Strewth! We’re sunk if we can’t joke about Titanic stuff like coronavirus

Strewth! If we can't laugh we can't live, says Warren Brown

The witty work of WARREN BROWN normally involves drawing Australia’s funniest cartoons for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, so he knows a thing or two about laughter. But the ‘COVID-19 effect’ has driven him to wield his pen in a different  way . . .

PEOPLE, NOW IS NOT THE TIME to lose your sense of humour. Yet that seems to be exactly what some of us are doing. At my newspaper’s morning news conference recently a colleague told how an online coronavirus joke among friends had him instantly hauled over the coals – “This isn’t time for jokes! People are dying!”
And only a few days ago I shared what I thought was someone’s jokey headline on Facebook: ‘New South Wales praised for acting quickly on coronavirus  by shutting down all public events fiveyears before outbreak!’
The joke was simple: a satirical comment on the NSW government’s reputation for banning things at the drop of a hat – we’ve seen recent bans on greyhounds, music events, plastic bags – so it made sense to me they’d get in early with coronavirus!
The remark was hardly outrageous, whatever your political persuasion. Even the stuffiest state premier could surely see the silliness of the idea? But within seconds I received a highly indignant message. ‘You’re not funny, never were!’
I’m not sure if the joke drew an angry response because it was about coronavirus or because it mocked the state government, but I can take the criticism on the chin for two reasons:

1. I didn’t come up with the line; and 2. I wish I had!

In recent years we seem to have been collectively installed with an ‘outrage switch’ which turns on at the first whiff of anything contradicting the perceived ‘responsible’ narrative.
The coronavirus pandemic is certainly frightening, bordering on terrifying, but we are all in this ghastly contagion together and to inject some levity into a dark chapter in our lives can only be good.
Like most, I’ve never experienced real suffering. I didn’t grow up in a Great Depression then find myself fighting a world war so I can’t pretend to know what hardship is, but what I have found startling is to watch Australian shoppers fighting over ‘dunny paper’. Now THAT’S absurd! Three months ago we were lionising the selfless behaviour of Australian volunteers during an unprecedented bushfire season. Now we’re seeing fisticuffs in aisle three over value packs of two-ply!
If you can step back from the frenzy for a moment and take a look at how comical the situation is you can’t help but giggle at how silly we are.
Jokes about the NSW government are tame stuff. It’s the things we’re unfamiliar with – supermarket shortages, face masks, isolation, obsessive hand washing – that produce a situation ripe for fun.
The Australian sense of humour was born of hardship: convict colony, anti-authoritarianism, drought, the bush, crime, warfare. . . all of that needed a pressure-valve. Everyone was in the same barbed-wire canoe up a certain creek, so we might as well have a laugh.
This peculiar Australian humour comes under the broad umbrella of ‘larrikinism’, generally defined as youthful rowdyism. Hardship and comedy are great levellers.

Then there’s the stand-up’s formula: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.

One of the best examples of which was the Titanic tragedy, a catastrophe claiming 1,517 lives but whose terrible images – the iceberg, the band playing to the last, people shuffling deck chairs -became a mainstay for comedians and cartoonists almost as soon as the ship hit the seabed.
Humour is not lampooning or laughing at the tragedy; it’s an abstract attempt to turn an unthinkable situation into something humorous. It’s the same with coronavirus. We are frightened and our lives have been turned upside down, but it’s important to take the mickey out of things which frighten and horrify us.
And of course soeone will eventually go too far. How about the theatre critic who (allegedly) asked Abraham Lincoln’s widow: “Apart from all that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”


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