Humor, pandemic style

A joke fell flat on the stage of Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, but the reverberations are still being heard across the country.  It happened when Woody Harrelson shocked the live audience with this short joke about a Hollywood script he had rejected:

Okay, so the movie goes like this: The biggest drug cartels in the world get together and buy up all the media and all the politicians and force all the people in the world to stay locked in their homes. And people can only come out if they take the cartel's drugs and keep taking them, over and over. I threw the script away. I mean, who is gonna believe that crazy idea?

The audience fell mostly silent, with only a few nervous titters.

Then, after letting what he had just dared to say hang in the air over his shocked audience a few seconds longer, Harrelson recovered by adding, "Being forced to do drugs?  I do that voluntarily all day long."

Finally, some real laughter erupted.  But why was the initial response so tepid?

According to some popular theories of humor, the "crazy idea" part of Harrelson's joke seemed to follow the standard formula of "incongruity."  This article in Scientific American, "What's So Funny: The Science of Why We Laugh," explains the theory this way: "People laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts, and at defiance [or violation] of their expectations — that is, at the incongruity between expectations and reality."

Pre-pandemic, Harrelson's audience would probably have laughed, immediately and with gusto.  A drug cartel that, with media cooperation, got the government to lock people in their homes until they repeatedly took the cartel's drugs?  Who would fall for that scheme?  Hahaha.

The only part of the joke the audience seemed to get was that Harrelson was hinting at the pandemic measures and vaccine mandates.  And they likely felt they were the brunt of it — the passive citizens who willingly complied with the insanity.  It made them squirm in their studio seats, uncomfortable at hearing it said out loud in such a brutally honest manner, especially when they were there to be entertained.  They probably felt embarrassment, consoling themselves that the feeling was for Harrelson, and surely not themselves.

After all these months of constant conditioning over the morality and "the Science" behind the measures and assertions that objections or skepticism implied lack of caring for others — most likely, the audience reflexively found reprehensible, and definitely not humorous, any suggestion that any of it — including their participation — was less than the best that could have been done.  To them, to imply otherwise was taboo, certainly not acceptable as the punch line of a joke.  (If so, that level and pervasiveness of psychological conditioning is no laughing matter, either.  See Mass Formation.)

The basic theory of incongruity does seem to explain the audience's failure to laugh.  The audience heard congruence, not incongruity — a positive conformity.  They were conditioned to view the pandemic response not with skepticism, but as ethical and right, as well as its mandates.  For them, the joke failed the humor formula all the way around.

The Scientific American article also mentions another theory, "benign violation," which expands on the incongruity concept.  It posits that the response is laughter "when a person simultaneously recognizes both that an ethical, social, or physical norm has been violated and that this violation is not very offensive, reprehensible or upsetting.  Hence, someone who judges a violation as no big deal will be amused, whereas someone who finds it scandalous, disgusting or simply uninteresting will not."

Hopefully, at least a sliver of Harrelson's silent audience, in that fleeting moment, recognized that the entire pandemic response was indeed a violation of ethical norms, and that the violation was a very big deal.  A congruency of truths that not only would not elicit laughter, but shock into silence.

It was as though Harrelson had been playing the role of the little boy who dared to shout the truth that the emperor had no clothes.  In that famous tale, the crowd came to their senses, and the emperor was embarrassed.  But in Harrelson's version, he went on to assure both the crowd and the emperor that he still looked great in his underwear.  And then they all cheered.  If only Harrelson were teasing about the folly of a fictional emperor rather than the perilous state of the whole world.

Before the pandemic, we were conditioned to believe "experts."  To trust that our government protected our civil rights.  That public health authorities prioritized individual health.  That agencies reliably oversaw drug trials, manufacturing, and safety.  That doctors' employers and the government would not interfere with the patient-doctor relationship.  That all "vaccines" were good.  That we had informed consent for medical treatments.

The violation of those basic concepts during the last three years has been the reality, not the stuff of a fictional Hollywood script.  Harrelson's audience did not laugh at his description of its plot.  They shouldn't have.  It's certainly not funny.  It is frightening, however, that so many still don't get why.

Image: LBJ Library.

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