The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not)
The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)
The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.
Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is a snippet from an article they published on Friday, the very day of the shootings.
As with 9/11, The Onion attempts to signal their understanding of the seriousness of the situation by employing epithets. Still, there are multiple ways in which The Onion’s response to Newtown differs from their earlier response to 9/11. For one, the fact that the Newtown victims were predominantly children makes for a greater risk of looking like one is taking a light-hearted perspective on the heavy-hearted matter. In addition, The Onion’s response to 9/11 came from New York City itself. And finally, there is the fact of timing. Remember, The Onion actually cancelled the print edition originally scheduled for 9/11, and they issued the above headlines in late September. In today’s online news world, The Onion could respond within hours.
It is generally understood that it takes time to address tragic events with a comic perspective. Saturday Night Live acknowledged the difficulty of joking in the immediate aftermath by transforming their traditional cold opening into a more heartfelt show.
For two minutes, the comedians were asked to stay off of the stage.
It’s a dilemma. Humor is often employed to address the more taboo sides of society, and to deal with the most painful of events. But how quickly, and in what manner?
The phrase “comedy is tragedy plus time” is so well-known that it’s actually difficult to establish who first coined the phrase. It has been attributed to Steve Allen and to Carol Burnett alike. Alan Alda’s character Lester utters the phrase in Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, which has led some to credit Allen himself with the utterance. The Associated Press quotes an Irish comedian who states confidently that the original observer of the phrase was stand-up stand-up legend Lenny Bruce. And why not? Bruce was one of the bravest when it came to applying the comedic arts to tragic events. After President Kennedy was killed, Bruce started his next show by sighing, “Poor [Kennedy impersonator] Vaughn Meader.”
I don’t think the aphorism applies to the Newtown horror proper, in that the massacre itself obviously won’t become a major subject of mirth for mainstream humorists. It is a different matter when one considers the larger societal problems surrounding the massacre itself. Lax gun laws and excessive media violence may be satirized, and satirized soon. In fact, along with the proper expressions of anger and mourning, it has become more likely that humor (and The Onion) will address these very serious problems to a greater extent than it has thus far. Not because they are trivial issues, but precisely because they are so heavy.