In comedy, timing is key — in more ways than one.
One way has to do with how a joke is executed: how quickly it is uttered, where the punch line is placed, when to pause, etc. We will save that tricky issue for a future post.
Timing also has to do with whether enough time has passed before it’s acceptable to make jokes about some (typically tragic) event.
What, exactly, does someone mean when her or she says a joke is “too soon”? According to the Urban Dictionary:
Amy Davidson of The New Yorker recently asked, “Can we laugh now at Osama bin Laden?” Well, it doesn’t seem like people waited. Immediately after the report of his death, jokes popped up in the twittersphere:
@NZAfro’s tweet nicely illustrates a perspective comedian Alonzo Bodden shared with us: “It’s not too soon if it’s funny.”
A possible “too soon” moment came up at an an “Offensive T-shirt Party” Pete recently hosted. The party was about a week after the Japanese tsunami, and the shirt below won the “most offensive” award – but it also got laughs:
The Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) has been using the benign violation theory to examine the issue of timing and humor. For humor to occur, the theory proposes that a situation must be seen as a violation and also okay in some way. One way a violation can be seen as okay is thanks to psychological distance. For example, when sufficient time passes, a violation, such as a tragic tsunami, becomes less threatening and thus joke worthy. In the case of the t-shirt, a benign appraisal seems facilitated by the suggestion that the Japanese are not completely innocent (i.e., deserving of their fate). In the same way, many Americans saw Osama’s death as deserving, which helps explain the immediacy of their jokes.
The HuRL project also reveals a sweet spot with regard to the passage of time. After a lot of time has passed the distance may be so great that was once a tragedy, such as Steve Irwin’s death, is no longer a violation (i.e., it is purely benign). In this way, jokes can also be “too late.”