Making Light of The Dark Knight Tragedy: Dane Cook, Tastelessness, and Why We Bother Being Funny
Discussing Dane Cook on a humor website is kind of like saying that Twinkies have a recipe; sure, he is technically a comedian by virtue of his standing on a stage and saying things into a microphone, but only in the same way that Twinkies are technically food because we can put them in our mouths and chew. (I’m aware that this is not the best Twinkie metaphor ever, but I really dislike Twinkies. And Dane Cook.)
And yet, disregarding what is apparently a pretty severe personal disinclination toward the comedian on my own part, we find ourselves forced to have to think about him as a result of a recent and gloriously insensitive joke about the July 20th shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. A shooting which left twelve dead and over 50 injured. About which, Cook joked:
“I know that if none of that would have happened, pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it [The Dark Knight Rises] was a piece of crap, was probably like ‘ugh fucking shoot me.’”
Playing at the Laugh Factory less than one week after the event, Cook’s joke suggests that the real victims in this tragedy are the people whose theaters were not gassed and gunned down – which is to say, anyone who has actually seen the film itself.
As I would also argue about the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh and a similarly sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put parameters around what is available to be addressed in and through humor. But as contributing editor Joe Faina asks of the appeals to artistic integrity and free expression among the license afforded our comedians and writers:
“Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?”
The same should be asked of Cook’s joke, which – unlike Tosh’s trademark, over-the-top compulsion to unsettle his audience – betrays something closer to boredom, as though senseless death and injury occurs frequently enough to be almost unremarkable, and as such – and here is one of the central tenets of comedy, plus a paradox in its own right – this banality of evil is therefore at the same time eminently remarkable as well: the comedian’s personal disaffectedness and distance authorizes the kind of casual observation that remains at the center of modern stand-up (i.e. “Have you ever noticed….?” and so on). What Cook seizes on – and what the audience laughs at, after an initial and probably more honest hesitancy – is the fact that, somewhat sadly, the film The Dark Knight Rises will likely have a more immediate, immanent relation to the majority of our lives, if only because only those three fictional hours are the only element of this tragedy to which we will have had access. Not real death, just that of actors who will be seen somewhere else soon enough. Not real blood on the steeped floor of a theater, just that which for most of us will only ever be soda, sticky on our soles.
The problem is that Dane Cook doesn’t seem to care.
This is not meant to excuse Cook for his cynical, privileged remarks, which are offensive at best and subhuman at worst. Cook has since apologized – via Twitter, of course, so you know it’s as sincere as 140 characters can be after suggesting that at least 12 murder victims are better off for not having to have sat through what he found to be a mediocre film. According to Cook’s Twitter feed, he “did not mean to make light of what happened,” which I’m going to go ahead and say simply cannot be the case, because what else is a joke? Or: why tell a joke at all, if not for the laughter that he, to a degree, would have to have predicted in order to warrant the inclusion of this joke, or any joke for that matter? In other words, he either had to know that it would be funny or he wanted it to be funny. He had to have been the first one to laugh at this joke, to be sure that that’s what it was. Cook’s admission that he “made a bad judgment call with my material last night,” as his tweet continues, is at least more accurate and honest. But it also invalidates the earlier point about meaning to “make light,” because he did judge, did choose this joke, which with any luck – for him, that is – would have transmuted darkness into levity, light. The saddest thing about Cook’s joke is how self-serving it ultimately seems; whatever laughter there is here is his, not ours, and certainly not that of the victims or their families.
The impulse to reverse and redress the worst of what we find in life is in many ways what humor is, or is at least what I think of when considering “the value of such art.” Humor is at its best and most valuable when it breaks down and brings close the distance by which we are removed from anything outside ourselves. In every good joke, there is a willingness to let light be made: yes, light as though a lantern that illuminates and exposes, but also light as in the lifting with someone else of what would have been too heavy otherwise. Instead of apologizing for this imperative – to “make light” – Cook would do better to think about why anyone bothers to be funny in the first place. His joke is indefensible because there is no suture there, no pulling together and repairing some part of ourselves. This is not to prescribe a compulsory program for what humor has to achieve or should always do, but merely to consider the condition of laughter as something that we have to share. It doesn’t always have to feel good to laugh. There is nothing unequivocally wrong with offense. Not all jokes are going to be funny. But lack of taste and tact notwithstanding, the thing that is ultimately really wrong with Dane Cook’s joke is that he doesn’t ask us to laugh with, only at.