Once when I was the news editor in Wichita, Dave Barry came to visit. Since he was Knight Ridder’s biggest star, an opportunity was set up for him to meet and bat the breeze with some folks from the newsroom.
It was a light, banter-filled session. At one point, newsroom comedian Dennis Boone challenged Dave by asking, with mock indignation, why he and the rest of us, who worked for the same company, had to sweat away at hard work for long hours while Dave got paid to crack jokes. Barry smiled a satisfied smile and answered with one word: “Talent.”
I had a question I wanted to ask, too, but it felt out of place. It’s one I’ve thought of a lot over the years with regard to humor. It would have gone like this: “Do you ever feel guilty about cracking jokes to a mass audience? Do you ever wonder, when you make a real killer joke about, say, cancer, how many people reading it just lost a loved one to cancer, thereby making your bon mot like a knife to the heart?”
But I decided the question was too dark for the venue — downright weird, really — so I didn’t ask it that day. Nor did I when I ran into Dave again in Atlanta in 1988, where he and I were both covering the Democratic National Convention. We were in the makeshift KR work area in the World Trade Center, and he was telling me about some practical joke that he and others were pulling on Mike Royko over in the next press encampment (I forget what form the gag took). Again, not the right time.
I like a joke as much as the next guy, and probably more than most. I’m generally the guy most likely to go off on a facetious digression in a serious meeting, if only to keep myself interested. I’m guilty of a great deal of the kind of gallows humor that people in newsrooms use to distance themselves from the unpleasantness they report on. (I have my limits, though. I’ve never participated, for instance, in a death pool.) And sometimes I’d forget myself and act that way outside the newsroom. Early in my career, when I’d hardly had time to be jaded (the youngest, least-experienced journalists are often the worst, anxious to show how hardened they are), I was playing tennis one evening with another guy while my wife watched us. There was suddenly a loud, horrible screeching sound followed by a tremendous crash on the nearby busy street that was just out of sight. I said with a grin, “Let’s play that point over; that noise distracted me.” My wife was horrified, and when she pointed out that someone may have just been killed, I felt the appropriate regret, or at least I like to think so. But I knew that we said things that cold all the time at work, about all sorts of human tragedies. We might even dignify it by relating it to professional detachment.
Over time, that sort of humor became less and less the special province of journalists, cops and others who dealt routinely with the uglier sides of life. Starting about the time that “Saturday Night Live” started its long run, society as a whole started accepting an ironic approach to terrible things. A landmark might have been Dan Akroyd’s hilarious sketch in which Julia Child is bleeding to death from a wound inflicted while preparing a meal. Over the years we devolved from that down to laughing at “South Park” and “Family Guy.” We got hipper and hipper and more and more ironic.
Now, with the Web, the lines between professional and audience are largely erased, and everyone competes to be the biggest wiseacre on the Twitter feed. But I was struck today by a gag among professionals that I felt crossed the line — to the extent that there still is a line:
Was he on a plane? RT @TheFix: Man who handles poisonous snakes dies from….wait for it…a poisonous snake bite. http://ow.ly/bf0HQ
To interpret for those not familiar with the Twitter syntax, @TheFix (the feed of the blog written by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post) said “Man who handles poisonous snakes dies from….wait for it…a poisonous snake bite.” He also provided the link to this story, “Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite.” Then, Celeste Headlee, the co-host of The Takeaway, which I regularly enjoy on public radio), added “Was he on a plane?”
At this point I decided to play wet blanket — the Harry Hairshirt, the Captain Buzzkill, the Church Lady — and replied:
This was a human being who suffered an untimely and painful death, folks.
No one answered, and that was merciful of them. I had committed such a gaffe, slathering on the self-righteousness like that.
But come on, people.
By the way, if you read the story at the link, it’s appropriately and sensitively done. After all, it’s written by someone who actually got to know the victim in the course of profiling him. That’s an interesting thing about journalistic facetiousness — the reporter out in the field who gets to know sources as human beings is almost never as cynical as the desk types who never leave the newsroom. To the reporter, this wasn’t just some redneck yahoo who took his Bible too literally — which these days is a stock character tout le monde is encouraged to laugh at. He’s a human being who believed in something, rightly or wrongly, and died for it.
Died horribly, in case you don’t know anything about snakebite (and if you don’t, the story sets you straight).
Yeah, I know I was acting like a prig, and that’s no way to get followers on Twitter. But there it is.