Why do people tell sick jokes about tragedies?

Stand up comedian

Tasteless tweets about the Japanese tsunami have landed celebrities in trouble. So what makes people tell sick jokes about terrible disasters?

Have you heard the one about the tsunami that killed thousands of people?

If not, someone might have told you a gag about the threat of nuclear meltdown. Or any other horrific event that happens to make the headlines.

Death, destruction and widespread devastation may be the unfunniest subject matters imaginable. Yet for some people they make up a comedy sub-genre.

Sick jokes have a habit of springing up in the immediate aftermath of any catastrophe, and modern communications mean they are heard by more people and closer to the event than ever.

Gilbert Gottfried and 50 Cent Gilbert Gottfried and 50 Cent have found that their sense of humour is not universally shared

The rapper 50 Cent and the US comedian Gilbert Gottfried have faced an onslaught of criticism after joking on Twitter about the tsunami that has caused devastation in Japan.

The hip hop star was upfront about setting out to offend. "Some of my tweets are ignorant," he wrote. "I do it for shock value. Hate it or love it. I'm cool either way."

Gottfried - who had previously come under fire for joking about 9/11 shortly after the attacks - could not afford to be so sanguine after he was fired by an insurance company who used his voice in adverts.

Nor are they the first public figures to face such opprobrium. Football pundit Rodney Marsh was sacked by Sky Sports in 2005 for making wisecracks about an earlier Asian tsunami.

A gag too far?

  • Billy Connolly: Joked about the death of British hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq
  • Jimmy Carr: Came under fire over a routine about amputees in the British military
  • Rodney Marsh: Sacked for gag about Asian tsunami
  • Frankie Boyle: Condemned for making light of the Cumbria shootings the day after the tragedy

Billy Connolly was roundly condemned for joking onstage about the death of Ken Bigley, the British hostage killed by his captors in Iraq, Jimmy Carr was attacked for material involving amputee British service personnel and Frankie Boyle faced widespread criticism after a routine about the Cumbria shootings.

Of course, it is not only professional comedians who are responsible for this type of humour.

Following any disaster, deeply offensive gags swiftly proliferate around playgrounds, workplaces, pubs and, of course, the internet.

The website Sickipedia, which prides itself as "the world's best collection of sick jokes", proudly displays dozens of user-generated contributions about Japan.

Text messaging, too, means that some people can now expect the first off-colour SMS to arrive within hours of any disaster.

Veteran comedian Barry Cryer says that he has long been "fascinated" by sick humour.

Start Quote

Barry Cryer

It's entirely normal that people want to laugh at times of tragedy”

End Quote Barry Cryer

He insists that, although those cracking such jokes may be children in the playground or saloon-bar braggarts advertising their cynicism, making light of terrible events can be an entirely understandable coping strategy.

Observing that medical professionals and the police have always been known for their gallows humour, he believes black comedy helps us make sense of occurrences that would otherwise be painful and upsetting.

Indeed, Cryer recalls being approached by one young man who had recently lost his mother to cancer and asked the comedian if he knew any good jokes about the disease.

"It's a natural reaction," he argues. "It's entirely normal that people want to laugh at times of tragedy.

"All that's new is that in the past you'd have to wait until you got to the pub to hear these jokes. Now they're on your phone as soon as the disaster happens."

Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos worries that sick humour's popularity is symptomatic of an unhealthy culture which has been desensitised to the suffering of others.

"One of the reasons we laugh at tragedy is that it makes the enormity of the issue easier to deal with," she concedes.

"But we do live in a society where tragedy has become something that we've become conditioned to laugh at."

How soon can you joke about a disaster?

Stephen K Amos

Stephen K Amos, comedian

"Unusually for comedy, I don't think this one is really about timing.

"It's the context, content and intent of a joke that are important.

"It can't just be cruel, it can't just be laughing at the victims. Anyone can do that.

"All you have to do is speak to people caught up in disasters. I was in Australia recently and my routine about the Queensland floods went down well - it was about them triumphing over adversity, not about their suffering.

"They needed laughter as a release. They didn't want people tip-toeing around them."

Any fan of Peter Cook or Bill Hicks will attest that dark humour predated the internet, however, and none other than Sigmund Freud addressed the topic in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor).

In it, the father of psychoanalysis argued that sick jokes were the mechanism by which the ego "insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world".

His analysis is shared by Dr Oliver Double, an expert in comedy at the University of Kent who believes that tackling offensive subjects can be a very effective tool of satire as well as a form of therapy.

For instance, Dr Double was in the audience for Connolly's Ken Bigley routine and argues it was a carefully-argued attack on media prurience rather than the opportunistic swipe at a family's tragedy it was portrayed as in the press.

But he has little time for performers who set out to do no more than shock - and worries that the internet makes it harder to distinguish well-intentioned satire from cheap nihilism.

"A comedian like Stewart Lee is fantastic because he takes on difficult subjects in a way that is very challenging but is also, ultimately, extremely principled," Dr Double says.

"When you think about someone like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr, the appeal is basically: 'I'm going to say the worst thing I possibly can.' I find that a bit tiresome, to be honest."

And when it comes to subtlety and nuance, Dr Double notes, 140 characters makes life difficult.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think we have to take a view that either everything can be joked about, or nothing. As soon as humour is censored, it's the thin end of the wedge. Curtailing any form of expression towards the lowest common denominator is the 1st step to the complete erosion of freedom of speech and civil liberties. Humour may seem banal, but it's still an important outlet.

Edward B, London

Jokes about any type of tragedy come from unhealthy, insecure, narcissistic people. Just like 50 Cent said, he did it for shock value. It brings the attention back to him. Anyone so insensitive that they lack compassion for someone else's loss needs help.

Chase, Pittsburgh, PA

Telling jokes about disasters and tragedies is an expression of defiance. A way to say: "We are not cowed or overwhelmed by what is happening."

Elwin Tennant, Halstead

For a person who has close family living in Japan, its not even remotely funny to hear offensive stuff being said about Japan right now.

Anon,

When I was a pallbearer for my late brother, I joked about the tune to carry in his coffin into the funeral service. The tune I remembered? He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother. It helped to joke about the event as otherwise it would have been a nightmare of a day. The joke helped lighten a desperately sad day for myself and my family.

Paul G. Chapman, Mapperley, Nottingham

Text, Twitter and Facebook etc have a lot to answer for, it is the "say something without care or consequences" attitude that is not right. If you wouldn't say it to someones face, why say it? It just shows a total lack of respect for those more unfortunate than ourselves. And if the so-called comedians had respect, they wouldn't say it either.

Carl, Haverhill, UK

I served for 19 years in the UK military. I completly understand the dynamics of sick humour as it predominates in the armed forces and is, in fact, intrisnic to it. Life is complex, short, unpredictable, and really, quite pointless in many ways. Who wouldn't want to laugh about it?

Garry Harriman, Labrador, Canada

If someone you knew who had just lost a loved one sat down opposite you, in say a cafe for instance, you would not begin to mock their loss. Lets be real, it's a case of choosing good or bad behaviour and should not be justified with psychology jargon. These are real people who are experiencing real pain, they should be given the space to grieve for goodness sake!

Floyd Woodcock, Bedford

I grew up in an occupied country during World War II. I'm convinced that black humour was the one thing that kept most people going.

Renee Deutsch, The Hague, Netherlands

The only people who have been making these horrible jokes are people not directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Jokes about tragedy is healthy coping when they are made by the victims. It is incredibly narcissistic to make someone elses devastation all about you and your coping.

Sun Yi, USA

It's the ones who would censor humour that make me more determined to laugh about things like this. I have no intention to hurt anyone, but I'll be dammed if I'm going to be told what I can and can't joke about.

Big Bad Man, UK

Never in all my experience of people telling sick jokes after a tragegy such as this have I ever thought they were telling it as a way to deal with the "trauma" (a word too often tossed about in relation to people who are a bit upset)... they told it because they are ignorant and unable to care or empathise with the people who are suffering.

John, Preston, Lancs

From the small selection of highly opposing views already shown on this page, clearly some people love dark humour to help handle their grief whilst others hate it. So perhaps it's best to keep these jokes to the pub or playground where you can gauge your audience's reaction and pull back if it's clear you're hurting someone, rather than sending them to all and sundry on the internet.

Ruth, Bucks

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.