about two buddies toting around a dead man on their partying adventures, called “Weekend at Boris.” It cast as the corpse Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who at that point was still in intensive care for Covid-19, as the corpse.
Since the pandemic took hold, the internet has been awash with coronavirus-centric joke memes, Twitter wisecracks and self-produced comedy sketches shot with smartphones in shelter-in-place kitchens and living rooms. And that’s not counting what’s happening in private conversations during quarantine.
Laughing while others die may seem inappropriate, even tasteless, like concentration camp prisoners cracking jokes during the Holocaust. But in fact many did, according to a 2017 documentary, “The Last Laugh.”
Throughout history, humor has played a role in the darkest times, as a psychological salve and shared release. Large swaths of the population are living in isolation, instructed to eye with suspicion any stranger who wanders within six feet. And coronavirus jokes have become a form of contagion themselves, providing a remaining thread to the outside world for the isolated — and perhaps to sanity itself.
But who, or what, is an appropriate target for satire during a pandemic?
You can’t laugh at the sick or dying, obviously, except in the main. “A year from now, you’ll all be laughing about this virus,” reads one recent meme. “Not all of you, obviously.”
The virus itself deserves scorn and mockery, being the source of all this misery, although it is an elusive target, being inanimate and invisible. (“I love being outdoors, crowded places and food markets,” read a fake Tinder profile for “Coronavirus, 29.”)
“What’s next?” Mr. Noah joked in a segment a few weeks ago about people getting into fistfights at supermarkets over jumbo packs of Charmin. “Are people going to be running around Walmart, like, ‘Ahhh, where’s the car wax?’”
Judas on Zoom
In many ways, we are all our own best source of humor, racked with anxiety as we sit cloistered at home, surrounded by either too few people or too many. With little contact with the outside world beyond our smartphones, our jokey coronavirus memes and videos are like the S.O.S. messages that a bearded castaway fashions in the sand with rocks and seashells.
So far, quarantine humor tends to revolve around the same topics: overeating, marital bickering, sex (either too much or too little) and binge drinking.
“Your quarantine alcoholic name is your first name followed by your last name,” reads one meme recently posted to a private Facebook group moderated by Lori Day, an educational psychologist and consultant in Newburyport, Mass., devoted to pandemic-themed videos and memes. Others show Jesus conducting the Last Supper via Zoom (“Judas, you on?”), or pleas for people to wash their hands because “Covid-19 doesn’t kill itself … just like Epstein.”
“It’s the kind of edgy humor people don’t feel comfortable putting on their own Facebook wall, for the risk of having their parents say, ‘How could you?’” Ms. Day, 56, said.
Tasteless or not, virus jokes provide her a fleeting distraction, and a needed smile, as the pandemic has put her life — and consulting business — on hold. “It’s very similar to the feeling I get looking at baby animals online, which is another thing I dose myself liberally with these days,” Ms. Day said.
The same goes for other members of the group. Some members are ill with Covid-19. “They’re thanking me from their beds,” she said. “They’re thanking me from their hospital rooms.”
Humor can divide as well as unite generations, made plain on the social media each favors. Baby boomers and Gen-Xers seem to be gravitating toward we’re-all-in-this-together observational humor in the memes they post to Facebook (“Anyone else starting to get a tan from the light in your refrigerator?”), or gags that focus on specific villains (foot-dragging political leaders, say) and implicit solutions (throw the bums out!). “Calm down, everyone,” reads one such meme. “A six-time bankrupted reality TV star is handling the situation.”
As The Cut recently noted, the outpouring of coronavirus content among Generation Z types on TikTok runs the gamut: disgust, resignation, frustration, despair and hope. One could also add: barely-concealed nihilism, perhaps a response to the discovery that members of that generation are coming of age in a world that suddenly seems even more messed up than already thought.
In one TikTok video, by a 20-year-old in California named Andreas, his mother finds him still in bed at 4 p.m. as he sings, “Oh hi, thanks for checking in, I’m still a piece of garbage.”
Comedy professionals, meanwhile, have found it challenging to stay relevant and connected to their audiences as show business has ground to a halt.
Stephen Colbert and Mr. Noah, for example, have broadcast shows from their homes during the lockdown, without the reassuring rhythm of audible applause. “On behalf of the socially anxious everywhere, let me just say, ‘Way ahead of you,’” Mr. Colbert said, dressed at least in the top half of a suit while submerged in a bubble bath at home. “I’ve been avoiding human contact since before it was cool.”
With their standup careers on hold and potential audience members feeling simultaneously bored out of their minds and freaked out, they had little choice of material. “People want to just take their minds off of it for a second,” Ms. Tomlinson said, “but it’s also hard to think about anything else.”
“No way,” says Mr. Morril, who is Jewish. “We’re in the midst of a tragedy. You need some distance before it becomes entertainment. That would be like if the Jews watched ‘Schindler’s List’ during the Holocaust.”
Speaking of Which …
“Every day at the Art Cafe on Leszno Street, one can hear songs and satires of the police, the ambulence service, the rickshas, and even the Gestapo, in veiled fashion,” wrote Mary Berg, a 15-year-old trapped by Nazis in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, in a diary entry from Oct. 29, 1941. “The typhus epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is our only weapon in the ghetto.”
That passage was included in “The Last Laugh,” a documentary about the role of humor among Jews during, and after, the Holocaust, which included interviews with survivors as well as commentary by Sarah Silverman and Mel Brooks, who once termed Jewish jokes about Nazis “revenge through ridicule.”
Ferne Pearlstein, the director of the film, said in an email that while doing research for it she and her team “found that humor was not uncommon — and was used as a coping mechanism in a situation of almost unimaginable horror, as a means of self-defense, a counterattack for people who had few, if any, other ways of fighting back, and even as just simple diversion.”
One Auschwitz survivor, Renee Firestone, says in the film that she could not help but see the bleak irony after the infamous Nazi physician Josef Mengele told her during an examination: “if you survive this war, you better have your tonsils removed.” (Mengele was part of the SS machine that sent Jews to their death.)
“The instinct to laugh shows that we were still human beings while in the camps,” Ms. Firestone says, adding, “this inner sense of humor is what kept me alive.”
The episode quoted front-line accounts from the celebrated British wartime journalist Philip Gibbs: “‘Bit of Bill,’ said the leading man, putting in the leg. ‘Another bit of Bill,’ he said, unearthing a hand. ‘Bill’s ugly mug,’ he said at a later stage in the operation, when a head was found.”
“As told afterwards, that little episode in the trenches seemed immensely comic,” Mr. Gibbs added. “Generals chuckled over it, chaplains treasured it.”
Far further back, the bubonic plague of the 14th century, known as the Black Death, killed large swaths of the population of Europe, but also spawned the pointed satire of the Church and other authorities in “Decameron,” by Boccaccio. The classic collection of novellas concerns a group of young people who flee pestilence-ridden Florence for a series of villas in the countryside (much like rich New Yorkers helicoptering off to the Hamptons in the current pandemic).
“Theirs was a world in which anyone with any modicum of wit should grasp what pleasure could be found in a hostile environment in which God’s grace seemed absent and man’s good will was far from certain,” wrote Nancy M. Reale, a professor of liberal studies at New York University, in an email.
If those examples seem a little far away, consider how in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Graydon Carter, the Vanity Fair editor, said: “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” It was a pronouncement that lasted basically until the next evening’s broadcast of “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, who mercilessly lampooned the nation’s mass panic over an ever-present “America Freaks Out” chyron.
There is a reason laughter has long been considered the best medicine. It releases bursts of dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that signals pleasure and reward, and studies have indicated that it also can improve blood flow, immune response, pain tolerance and might even shorten hospital stays, said Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why.”
“My favorite study even found that watching ‘Friends’ reduced anxiety significantly more than simply resting, which should make those of us watching a lot of Netflix lately feel a little better,” Dr. Weems said.
But there’s more to it than that. Apes, dogs, even rats laugh, often as a way of expressing anxiety over new and uncomfortable situations, Dr. Weems said.
Humans, too, laugh as a way of dealing with awkward or unfamiliar situations — colloquially known as nervous laughter — which certainly describes the mood in the current pandemic. “We’ve adopted this simple physical response as a way of sharing anxiety or confusion in a social way,” Dr. Weems said.
And not for nothing is laughter sometimes referred to as “infectious.” In a 2000 article for Psychology Today, Robert Provine, then a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who spent a decade studying the science of laughter, described a mysterious outbreak of it at a girls’ boarding school in Tanzania in 1962 that started with three girls giggling on Jan. 30.
“The symptoms quickly spread to 95 students, forcing the school to close on March 18,” wrote Dr. Provine, who died in 2019. “The girls sent home from the school were vectors for the further spread of the epidemic. Related outbreaks occurred in other schools in Central Africa and spread like wildfire, ceasing two-and-a-half years later and afflicting nearly 1,000 people.”