I blame Woody Allen. In his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s character points out that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”, essentially telling us anything is fair game for comedy, once it ceases to be too raw in the hearts and minds of most people to still be considered ‘off limits’ or offensive if joked about.
So every wannabe ‘taken seriously’ comic and essayist who thinks they know about comedy (calm down, I fall into both categories!) carts out the phrase as if it actually has any meaning in contemporary society.
Space Shuttle jokes were being devised before the debris hit the earth; Michael Jackson’s death was still a heart attack when the flurry of humorous status updates were flying on Facebook; in the early hours of what was September 12 in Australia, The Chaser – then a newspaper rather than a television show – was holding its first page (the rest of the issue had been completed) as a second plane was approaching the World Trade Center while smoke billowed out of the hole made by the first – they were trying to devise a headline that would still be relevant and funny by the time the issue came back from the printers. I know this because I was in contact with the editorial office that night. (I think they eventually ran with something about the janitor who was pleased to have the day off.)
So how soon is ‘too soon’? Among people who create comedy as a living, there is no such thing as ‘too soon’; among people who tell – or email – each other jokes, there is no such thing as ‘too soon’; among people involved in the tragedies, forever can often be ‘too soon’.
A comedic device that seems currently in vogue among stand-up comics involves telling a joke incorporating a long-past event that is constructed in such a way that it still creates some level of outrage – or at least, causes the audience to want to laugh and at the same time, question that involuntary reaction of wanting to laugh. So amid the nervous laughter, there may be the odd admonishing groan and a very noticeable sharp intake of breath. Frequent examples include Holocaust material of some kind, either alluded to or explicitly dealt with, or a Charles Manson reference. Amid the audience’s indecision there is the palpable danger that the crowd will be lost – until the comic steps in with an ‘ad lib’, asking, sarcastically, if it’s ‘too soon’ for such a joke. Relief, laughter and resumption of the comedian/audience relationship ensue.
When done well, the material ought to reveal to the audience some kind of hypocrisy or double standard, without the actual process being apparent. When done badly, the comedian is merely going through the motions, delivering not-so-clever humour in a structure that should work – and will, with more experience. It’s usually obvious when you’re in the hands of a less-experienced comic. Either the ‘What, too soon?’ tag doesn’t quite fit the preceding material – because it has proven so outrageous that clearly not enough time has passed – or the comic is so eager to pull it off that the material is badly delivered and the tag, poorly timed. In effect, the ‘too soon?’ comes too soon.
I hope the mini essay has been edifying. I present it merely to justify the blogging of this fantastic clip I found on YouTube, in reaction to Michael Jackson’s passing. Adolf Hitler essentially does his lolly before his most trusted, highest-ranking officers, because Jacko can’t play his birthday party.
The potency of this little work of art is somehow diminished now, and the question of taste seems more pertinent after the memorial service, than had this done the rounds closer to the breaking of the news and the commencement of the media circus. But if this seems somehow mistimed or irrelevant, it will seem less so looking back from the parallax error-inducing position of the future. Try not to analyse it too closely; it’s just an elaborate, well-executed joke. But if you must, marvel at the conflation of Hitler (too soon?) and the passing of Jackson (too soon!) with my bad timing of blogging about it (too late). Or not.