Gutelle: Reevaluating the boundaries of “too soon”

Sam Gutelle

I’d like to think I’m funny. It’s my hope that there are people in my life who would answer “yes” if you asked if I make them laugh. When I’m happy, I cheer others up with jokes. When I’m not, I use humor to make myself feel better. In my constant pursuit of new material, I often find myself encountering a particularly troublesome pair of words:

“Too soon.”

It would seem that there is an off-limits period when making jokes about sensitive subjects. When this period ends, no one knows. Which tragedies are subject to the doctrine of “too soon” is also often a mystery. Yet, despite its nebulous boundaries, “too soon” has become a rule of thumb, a snap reaction to any light-hearted material that lies outside of one’s comfort zone.

Two days after Muammar Gaddafi was killed in Libya, he became the inspiration for my Halloween costume at the suggestion of a creative friend. I think it’s a great idea. With his distinctive dress and newsmaking ability, Gaddafi is guaranteed to get a smile from any politically conscious partygoer. And yet, as I have pitched this idea to friends, I have heard those inescapable two words a number of times. “Too soon for Gaddafi humor,” friends have told me. “Why don’t you give it at least a couple of weeks?”

Why? A man’s death is always a sensitive subject, but haven’t there been instances where it was laughed at almost immediately? Consider the Darwin Awards, a collection of hundreds of stories of people who have humorously eliminated themselves from the gene pool. Ninety percent of these people are dead; many were married with children. Yet there’s no denying that these stories are funny. They’re funny no matter how much time has passed. “Too soon” does not apply. And if you’re going to have exceptions, where do you draw the line? This is my problem with “too soon”. If it doesn’t work for every situation, how do you tell when it applies?

It’s not as if it would be so hard to, as a culture, come up with a better metric. Consider psychology: As new versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have been released, more and more mental health issues are being characterized not as a case of “you have it or you don’t” but as a degree on a continuum. Perfect health is all the way on the left, with the most severe cases on the right. Most cases, however, fall right in the middle. Why not apply this system to sensitive topics? A really mean spirited joke about Gaddafi’s death is not the same as a light-hearted Halloween costume, and they should not be judged on equal terms. For greater tragedies, more care is required.

Shouldn’t it be about the joke? The topic is no more than a vehicle for the punchline. A truly tasteless joke isn’t tasteless because it’s about a sore subject; it’s tasteless because it’s unfunny, mean and inconsiderate. I hope on Oct. 31, I’m not the only person to realize that a little light-hearted humor can always make situations a little bit brighter.

Sam Gutelle is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]