Updated: Apr 5
For yet another year, April Fool’s Day came and went. Unlike other years, 2020 felt like one long April Fool’s Day. After all, 2020 started with potential World War III, Australia burning, and, oh yeah, now there’s locusts.
Did I forget to mention Covid-19?
I did, didn’t I?
Yeah. There’s Covid-19.
This year, April Fool’s Day was a difficult day to pull off a prank because everyone was so high strung and tense. To be safe, I thought no one would participate this year.
I was wrong. Many people still pulled pranks of the usual variety. Successful. Harmless. “Oh, no, you got me!” *cue laughter* sort of thing.
Other people, like Korean Celebrity Jaejoong, joked about being hospitalised with Covid-19 for April Fool’s Day. Now, he’s facing possible lawsuits and losing income because of how poorly his prank was received.
“But we need humour in these times!” someone might say. I am inclined to agree.
But . . . where is the line? What makes a good joke in the middle of a pandemic? Are we able to joke around about Covid-19? Is it too soon, or the right time because we’re going through it? How can we stay upbeat about the current state of the world without being insensitive to people really struggling with Covid-19?
Below are some helpful guides for what makes jokes appropriate or inappropriate.
INAPPROPRIATE: MAKING PEOPLE THINK YOU’RE IN DANGER
I don’t know who is reading this, but people care about you. They care about your health, they care about your safety, they want you to be okay in these difficult times. Joking about your personal safety, therefore, isn’t funny to people who care about your wellbeing. Why was Jaejoong’s April Fool’s Day joke so reprehensible? Because people care about him. In Covid-19, lots of people are worried their loved ones are going to be next, especially if their loved ones are elderly/have preexisting conditions. Misleading people who care about you doesn’t make them laugh, it gives them a heart attack. It makes them worry. Perhaps you’ll be laughing because you pulled the wool over their eyes. But your loved ones? They’ll probably be angry.
APPROPRIATE: MAKING FUN OF BAD BEHAVIOUR
Toilet paper hoarding anyone? Part of humour is how it comments on abnormal behaviour, and makes us reanalyse actions we might take for granted. When Covid-19 first reached North America and Oceania, that’s really when people started brawling over toilet paper. Then, there was a lot of pushback by comedians, meme artists, basically people using humour as a method of calling people out in a lighthearted, non-threatening way. The behaviour was made fun of, and it seems like people by and large stopped doing it. There wasn’t the same fervour to repeat the behaviour because humour made people realise how ridiculous hoarding toilet paper was. Humour, to that end, can be used to correct bad behaviour by making fun of it.
INAPPROPRIATE: MAKING FUN OF PEOPLE WHO ARE SUFFERING
The safest way to joke in comedy is to make fun of yourself. If you’re going to make fun of someone else, you need to “punch up.” In a non-pandemic period of time, this means we make fun of people who are of a higher class, a higher social status, people who make more money, essentially people who have lots of power. Punching up challenges the status quo, pushes people towards social change, and ultimately makes fun of people who will face little to no consequences for your joke. If you make fun of people with less power, who are suffering, your jokes might reinforce inappropriate social norms that hold them down. Apply this logic to the pandemic: joking about healthy celebrities effectively social distancing from the comfort of their mansions is very different from joking about immigrants being detained by ICE and possibly getting Covid-19. Joking around about people in relative safety is a lot different from joking around about sites hard hit by the virus with high death tolls. See the difference?
APPROPRIATE: USING HUMOUR AS AN EDUCATIONAL TOOL (AKA: EDUTAINMENT)
One of the things that made me laugh was when the WHO guidelines came out for how to wash hands properly for twenty seconds. Yenno, the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Then people doctored a hand washing info pic so that instead of “Happy Birthday” it was some other twenty second fragment. Like, the opening to Star Trek: The Next Generation for example. This is one example about how using a lighthearted approach is actually more educational because these doctored images spread like wildfire over social media—and now everyone has their favourite twenty second fragment when they wash their hands.
INAPPROPRIATE: SPREADING MISINFORMATION
A bookend to using humour as an educational tool: using humour to spread misinformation. Sure, it might be funny to joke about Covid-19 statistics, or where it started, or to rename the virus. It might also be funny to write fake stories of people who did strange things to cure the virus. Or to write government conspiracies. But this is the internet: someone, somewhere, will believe what you write. Then, the misinformation might spread like wildfire, getting in the way of WHO doing its job, and local governments looking to educate people. It might be funny to “pull the wool over someone’s eyes,” but misinformation in a time like this is quite dangerous. Humour, at its core, needs to be factual in a pandemic.
APPROPRIATE: MAKING LIGHT OF NONLETHAL SUFFERING
Social distancing takes a serious toll on mental health. It’s a form of suffering to be distanced from other people. It’s especially hard if you’re social distancing alone, away from friends and family. It’s not life threatening, but it’s still suffering. Most people are suffering from "collective trauma," and need a good laugh. But there's no laughing to be seen around the house where they're confined. Things seem hopeless . . . Then, there comes that video of the person in social isolation covering Disney songs, but switching out the lyrics with Covid-19 social distancing lyrics—singing things we were all thinking in our heads. We laugh. It’s relatable. Our suffering, at least momentarily, was eased because someone took the time to make a funny video based on the current circumstances. There have been lots of videos along this vein. Taking an experience most people are sharing, and putting a comedic twist on it can ease suffering. But what we make light of is important: making light of social distancing is very different from joking about Italy’s high death toll.
INAPPROPRIATE: STUPID JOKES
It’s kind of sad I need to say this but . . . jokes need to be clever. If the punchline to the joke is Covid-19, then . . . it’s not a clever joke. Because the virus is so serious, people who are joking need to make that much more effort to write clever, intelligent jokes. This means: puns, however easy to make, are out. Normally, they’re quite funny, but a Covid-19 pun just isn’t clever enough for a pandemic. Pranks, like an April Fool’s Day Prank, shouldn’t centre around Covid-19. Pranks aren’t clever enough for a pandemic. Basically, if your joke is really obvious, doesn’t require a lot of thought, or if Covid-19 is the punchline then . . . it’s not a clever enough joke. Don’t make stupid jokes about Covid-19.
APPROPRIATE: MAKING A JOKE TO PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
One of the amazing things about humour is how it can comment on our current situation and put things in perspective. Think of Covid-19 as a hammer that has shattered our semblance of everyday life. More and more people are working from home. More and more people are also unsure if they’ll have jobs once the pandemic is over. We are physically separated from friends and family. Life, as we know it, is broken. Humour can be an effective tool to help us pick up the pieces, and put our current situation into perspective. A great example is someone who joked, “I realise I don’t want a dream job anymore. I just don’t want to work.” With learning most jobs can, actually, be remotely done, we’re facing the possibility of more freedom with work. This type of humour picks up the pieces by addressing the situation caused by the pandemic, and providing a stepping stone to what the future could look like.
INAPPROPRIATE: MAKING JOKES TOO CLOSE TO HOME
One of the fundamental rules of comedy, regardless of a pandemic or not, is that jokes shouldn’t hit too close to home. To find something funny, you require a bit of distance from it. People talk a lot these days about getting offended, and how it seems like everyone is “getting offended” these days. Getting offended is just another way to say, “That joke you told hurt me.” If someone doesn’t find your Covid-19 joke funny, maybe it’s because someone they love has it. Or, they’re too scared of Covid-19 to find the jokes funny. People who are too close to Covid-19 won’t find jokes funny because there’s isn’t enough distance for the joke to be funny. It has nothing to do with sensibilities, and everything to do with how humour, as a mechanism, works. When someone doesn’t find a joke funny, or they find a joke offensive, we need to think of that person less as someone who “has no sense of humour” and think about them more as someone who is too close to the suffering you’re joking around about.
And this last point is what makes joking about Covid-19 so complicated. Some people who read this list of points will think all forms of jokes should be tolerated. Other people who read this list will say no forms of jokes should be tolerated. Who is right and who is wrong? The answer is simple: nobody is entirely right or wrong.
Humour is subjective at the best of times. With Covid-19, humour is even more subjective because tensions are running high. Basically, every time you make a meme, or post a joke on social media, to tell a Covid-19-related joke, it’s a coin toss. Either your audience will love the joke, or the joke will emotionally injure them.
Should we stop telling jokes about Covid-19?
No. I think the better way to go forward is to simply think about the impacts our jokes will have on other people. Why are we telling the joke? Are we looking to call out bad behaviour, to educate people, to put a situation into perspective, to ease suffering?
Or, was it a bad pun shower thought with skewered statistics?
There is clearly a difference in quality, but also a clear difference in intention. Telling a clever joke requires intention. If we approach Covid-19 related humour with intention, and a goal for telling the joke, we are ensuring we tell intelligent jokes that have a "net positive" (most people find it funny) result.
We will never make everyone happy with a joke, pandemic or not. But if we approach humour intelligently, and make an effort to tell jokes with intent, we have a greater chance of telling jokes with a net positive outcome.
We also need to think critically about how we justify our humour. Putting the blame on the people who are “offended” isn’t enough. People telling jokes actually need to think critically about why they are telling a joke. Why did Jaejoong make that April Fool’s Day prank? Can he justify why this joke belongs in the world? Probably not. If you can’t provide detail on why a joke deserves a net positive response, then it probably shouldn’t be told. After all, in our age of call out culture, we may be called on to justify our words and jokes.
Putting the onus on people who are offended to “get a sense of humour” is not only immature, it shows that clearly no thought went into the joke. But that’s a conversation about jokes for another day.
Right now, when we joke about the pandemic, let’s do so intelligently, and with intent. There are good things that can come of humour, like spreading information, calling out bad behaviour in a nonthreatening way, and giving people social distancing some much-needed levity. But to make sure we're not stepping over the line of appropriate and inappropriate, let's always be clear about why we are telling the jokes we do.