Jokes in the time of coronavirus | Comedy | Chicago Reader

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Jokes in the time of coronavirus

How soon is “too soon” when you’re living through it?

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I'm in a great position going into indefinite isolation, because I get to read jokes, like this one from Malic White (@malicwhite), on Twitter all day, every day: "Any queer who makes it through quarantine without giving themself a weird haircut wins 9 lives." While some people are avoiding social media altogether to keep themselves from having a panic attack, over the past handful of years I have surrounded myself with comedians on every platform. And let me tell you, even in the midst of a pandemic these comics are WORKING. Lauren Harsh has been hosting a weekly virtual open mic called Cabin Fever. Scott Duff has been hosting his own cooking show daily on Facebook. Podcasts are recording remotely, talk show hosts are monologuing to empty audiences, and the hilarious tweets and Facebook statuses have been multiplying like bunnies. But in these unusual times, is it even OK to be joking? How can you determine if something is "too soon" when you're living in it every day? I reached out to some comics (virtually!) to get their jokes and thoughts.

Tessa Orzech
@tessa_saysrelax
"Interesting to learn that a global pandemic was the only thing that could cure my FOMO."

I definitely think jokes are appropriate, to keep us sane and laughing, but I really hate all the jokes that skew too dark. Like the doomsday ones, it's like, alright this is too scary to make me laugh. We can joke about the way it's affecting everyone's lives, but it has to be funny, not just sad or scary. It's like you can joke about the fact that you won't see your friends for a month, but you can't joke about the fact that one of them might be really sick. If you do go too dark during this climate, the joke actually has the opposite intention and it adds to the collective fear and paranoia. I think times like these separate smart comics from people who just want attention for their ideas. The whole point of comedy is to relieve the tension.

Andrew Tavin
@andrewtavin
"I think it's weird that everyone was calling it coronavirus and then suddenly some people started calling it the Chinese Virus. It's like if I woke up one day and people were just calling bagels 'Jew Bread,' but when I asked about it they got mad at me for not focusing on what's really important: saving all the people being killed by bagels. Like, oh, sorry, I'll go back to my job researching bagel vaccines instead of wasting my time on Facebook." (Don't know if that's any good, but I don't really have a place to try out new material right now . . .)

I think we can—it's a pretty universal thing we're all going through even though it's obviously not going to hit everyone equally. I know people who are either confirmed to have it or probably do. I haven't been writing about it too much but I am going to be doing a livestream show. The technical issues are the big problem. Like, I've been on shows where the mic doesn't work before and it sucks, but [if] worse comes to worst you can do a cappella. I tried to join an Instagram live mic yesterday, and it wouldn't show my video and kept kicking me out. I wanted to do this show on Twitter, but I absolutely couldn't get Twitter livestream to work. Obviously finding an audience when there's already a glut of content is also going to be an issue. But I've done bar shows for three people plenty of times, so, you know, better than literally talking to myself.

Julie Merica
@jmerica
"If all of these 'Social Distancing: Day One' meltdown posts don't encourage at least a few of y'all to foster a cat or dog over the next few weeks I am gonna be so dang disappointed."

I think jokes about traumatic events are unavoidable. Making light of heavy things is how many people cope, including myself. In any happening that tries my emotions, my automatic response is to lighten that mood any way possible. That said, after some life experience, I learned that there is a time and a place for joking about tragedy and the like. The only way you and your "audience" is going to walk away feeling good is if your reaction also incorporates a little empathy towards those at the heartbeat of the trauma. If you remember that there are real people being dramatically affected, consider that, and still think your joke is worthy, shoot your shot. Making people laugh in a time of sorrow is a magical gift. Not everyone has that power. But wield it carefully and tactfully. My thinking is, if you are being a helper in some way, feel free to make jokes that ease the pain. If you're making a joke that is not from a place of love, support, and empathy? Well, it better be fucking good.

Jamie Shriner Biddle
@jamieshrinerbiddle
"I ran a red light and the camera clicked, and I said out loud 'I guess that's what I get for trying to escape corona!' THANKS CORONA." (Not great for print.)

I think not only can we joke about it, we HAVE to joke about it while also taking precautions to take it seriously. I mean, this is upending the world as we know it. We are gonna be the grandparents with pandemic stories. It's a terrifying thing, and the jokes keep us from losing hope that although things are gonna get a lot worse first, they will eventually get better. I am working on some videos of new songs to post—they feel silly 'cause I almost feel like your content HAS to be corona related. I think knowing I'm not gonna get to get up and hear laughs right away is making it harder to put my songs out there. Like what if I post something that isn't actually all that funny? I'm only seeing corona jokes and bits and quarantine life, so I'm like, 'Oh maybe this rap about how messy my car is isn't really what the people need right now?'

Katie Baker
@katiebcomedy
"As a lifelong hypochondriac, watching everyone freak out over coronavirus makes me feel so seen."

We're coming off of a long period in which a lot of people felt like they couldn't joke about things anymore. To me, it's like the universe said, "Everybody is doing way too much right now. This is gonna level the playing field and give everyone the same thing to be upset about." As devastating as this has been for humankind on a global scale, I feel like in this horrifying moment, we're almost unified as a species.

Ryan P. C. Trimble
@ryntern
"Sex with me is like COVID-19: it happened in Europe long before it happened here."

Mainly, as always in comedy, you CAN joke about COVID-19, as long as you're not punching down. Like, am I going to joke about people suffering, or food shortages? No. I've already seen the community band together and do like, Skype open mics or stream canceled shows from an empty theater. I'm part of an improv group called Frogprov, which improvises in French and English, and we were supposed to have a show at iO at the end of the month. We're now discussing the possibility of doing the show but streaming it live from someone's living room after we've all quarantined for two weeks and know we won't spread it to each other. Like, COVID-19 isn't a person. It can't hear our words. That we know of!

Daniella Mazzio
@daniellamazzio
"Kevin Costner is a dad who is ALL WORK and NO PLAY whose kid gets sick a lot and whose wife passed away five years ago from a *vague illness* but when a new virus is sweeping the nation, his high-paying important job doing BUSINESS goes REMOTE quarantined with his son who he's been estranged from since his wife's passing and the nanny who can't go home because of lockdown kevin costner's first concern is making sure his BUSINESS stays in BUSINESS but as the days in quarantine go on, this makeshift family won't just find new ways to pass the time... they'll find each other -Quarantine Quality Time (2021), dir. by Steven Spielberg"

I think like anything, it's not a matter of "too soon," it's a matter of "what's the why?" Because a lot of people are out there making jokes about it because they don't think it's serious, and they think the people taking it seriously are idiots. Using humor to put down folks—especially ones at risk, ones who are scared or who were already disenfranchised and are seeing that magnified times a thousand—what's the point of that? Comedy doesn't need to be a noble cause, but it's gonna be a damaging one right now when it aims to isolate ("This is why I'm right and all of you are stupid," "I would never do this and that," "It's funny that you're upset") rather than connect our experiences ("Have you noticed?" "Wow, this is just like," "Taking a shit during a quarantine—we're all doing it!") I think a lot about comedy around Trump back during the 2016 election, and a lot of it wasn't about our collective witnessing of a nightmare, but it was isolating him as something so absurd, so improbable, it couldn't be taken seriously—then it had to be. It just isn't safe to deny our reality right now, but we can connect on what's totally, hilariously, unworldly about it.

Kendall Klitzke
@kendallklitzke
"If only we had just called #MeToo '#SocialDistancing' maybe it wouldn't have gotten as much pushback."

I think we definitely can. The best stuff I have seen is just making fun of anyone not taking this seriously at all, which I suppose people would assume to be an uncommon stance for a stereotypical comic to take. Also it's mostly just comics making fun of other comics' reaction to the pandemic, which is kind of a snake eating its own tail, but if you have a news feed that is entirely comics, it's really evident. My only public joke on the matter was a tweet that went: "Customer touches me at work Him: Oh wow. I guess I shouldn't have touched you with all of the virus stuff happening. Oh yes, the virus. THAT'S why you shouldn't have touched me."

Jess Martinez
@have_youmetjess
"Coronavirus is right though, I really do need to stay in and save money."

Things like a pandemic mean that everyone is going through a wide range of emotions all at the same time, and progress through a crisis is not linear—the same person can feel really good and hopeful one minute and drop to total despair the next. While I understand that some people aren't ready to laugh or don't think it's appropriate to laugh, there are still people out there who are desperate for a release, and that's my audience. I make jokes when I'm at my worst to keep myself from spiraling. It's a coping mechanism I developed after years of being devastatingly single and not having that one person to run to with everything that ails me. (That's what a relationship is for right? Please advise.) A lot of people are having a really hard time right now and I'm here for them if they need a laugh. I have nothing else to offer in trying times . . . or ever. So, cry, laugh, yell—do you, boo! Just be aware that everyone manages stress differently and many of us haven't experienced anything like this, so even our feelings are like "Wait . . . back up, what's going on?"

Tori Kilkenny
@torikilkenny
"A friend of mine asked what I thought of The Irishman. Let me tell you—too long, hard to finish, and required way too much focus than I anticipated. From now on I'm stickin to Scots and Englishmen."

I think joking about the matter was fun in the beginning, but like all joke fodder, it can get old fast. I feel so inundated with information and opinions on COVID-19. Right now I want comedy to be my escape. On a very real parallel, it feels like joking about Trump. It was funny when it still felt like a joke. Now we're just all living in hell on earth, and I don't want to constantly be reminded of it. And for that reason, I don't have any jokes about it! I "write" as I'm ruminating on something, and I haven't wanted to devote a ton of time to overthinking this current apocalypse.

Liz Stockwell
@lizb0t1
"Ah fuck, now I gotta actually clean with all these wipes I got?"

I think it's really important that we joke about this, especially due to the social isolation factor of this pandemic. People need jokes, they don't all need to be about coronavirus but even those I appreciate. Especially for me. I live alone, so I'm feeling especially isolated and love that people still have the will to create right now. I hope any little joke I make now about any topic will help someone else feel connected too.

Amber Autry
@amberautrycomedy
"My boyfriend has been casually teaching me Jiu jitsu and now is scheduling 'classes' daily. I bought all these brownies for the lockdown and I'm being forced to exercise."

It's weird, I'm getting more opportunity to write, which I wanted but I asked myself today, "If I don't want to write about coronavirus, what else do I wanna write about? Is anything goofy funny right now?" As of now I'm going to continue to write and trust myself. Laughter always prevails! v

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