How soon is now?

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.

Who’s Dead?


Okay. Back it up, people.

Every comic and person with a sense of humour I know has been Twittering and Facebooking clever, ironic, sick or perceptive gags pretty much since the news broke this morning. The ones lucky enough to be employed to do this professionally for television or radio have been sharing their joy at how many quality jokes they’re producing (and ought to be warned, everyone else producing quality comments and sharing them will be watching to see if their work is uttered and broadcast for free or in exchange for the increase in somebody else’s bank balance). But others still are busy being offended and deleting and unfollowing former ‘friends’ for making such remarks. All of these pursuits are ways of reacting to and dealing with stuff. None of them will have an effect on Michael Jackson now.

So here’s the thing: before today I can’t remember having heard a good word said about Michael Jackson in a decade and a half. I can’t. Not at all. Not a single one. I don’t know anyone who has bought a CD that wasn't a reissue or compilation in that time. I don’t know if he released an album in that time that wasn't a reissue or compilation. I don't know anyone who’d know.

If you’re getting all sanctimonious now, my question is, why didn’t we hear from you when everyone was putting the boot in? Don’t pretend you don’t remember Martin Bashir’s doco, Living with Michael Jackson. Shouldn’t that have been the time to get defensive and demand people lay off? Why didn’t you? Were you too ashamed and embarrassed to admit you actually still liked him? Were you quietly fuming? Or did you feel let down that the same guy responsible for Off the Wall and Thriller had become an A-1, certified, irrefutable nutjob? I remember Ross Noble doing material, as made available on one of his Official Bootleg CDs (neither of which is available any longer). It went something like this:

Did you see Michael Jackson on that documentary? What the f*ck was that?! What was he buying?

“Look here, I’ll have that, please, I’ll have two of them, all of that… have we got them…?”

“Yes. Yes you have. Yes. You’ve bought all of them. (Shit, he didn’t but we’ll say he did; he’s clearly mental.)”

You know my favourite bit of that documentary? The best bit of that – and this is where I thought, “Michael Jackson: proper mental!” – is that bit when Martin Bashir went into his hotel room and he had all of these models, weird waxworks. There was one – and this is where I just thought, “this is beyond madness…”; I’m not making this up – that he had that was the Jolly Green Giant. A model of the Jolly Green Giant.

And you could see Martin Bashir go, “I don’t want to be alone in a room with this guy…”, you know what I mean? He sort of looked and went, “Oh, my sweet Jesus…”. It was like he’d been invited to a pool party at Barrymore’s house. He was like, “Oh, I’m not into this at all”. And Jackson turned around and out-mentalled him. It was great.

He turned to the camera and went, “What…er… What is that?!”

Jackson did a brilliant thing. He just went, “It’s the Jolly Green Giant.” Proper mental!

And Bashir, trying to be Mr Journalist, was like, “Oh yes, good.”

But he didn’t leave it there – he rubbed it in. He went, “You know – ‘Yo, ho, ho!’” – like Bashir was the most retarded man on the face of the planet. You know what I mean? Like he’s gone, “It’s the Jolly Green Giant. This guy’s clearly mental. He just doesn’t understand. I’m gonna have to help – ‘Yo, ho, ho!’ C’mon Martin, it’s okay. One day you’ll be smart like me. And my good friend, the Giant.’” Freaky.

It was fantastic.

I do like that it’s massively kicking off in the Gulf. It’s like, “Oh, we’re gonna have a war.” And the big thing in all the papers was, “Michael Jackson’s got a fairground”. Hold on a second – we’ve got our priorities wrong here.

(c) Ross Noble

Note that even Ross has the good sense to make a bit of fun of Bashir and point out the foolish priorities of modern media while also making fun of Michael Jackson. But if this media event – the Bashir doco and subsequent vilification by the public-at-large – didn’t move you to speak out, if you didn’t have a good word to say about Michael Jackson in life, if you would’t defend him to the death, then why on earth bung it on now, after he’s died?

Every death is sad.

The tragedy in the Michael Jackson story – the poor kid robbed of a childhood, growing up to be a reclusive  genius perpetually trying to recapture that childhood – was the plastic surgery-having, nighttime oxygen chamber-inhabiting, baby-dangling, Lisa Marie Presley-marrying, ‘Blanket’ child-naming, untold fortunes-squandering, Elephant Man skeleton-buying, deserted theme park-owning, up a tree in the Bashir documentary like some sort of animal-shinning, allegations of little boy-touching, albums with altered cover art-reissuing life  he was living up to this point. Not the death that followed.

As you can tell, I wasn’t a massive fan. Even though it doesn’t rock like ‘Black or White’ or any of the cool tracks, my favourite song was the least known duet he did with Paul McCartney, the Pipes of Peace album track ‘The Man’ (a proposed single release was cancelled).

Of course, the lyrics now have a delicious irony:

There’s a man
Who plays the game of life so well –
Oo, there’s such a man.
His thoughts you can never tell.
Oo, and it’s just the way he thought it would be
’Cause the day has come for him to be free.
Then he laughs, he kicks, then rolls up his sleeves:
“I’m alive and I’m here forever!"
This is the man.

(c) McCartney/Jackson

As nice as it would be for Jackson to be remembered just for the musical genius, the phenomenal dancing and the super-stardom, truth is, there were other aspects to him. I can’t think of him without thinking of Frank Zappa’s little tribute, re-writing his song ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ as ‘Why Don’t You Like Me?’ (featured on the album Broadway the Hard Way):

Although I am also fond of this clip, featuring ‘Scoop Newsworthy’ (Bill Cosby).

So CNN broadcasts Michael Jackson tributes back-to-back; Sony issues its own tribute without admitting how lucky the company is if, unable to call in loans made to the star, it just secures a greater share or total ownership of the Beatles songs Jackson bought ages ago and borrowed against; and true fans who already bought tickets to upcoming ‘comeback’ shows are truly saddened. Still, don’t forget: Charlie’s hottest angel Farrah Fawcett also passed away today.


I’m adding to this section as something grabs my attention that I would have quoted had it come up before I posted this blog. So far:

  • I tell a great, big, fat lie: my friend Juhyun has always admired Michael Jackson’s work, and rightfully championed the good stuff as it came, if it came. So he’d know what new material has been issued. He’d most likely own it. And, on occasions where I wasn’t being too pig-headed and ignorant, would have played it to me.
  • Upon reading this blog entry, my friend Rachel wondered how different things might have bee if Jackson’s personal eccentricities hadn’t outshone his music. I don't think anyone is that brilliant without personal eccentricities. To be really good at something you have to sacrifice something else in order to spend that time getting good. For Jackson, it was the childhood that he lost. Others forego human interraction and so perhaps don't know how to make small talk, and are perceived as 'arrogant'. Or become arrogant after being shunned for not knowing how to socialise. If Michael Jackson could have maintained the musical output at least there would have been other things to talk about, either instead of, or as well as, the kooky stuff. But to have been more ‘normal’ would have required a ‘more normal’ up-bringing, which would have meant more time being a kid, and less, being a hit musical star. So I don’t think he could be so talented without being so strange.