Study: Jokes Can Indeed Be 'Too Soon'

Hurricane humor was least funny 15 days after the event, and funniest 36 days after.
Son of Groucho/flickr

Problem: Humor is a real and helpful coping strategy. From the darkest depths of despair, a joke may rise. The risk there, of course, is that everyone may not find it funny, that a joke, even one intended to release a little tension in the aftermath of something traumatic, might come across as inappropriate. You may be met with a narrowing of the eyes and a contemptuous “Too soon.”

But when, exactly, is a joke too soon? Can it be too late? They say comedy is tragedy plus time, but how much time? What is the exact best moment to deploy your joke for maximum laughs? Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Texas A&M University mapped this out for the benefit of nervous jokesters everywhere.

Methodology: A total of 1,064 participants took an online survey at various times before, during, and after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012. “Although most tragedies are unanticipated, hurricanes permit a full exploration of the humor derived from tragedy because they are tracked and publicized before they inflict harm,” the researchers reasoned.

I’m actually just going to quote the study’s own description of its methodology here, because it’s adorably academic: “Participants responded to three tweets (i.e., short messages) posted on the website, by an account titled @AHurricaneSandy about the approaching storm (e.g., ‘‘JUS BLEW DA ROOF OFF A OLIVE GARDEN FREE BREADSTICKS 4 EVERYONE’’; Figure 1).”

Participants then rated how funny they thought the tweets were, as well as how offensive, upsetting, boring, irrelevant and confusing.

Results: The researchers divided the surveys into “during crisis” and “after crisis.” The day before the storm made landfall, people thought the tweets were pretty funny—they didn’t yet know it would be a tragedy. Over the next nine days, as people learned the extent of the damage, perceived humor declined. Participants found the tweets least funny 15 days after Sandy’s landfall.

Then, it slowly started to be “okay” to find humor in the situation again, leading to a high point of humor 36 days after landfall. Humor fell again after that, and researchers saw another low point 99 days after the disaster. The study also showed that during the first dip in perceived humor, participants found the tweets more offensive.

Implications: “Most humor theories have difficulty accounting for evidence that distance sometimes helps and sometimes hurts humor,” the researchers write. “We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot. A tragic event is difficult to joke about at first, but the passage of time initially increases humor as the event becomes less threatening. Eventually, however, distance decreases humor by making the event seem completely benign.”

They also posit that when a joke seems offensive, it’s because there is a perceived threat, and that “threat reduction” enhances humor. That explains why the jokes were funniest about a month after the disaster, when the danger had passed. But jokes about something less traumatic than a hurricane could be funny sooner:  “More tragic events, such as a devastating hurricane, should take longer to become sources of humor than less tragic events, such as a drenching downpour.” So if the thing you want to joke about is less tragic than a hurricane, you probably don’t have to wait a whole month.

The study, "The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy," appeared in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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