We humans have developed a range of coping mechanisms that help us deal with tragedies, sadness, horror, and a whole range of life’s challenges. One that seems to work particularly well is humour.
Horace Walpole, who was the 4th Earl of Orford and was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and all-round good chap summed this up nicely with this quote “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
We seem to find solace in making light of sometimes very difficult subjects and in the past we’ve turned to jokes about even the most tragic events. Whether it’s the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003 where seven people died or even the tragic Port Arthur massacre in 1996 where 35 poor souls lost their lives at the hands of the crazed gunman Martin Bryant, jokes always seem to emerge amidst all the shock and sadness.
I remember being horrified about the ‘Q. What were the space shuttle crew drinking when it crashed? A. 7 up!’ joke that was circulating after the news of the Columbia crash.
And psychologists have spent lots of time understanding comedy’s relationship with tragedy.
Dr. Peter McGraw, author of ‘The Humour Code, and an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an expert in the fields of emotion and behavioral decision theory. He charted peoples responses over time to jokes about a real tragedy, Hurricane Sandy which struck the USA in 2012. His research team was able to plot the way that the jokes were seen as funny prior to landfall, then offensive and unfunny as disaster struck, then funny as the horror faded, then unfunny again, presumably as the event lost its impact and topicality. “We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot,” he said.
But jokes about tragedy are nothing new, I hear you say.
I agree. But what interests me is how this comedic storytelling has developed since the internet became ubiquitous.
Sarah Silverman makes very un-pc jokes about, of all things, the holocaust and yet gets millions of Youtube views.
And memes have become our modern day, sound-bite style, visual joke that can whiz around the interwebs in a matter of hours.
So what exactly is a meme? Well, there are plenty of descriptions but I would characterise a meme as a term for copied, created and altered grabs of bits of comedic online content. Its forms include animations, photos with captions, online videos & other random things. Often these memes inspire lots of parodies too.
Let me give you a few examples…
The Honey Badger who doesn’t give a sh*t!… which clocked over 72 million views!
And let’s not forget the resulting parodies…
Grumpy Cat is another meme that has gathered worldwide fame
There are millions of Epic Fail memes
And many many LOLCats
Or #TheDress which took the internet by storm last Friday
But what’s even more interesting, well to me anyway, is how quickly memes develop around current affairs.
Like this one about the NRL Cocaine scandal
So, is it just me or are memes are new way of addressing stuff we don’t really want to deal with?
What do you think?
Paul Cornwell is a Managing Director at BCM