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12 March 2022

No laughing matter: Why can’t we make jokes about the unspeakable?

What we need is a commentator with the anger and the wit of a Swift or a Wilde; what we get is someone being amusing on Twitter.

By Alexander Larman

In 1959, with the threat of nuclear annihilation preoccupying the world, the satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer released More of Tom Lehrer. Over its eleven songs, Lehrer sang about everything from the joys of publicly murdering vermin (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”), the pleasures of consensual BDSM sex (“The Masochism Tango”) and the various iniquities perpetuated by the American military (“It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier”).

Its final number, “We Will All Go Together When We Go”, most effectively demonstrated Lehrer’s gift for mordant satire. He introduced live performances of the song by saying, “I have here a modern positive dynamic, uplifting in the tradition of the great old revival hymns. This one might more accurately be termed a survival hymn.” Its cynicism is both bracing and hilarious. Lehrer looks at the prospect of armageddon with wry amusement, alert to the levelling effects of the prospect of the planet’s destruction:

And we will all bake together when we bake.
There’ll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.

Lehrer, now 93, has long since retired from writing and performing. But at a time when we are just as wracked by collective anxiety and fear about the state of the world as Lehrer’s audiences were six decades ago, it is clear that we need satirists of his calibre, who are not afraid to mine the blackest subjects for their humour in a fashion that might be both cathartic and hilarious. Lehrer’s listeners had been through the horrors of the Second World War and, less than two decades after that had concluded, now faced the possibility of nuclear annihilation. It was a time of universal anxiety, even horror, but his ability to move wild laughter in the throat of death was unparalleled.

Now we look in vain for satirists and commentators who have the skill to make jokes about Ukraine, Putin, Covid and the other thousand horrors that throng the news every day that can both amuse and provoke, rather than simply shock. Social media is ever a source of gallows humour about these issues, but by and large witty people being self-consciously cynical about current events can only divert, rather than challenge. What society needs is a commentator with the anger and the wit of a Swift or a Wilde; what we get, instead, is someone being amusing on Twitter in the hope of harvesting likes and retweets.

There are, of course, some present-day satirists of genius. Tim Minchin, perhaps the closest that we have to a 21st-century Lehrer, has written songs that have explicitly criticised the Australian Cardinal George Pell and those who supported the “No” cause in the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey in 2017; they marry wit and anger to thrilling and powerful effect. Armando Iannucci tried to make sense of the British government’s contradictory and flawed response to the Covid crisis with his hugely ambitious verse satire Pandemonium. It might not have been entirely successful, but there was no doubt that it represented Iannucci trying something laudable.

Yet despite these efforts, there seems to be a general acknowledgement that the present situation is too awful to make jokes about, and that we should refrain from doing so, for fear, somehow, of making matters worse. There are many things we have been solemnly informed that we should not — must not ­— laugh about. The Holocaust, 9/11, child abuse and so on, until we have an entire Pandora’s Box of subjects that are considered taboo. Yet throughout history the brave and the tasteless alike (notably from all sides of the political spectrum; this is decidedly not a culture wars issue) have tried to make sense of the often appalling and unfair world in which we live, and have chosen to use black comedy and satire to make their point. Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove could be accused of trivialising nuclear war, but its focus is less the horror of a planetary conflagration and more the pettifogging absurdity of human behaviour in extremis, best exemplified by the hapless President Merkin Muffley’s outraged statement that “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

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Nobody could see the news reports of the horrors taking place in Ukraine and not be deeply affected. You could not be a compassionate human and fail to feel sorrow at the plight of the displaced masses, and anger at the inhumanity of Putin. But there is still a rich vein of dark humour to be found, whether it is the subversive social media memes that Ukrainian official channels are using or the inevitable comedy that has arisen from the often blundering antics of the Russian invaders (there is particular black farce in the way in which top-ranking generals keep getting killed by being placed in situations of extraordinary danger).

So if humour feels in bad taste at the moment, remember the despairing response of Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare’s tragedy. After being confronted with some fresh horror, Titus laughs, and his appalled brother asks, “Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.” Titus can only answer, “Why, I have not another tear to shed.” It was this impulse that Lehrer, and other great satirists, understood so well. We laugh, because we have no more tears left.

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