If You’re Going to Write a Joke About Suicide, Make Sure It’s Funny

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At Salon, the critic Emma Garman has a lengthy consideration of the role of suicide in comedy, pegged to Amy Schumer’s admission that one thing the execs at Comedy Central would not let her do is a sketch about a man who commits suicide and then has to go to work on Monday. “And everyone knew, but he didn’t get his work done and he is like, ‘Well, I didn’t think I was going to be here.’ And we wanted it to be like he was a hipster — like, what would a failed suicide be as a hipster? And I think they were like, ‘that’s too sensitive’ or ‘too personal,’” Schumer said, as she further described the sketch. Which makes it sound like the executives were not so much enforcing a taboo, as Garman suggests, as very kindly preventing Amy from making a sketch full of rather unfunny, unoriginal, and poorly executed “jokes.”

You can see why the question of taboo arises here, of course. We’ve been having a lot of public discussion, of late, about what people are “allowed” to joke about in comedy. Generally the controversial subject is rape, but the overall argument is the same no matter what it is: audiences say, “that’s offensive,” and comedians say, “but that’s our job!” The idea, of course, being that taboo-breaking is definitionally funny.

It’s certainly true that there is a considerable portion of the population who, upon declaring some topic “offensive,” believe it to be off-limits for joke purposes. Which isn’t a terribly convincing argument because in the process of protecting everyone’s sensitive ears from hearing offensive things, said population manages to stifle discussion on said, usually very important (!), topic. There’s a very thin line between silence and shame, after all; at a certain point you begin to imply that if someone’s trauma disturbs other people, well, they’d best suck it up and not be a bother, then.

But the comedians don’t quite have it right either, for the very reason they often cite: a lot of the issue here is context. In the Salon piece, Garman says that what people take offense to is suicide being discussed in a less-than-serious context. She cites as evidence the VICE photo spread that caused all the hullabaloo a couple of months back, which depicted the suicides of famous female artists. But she fails to mention the whole context. There were many people who don’t think of fashion as always being frivolous at all who thought the spread was in massively poor judgment. For a lot of people, with that VICE spread, the flippancy was detected in the quality of the photographs, not their mere existence. There was something so bored and indifferent about them, and not in a way that provoked any intelligent debate.

In other words: it’s about execution in context. Comedy is not an easy art to practice, partly because there are no hard and fast rules about how to tell a joke successfully. Timing, audience, phrasing, buildup, punchline — all are involved in a careful calibration that can’t be made to order. But here’s the thing: a difficult subject is rather like hot pepper. In less than cautious hands the thing either turns out bland or beyond five-alarm inedible. And most hands are less than cautious.

So it’s not that suicide is viewed as beyond comedy. It’s that a comedian who legitimately thinks the best joke about returning to work after a suicide is of the “hehe, I didn’t do my work” variety is probably not really zeroing in on what’s funny about the situation. I’m no comedian, of course, and can’t tell you what a better joke would be. I can only say, in this context, well: try something else. If you’re going to make suicide funny, well: make it funny. It shouldn’t take a genius to see that’s the only real rule of the game.