Gallows Humor:  Funny As Hell

By Dan Gaskill

 

This paper was presented on April 26, 2005, as part of the Nammour Symposium at the California State University at Sacramento.  The theme for this year was Dirty Work…

 

 

Since the theme of these talks is dirty work, and I’m giving a talk on humor, you might think that I’m going to be talking about dirty jokes.  Like this one:

 

A young man walks up and sits down at the bar.
"What can I get you?" asks the bartender.
"I want six shots of whisky," responds the young man.
"Six shots? What’s the occasion?" asks the barman.
"My first blowjob."
"Well, in that case, let me give you a seventh on the house."
To which the young man replies, "No offence sir, but if six shots won't get rid of the taste, nothing will."

 

          This sort of humor is certainly dirty, (although there are much dirtier jokes out there) and I suppose it does work of some kind—no doubt it has some important social function—but I, for one, have nothing to say about it.  Which brings us to another thing that I won’t be talking about.

          A lot of humor is dirty, or “sick” in a different way.  What I have in mind is humor that is sexist, racist, or directed against specific religions, groups or individuals.  I think this sort of humor would be a fascinating subject for a talk.  But that would require giving examples of jokes that were sexist, racist, directed against particular religions, and so on.  The trouble is, you aren’t supposed to tell those jokes unless you are a member of the group that is the butt of the joke.  This is limiting, especially since all the funny ones are about other groups.

It just isn’t feasible to tell jokes that are sexist, racist, or anti-religious, if you have to be a member of the group that is being joked about.  I mean, the cost of the sex-change operation alone would put me in the poor house!  And, as for religious conversions…I’m barely smart enough for my job as it is; the last thing I need is a frontal lobotomy.  (Okay, that was uncalled for.  But at least it wasn’t a slam against any particular religion).  What about racist jokes?  Maybe I could change my race without having surgery.  After all, I’ve been told that race is a social construct.  But then again, so is having a job.  So I’m going to give that a miss.

Actually, you can get away with telling a joke that makes fun of other groups, as long as it satisfies certain conditions.  Take this old joke, for example:

 

What is the difference between heaven and hell? In heaven, the English are the policemen, the French are the chefs, the Germans the mechanics, the Italians are the lovers, and the Swiss organize everything. In hell, the Germans are the policemen, the English are the chefs, the French the mechanics, the Swiss are the lovers, and the Italians organize everything.

 

That joke is supposed to be okay because it’s an equal-opportunity disparager, and also because it simultaneously praises the groups it pokes fun at.  But that’s a load of bull.  It’s actually a cleverly disguised anti-Swiss joke.  Think about it:  they’re lousy lovers, but they’re good organizers.  So, the moral is:  It’s okay to make fun of Swiss people.

          But, despite its anti-Swissness, the joke is a good illustration of how humor can—to use an old cliché—help us to laugh at ourselves.  Humor can do this by getting us to take a step back from our lives, thereby giving us the freedom to laugh at the absurdity and pathos of the human condition.  To put it another way, some humor has the ability to shift our perspective from our usual subjective point of view from which our personal concerns are all-consuming, to a more objective point of view from which humanity is seen from the outside, and from which vantage point the concerns and struggles of humanity seem comical.  Let’s call this phenomenon distancing, for lack of a better term.

Now, distancing is a rather lofty explanation as to why it is funny to list a bunch of stereotypes and call it a joke.  But there is a type of humor for which distancing provides a very plausible explanation as to why we laugh, and that would be “gallows humor”.  Gallows humor is humor that makes light of terrible things, and we’ll be looking a number of examples shortly.

Oversimplifying a bit, my thesis is that distancing makes gallows humor funny.  There are some caveats and potential misunderstandings regarding my thesis, which I will mention now.  First, I do not claim that distancing is the only thing that makes gallows humor funny.  Gallows humor, like any other kind of humor, often makes use of ambiguity and other clever devices which are amusing in their own right.  Second, the phenomenon of distancing is not part of any joke.  Rather, it is part of our reaction to certain jokes.  It is not a necessary reaction, either, except in the sense that it might be necessary in order to fully appreciate the joke.  It wouldn’t surprise me if many people hear gallows jokes and don’t like them precisely because distancing does not occur for them when they hear the jokes.  Third, while I have described gallows humor as “humor that makes light of terrible things”, I realize that there are exceptions.  For example, jokes that make fun of Adolf Hitler do make light of something terrible, but that doesn’t make them gallows humor.  That’s okay, because we don’t need a precise definition of gallows humor.  Fourth, while I’m going to be focusing my attention on jokes, that doesn’t mean that distancing isn’t important to the appreciation of other forms of humor.  It is convenient to use jokes as examples because they tend to be short and self-contained.  But some of the best examples of gallows humor can be found elsewhere.  The song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is a prime example.  Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film Dr. Strangelove is one big instance of gallows humor.  Finally, I want to acknowledge that I don’t offer much of an argument for my thesis.  If I were to formulate an argument, it would go something like this:

1.  Gallows humor is funny, at least in part, due to its tragic content.  This is supported by the fact that when such content is removed and replaced by non-tragic but otherwise equivalent content, the result is not as funny.

 

2.  Distancing provides a plausible explanation of why the tragic content of gallows humor would make it funny to us.

 

3.  I haven’t thought of a better explanation, and it’s little late to start now.

 

          With this in mind, it’s time to look at some examples of gallows humor, and gradually work our way towards a discussion of distancing.  Last year, British psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted an online experiment called LaughLab, in which people from around the world could vote on over 10,000 different jokes to determine which is the funniest.  The following joke came out on top:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?"

This joke, unlike many of the others, had universal appeal, and got high ratings across many different countries, from both men and women, young and old alike.

 

Here is what Dr. Wiseman had to say about it:

 

"We find jokes funny for lots of different reasons – they sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking events, or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity. The hunters joke contains all three elements – we feel superior to the stupid hunter, realise the incongruity of him misunderstanding the operator and the joke helps us to laugh about our concerns about our own mortality."

 

Of course, it’s that last element, that it helps us to laugh at death, that makes the hunter joke an example of gallows humor.

Now, compare the hunter joke to this one:

 

A 10 pm curfew was imposed in Baghdad.
Everybody had to be off the streets or risk being shot. However, one citizen was shot at 9.45pm.
"Why did you do that?" the soldier was asked by his superior officer.
"I know where he lives," the soldier replied, "and he wouldn't have made it."

 

Both jokes involve misunderstandings, and victims that never had a chance.  They also involve death.  Notice that the joke would be a lot less funny if the soldier had arrested the Iraqi instead of shooting him.  Clearly, the tragic content of the joke plays a crucial role in the humor.

 

Our next example is this Jewish joke about the Holocaust, which literally involves gallows:

 

As World War II ended, the advancing Russians came upon a town recently vacated by the retreating Germans. They went to the Jewish ghetto and found that every single Jew, man woman and child, had been hung from hastily erected gallows. As they stared in silence, one Russian soldier said to another, "Look what a horrible thing those barbaric Germans have done; they have hung every single Jew in town." "Yes," said the other, "it is terrible. They didn't leave a single one for us to hang."

 

Why is this funny?  Let’s start by ignoring the obvious.  Obviously, the joke depends on a revelation about the Russians’ attitude toward the slaughtered Jews which forces us to reinterpret the Russian reaction to the atrocity.  This surprise factor is clearly essential to the humor, but instead I want to focus on the tragic content of the joke, which is also essential.

One doesn’t fully appreciate the joke unless one laughs at the Jewish situation as portrayed in the joke.  It is the situation of being totally screwed; the victim of forces beyond your control in a world that doesn’t care about you.  If one is in the right frame of mind, this tragic situation becomes comical.  The joke, when successful, gets us into that frame of mind. 

Another example:

Did you hear about the emergency ward nurse who died and went straight to hell?
It took her two weeks to realize that she wasn't at work anymore.

          Again, there is a surprising revelation that plays a crucial role in the humor.  But the surprise factor, by itself, does not suffice to make the joke funny.  To drive this point home, consider the following joke that uses the exactly the same device:

 

Did you hear about the park ranger at Yosemite who died and went straight to heaven?

It took him two weeks to realize that he wasn’t at work anymore.

 

The park ranger joke is not funny.  Yet the difference between the park ranger joke and the nurse joke is just the difference between heaven and hell.  Why is hell funny?  There is nothing intrinsically funny about hell, or about the Holocaust.  It might be claimed that people laugh at these jokes only because they are not in the position of the emergency ward nurse or the persecuted Jew, and that if we were in such a position, it wouldn’t be funny.  But these are jokes that are told, mainly, by emergency ward nurses and Holocaust survivors.  Apparently, proximity to the relevant position makes the joke funnier.

 

A woman comedian said,

If I’m ever stuck on a respirator or a life support system I definitely want to be unplugged—but not until I’m down to a size eight.

 

If you hear the respirator joke, and it fails to get you into the right frame of mind, then it might strike you as being sad or even offensive without being funny.  You might think, “It is sad that this woman has an irrational desire to be a size eight, even when it would do her no good at all.”  And, you might think, “It is offensive that she is wrongly promoting being a size eight as something of great importance.” 

But the fact that she is telling it as a joke indicates that she is aware of the irony, and aware that she really shouldn’t put so much importance on being a size eight.  She is aware of this, yet she is still in the grip of the desire.  How, then, are we to appreciate the joke?  What is the right frame of mind?  As I understand it, the comedian takes a step back from herself and regards her situation objectively.  She observes herself from afar, as one might observe a person from a different culture.  As the observer, she is keenly aware of her situation while simultaneously being at a safe distance from it.  Here, I claim, is where the chief value of gallows humor is to be found:  it releases us, albeit only briefly, from the concerns of life.  Release, of course, is a happy occasion, often accompanied by laughter.

 

I have just a few more examples which I will present without comment.  Here’s one of mine (I think):

A heavy smoker and drinker has not seen a doctor in ten years.  He goes in for some tests, and it’s time for the doctor to tell him the results.

Doctor:  “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.  First, the bad news:  Liver failure will kill you within a year if you don’t get a transplant.”

Shocked patient:  “That’s terrible!  So what’s the good news?”

Doctor:  You won’t need a transplant because the lung cancer will kill you in three months.

Last example for a while:

Jake was on his deathbed. His wife, Susan, was maintaining a vigil by his side.

He looked up and his pale lips began to move slightly.

"My darling Susan," he whispered.

"Hush, my love," she said. "Rest. Don't talk."

He was insistent. "Susan," he said in his tired voice. "I have something I must confess to you."

"There's nothing to confess," replied the weeping Susan. "Everything's all right, go to sleep."

"No, no. I must die in peace, Susan. I slept with your sister, your best friend, and your mother."

"I know," she replied. "That's why I poisoned you."

And now for an abrupt transition into a philosophical discussion of distancing and objectivity.  The idea that appreciating gallows humor involves distancing was inspired by Thomas Nagel, in his paper, “The Absurd.”  In that paper, Nagel argues that the feeling that life is absurd or meaningless is a result of the juxtaposition of our usual, personal point of view with an objective, impersonal point of view.  The inspiration for the present comes from Nagel’s description of the objective point of view.  He writes:

 

“Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves…with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand.  Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis—and the view is at once sobering and comical.”

 

I’m going to take issue with this statement in a very limited way.  I’m going to say that viewing our own situation as comical does involve developing the illusion that we are able to escape from it.  It’s an imperfect illusion, and a fragile, fleeting one at that, but it is this illusion that provides us with comic relief.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Sub specie aeternitatis” is a phrase that was used by Spinoza; it is Latin for "under the aspect of eternity".  As far as Nagel is concerned, to view something sub specie aeternitatis is to view it objectively.  But what does this really amount to?  The idea that we take a step back from ourselves is just a metaphor; we cannot literally step outside of ourselves.  The objective point of view is sometimes said to be “the point of view of the universe”, but this too is just a metaphor, since the universe, as a whole, does not literally have a point of view.  Perhaps the objective view is “the God’s eye point of view”?  One problem with this suggestion is that it seems to conflate objectivity with omniscience.  Less metaphorically, the objective point of view can be described as “an impersonal standpoint”, or “the view from nowhere”.  But these descriptions suggest that the objective point of view is something paradoxical:  the point of view of not having a point of view. 

          We can avoid the appearance of paradox if we begin by saying what it is that makes a point of view subjective.  Let’s start with our own visual field.  It tells us important information about the outside world.  But it also contains information about the experiencing subject.  The contents of the visual field are experiences of a subject, and the character of those experiences contains information about the subject:  for example, under normal circumstances, the location of the subject is revealed by its relation to the objects being viewed.  Likewise, any experience that contains information about an outside world carries information about the subject of the experience.  In this sense, experience is an intrinsically subjective medium.

          Language, too, is often subjective, in that it conveys information about the asserter.   The statement, “I have the flu” entails that the asserter has the flu.  On the other hand, “Dan Gaskill has the flu” does not entail this, since it could be asserted by anyone.  In fact, it entails nothing about an asserter at all.  It’s truth does not even require that there be an asserter:  the sentence could still be true if it were formed by Scrabble letters randomly spilling onto the floor.  The first sentence—which contains the first-person pronoun ‘I’—we will call subjective.  The second—which is a purely third person affair—we will call objective.

Objective sentences tell us nothing about their authors.  ‘Hydrogen is the most common element’, ‘2 + 3 = 5’, ‘Many people were concerned about global warming’, ‘Pope Benedict does not use condoms’, and even ‘George Bush said, “I believe that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction” ’, are examples of sentences that have no subjective entailments.  These are statements of objective fact.

          Now we can give a more helpful characterization of what objectivity is:  it is a mode of thought that excludes subjective claims and includes non-subjective claims.  Roughly, objectivity is the state one would be in if one took all of one’s subjective beliefs, such as “I have the flu” and replaced them with corresponding third person claims, such as “Dan Gaskill has the flu.”  When we take the objective point of view, we think as though third person facts are the only kind of fact there are.  This would mean, in my case, that there is no fact that I am Dan Gaskill.  Thus, if I am in the objective mode, I cannot infer that I have the flu from the fact that Dan Gaskill has the flu.          Notice that, in the objective mode, there are still facts about people and their personal lives.  But, there is no fact about which person happens to be me.  From the objective point of view, it is not even a fact that there is a person that is me.  There are just no facts involving “me” at all.  So, from the objective point of view, it is not a fact that I care about other people, or that I should care about them, or that I value anything at all.  For that matter, it is not a fact that I exist, or that I want to keep existing.

          We have all heard the saying that “justice is blind”.  What this means is that justice is impartial, and it achieves this by being blind to subjective facts.  Objectivity, as we experience it, is a kind of blindness, in which subjective claims are blotted out and replaced by objective counterparts. 

The ideal of perfect objectivity is something that we can never reach, because the blindness of objectivity is something that we impose from within our own subjective point of view.  It is probably fortunate for our sanity that we are never entirely objective, nor are we very objective for very long at a stretch.

          But, insofar as we are able to achieve objectivity, it can provide a release from our cares.  If there is no me, then nothing matters to me, not even the most horrific atrocity.  To be sure, it may matter to many people, but none of them are me. 

Now, it would seem that being objective could be a good way of dealing with terrible things only in the manner that euthanasia can be good:  it eliminates the bad, but it does so without bringing about anything that is positive in its own right.  It is easy to see how objectivity might bring temporary relief from anxiety or unhappiness, but hard to see how it could bring about happiness.  This raises a problem for my thesis.  How could distancing, which is the transition from the subjective mode to a more objective mode, make us laugh?  The answer lies in the fact that we never become entirely objective.  Distancing works like a pain killer that relieves our suffering without knocking us unconscious.  There remains a subjective self underneath the objective view we have constructed, and that self feels safe and untouchable, free to laugh at its erstwhile tormentors.

          I’m going to conclude with a brief discussion of some gallows jokes that offend people.  Big catastrophes, such as the September 11th attacks and the recent tsunami, are fertile ground for gallows humor.  Such humor is often regarded as callous or even hateful.  Perhaps it is, in some cases, but for the most part this is a mistaken reaction.  By and large, the gallows humor that follows a calamity is a way for normal, caring people to cope with something very upsetting.

          Even at this physical distance from the devastating tsunami, many of us are impacted by it:  the thought of human bodies washing up on shore like so much flotsam, or being eaten by sharks is shocking, disturbing and an affront to human dignity.  It is understandable that some of us would respond by objectifying the situation.  On the internet, you can find jokes like these:

 

Why don’t tourists in sri lanka have to take bathes anymore?

Because from now on, they'll just wash up on shore.

 

A bar owner in Phuket was asked how his business was doing over the last week.  "It's been very quiet, but some of the regulars are starting to drift back."

 

Some people are outraged by such jokes.  But, on close examination, no mean-spiritedness is indicated in the jokes themselves.  There is no criticism, say, of the tsunami victims.

I think the main reason that people are offended by disaster humor is the belief that the jokers are laughing at the victim’s expense.  The idea of laughing at someone’s expense is an interesting notion in its own right that deserves analysis which we don’t have time for.  It isn’t obvious to me that it’s wrong to laugh at the expense of others, but even granting that it is wrong, I see no reason to suspect that this is what is usually going on when people tell disaster jokes.

Shortly after September 11th, jokes about the attacks started to crop up in the dark corners of the internet.  The initial response from those who encountered these jokes was outrage, sometimes accompanied by threats.  In addition, there was—and still is, for the most part—a self-imposed ban by all major media on making light of the events in any way.  Nevertheless, jokes such as these continue to circulate:

Q: Why are police and firemen New York's finest?
A: Because now you can run them through a sieve.

This joke is certainly in poor taste, but it’s no criticism of the brave men and women who died on the scene.  We, too, could be run through a sieve, if we were pulverized by a collapsing skyscraper.  Is there reason to suppose that the teller of this joke was cackling with glee at the idea that rescue workers were pulverized?  If so, then one might rightly be offended by it.  But as it stands, we have no reason to suppose this, and in fact it is more likely to be a clever pun intended to help objectify the situation for the purpose of comic relief.

Another example:

What's the difference between the attack on New York and the Oklahoma City Bombing?  Once again, foreigners prove they can do it better and more efficiently.

Why would someone find this objectionable?  Does anyone seriously suppose that Timothy McVeigh was not outdone by Osama Bin Laden?  Perhaps people are offended by the phrase ‘do it better’ because they take this to mean that terrorism against the U.S. is good to begin with.  But this is simply a mistake.  Doing something better doesn’t mean that the goal of the activity is good, it means that one is achieving it more effectively.  A final example:

I understand the hijackers went to flight training school in the States. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a crash course.

To be offended by this, one would have to think that any joke that makes light of 9-11 is objectionable.  In fact, there seem to be many Americans who take this unhealthy view.

          Is there ever good reason to object to gallows jokes?  Certainly; depending on the joke, and the context, it might be quite inappropriate, even outrageous.  But it is beyond the scope of this paper to characterize the conditions under which telling gallows jokes is appropriate.  I’ll just make two quick points in this connection.  One:  Placing a high value on free expression, as our society does--and rightly so--is not compatible with the idea that one is obligated to refrain from making a statement or telling a joke simply because one can predict that others will be angered, shocked or otherwise offended by it.  Were this not the case, then we should all be prohibited from making any controversial statements at all, such as those that promote the theory of evolution.

Two:  there are contexts in which potential listeners have a justified set of expectations that a statement or jokes would violate.  For example, it would be inappropriate for the President of the United States to tell 9-11 jokes in public.  He has, in effect, a tacit contract with his audience that he isn’t going to do that.  It’s like an unstated part of his job description.  On the other hand, there is nothing inappropriate about posting 9-11 jokes on use.net, or telling them as part of a stand-up comedy routine at a night club.

          One concern about gallows humor is that it might de-sensitize people to evil, thereby making them callous.  The obvious response is that the evil itself would do this long before making jokes about it ever would.  When you consider the forces at work that can conspire to create a bad character, it should be evident that humor ranks pretty low on the list of influences.  Then again, maybe this isn’t evident.  But until there’s some hard evidence that joking makes people callous, I’ll be skeptical.

          Before closing, I want to briefly touch on one more topic.  The Problem of Evil is the problem of explaining why a benevolent God would permit evil.  The existence of gallows humor suggests an answer:  because it’s funny.  More accurately, the evil itself isn’t funny, but it gives rise to a great deal of humor that is.  As a solution to the problem of evil, this is totally inadequate.  Still, it’s at least as good as the other solutions that have been proposed.  For example, it is often said that free will is a really great thing that God gave to humans, but that the existence of free will guarantees that there will be evil, since people are free to make bad choices as well as good ones.  Free will on the one hand, humor on the other…which is the better explanation?  I would say that humor has a definite advantage here, because it actually exists.  Moreover, free will doesn’t explain the existence of natural evil, such as tsunamis and AIDS, whereas the humor hypothesis does, providing that there are good jokes about natural evils, which there are.  Sometimes the free will response is supplemented with the claim that evil adds value to the world because it is necessary in order to build moral character.  But considering the vast amount of evil in the world, this is a bit like saying that we should train runners by setting packs of wild dogs on them.  Besides, if God wants us to have moral character that badly, then why can’t he just give us the moral character and keep the evil to himself?  Honestly, if you believe in God, and you’ve noticed all the evil in the world, then the idea that God…appreciates gallows humor is very plausible.  But this suggests that the ability to appreciate gallows humor is a divine characteristic.  And maybe it is.