The Perfect Quarantine Joke Is Not About Quarantine

Comedy, the adage goes, is tragedy plus time. But in this pandemic, even humor has no idea what the future holds.

Simoul Alva

The Video starts with a woman and a man, both dressed in black. He wears a straw hat. She has very long hair. He turns his back to the camera. She situates herself in front of him, facing the viewer, then bends at the waist, flipping her hair over. She moves her shoulders slightly. Together, the two people … look like a horse. Her hair is the tail. Her shoulders are the rump. That is the extent of the joke. They saunter, a ridiculous centaur, as “A Horse With No Name” plays in the background.

I can’t stop thinking about that video, in part because it requires so little in the way of thinking. It’s one of the many small jokes I’ve been turning to when I need to turn away from the news: The Adele concert attended—and “performed”—by gummy bears. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding portrait re-created with the help of a quilted comforter and a plastic bucket. The toilets that have been converted into brooding smokers. These bite-size jokes, punch lines devoid of setups, flourish on TikTok and Twitter and Instagram and Marco Polo. They’re short and silly and, above all, detached from the world’s events. They allow their viewers, for a moment, to forget about the things that might otherwise occupy their minds: The tents in Central Park. The burial pits. The caregivers who work without proper masks. The lost work. The overwork. The funerals that cannot be held. The loved ones who cannot be held. All the ways, right now, people are suffering.

The jokes, in style, are familiar. They are part of the genre of humor that evolved with the internet: clever, democratized, visually oriented, wonderfully amateur. In the context of quarantine, though, their silliness begins to read as especially meaningful—and especially radical.

Americans are accustomed, in times of national trauma, to asking questions that assume there is a right way to laugh, and a wrong one: Is it okay to make jokes? Is it too soon? And we have been accustomed to seeking some of the answers from figures of authority: professional entertainers, in particular, whose job has been to find comedy even in tragedy. If you can turn on the TV at 11:35 p.m. and watch Jimmy Fallon making light of the day’s news, you can also be assured that things are, on some level, under control. You can know that the answer to “Is it too soon?” is “No.” But the pandemic has quarantined the comedians, too. Their studios have been closed. The structure they provided simply by showing up, day after day, has been obliterated. In its place is comedy that, very purposely, does not outwardly acknowledge tragedy at all.

In the weeks after 9/11, cultural critics began declaring the “death of irony.” The wounds of the attacks were so deep, their arguments went, that laughter would never be quite the same again. For a time, even the professionally humorous agreed with those assessments. “Forgive me if this is more for me than it is for people watching, I’m sorry, but uh, I just, I have to go through this,” David Letterman said in his first Late Show monologue after the attacks. “I have never, ever felt more unsure or more at a loss than I do tonight,” Conan O’Brien admitted. “What’s funny about what’s unfolding here? Nothing,” a Comedy Central spokesperson told the Associated Press. Will Ferrell noted that he and his fellow Saturday Night Live performers would have to “keep our foot off the gas pedal for a while” when it came to “the political and topical humor we’re usually known for.”

That sentiment, however, did not last long. And you can pinpoint the moment it ended: SNL’s season premiere in late September 2001—a show that began with an orchestrated reintroduction of laughter. The show’s opening monologue featured Paul Simon performing “The Boxer,” an enormous American flag draped behind him. Rudy Giuliani, then New York City’s mayor, and a group of the city’s first responders had introduced the singer, and the tribute was deeply earnest in its tenor. But then the tone shifted. Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator, joined Giuliani onstage. The politician delivered a line about the symbolism of SNL going on with its show. The producer nodded, then asked a question: “Can we be funny?”

The mayor paused as the audience tittered. (They’d apparently read the eulogies for irony too.) Then he delivered the punch line: “Why start now?”

The words worked as both rebuke and permission. The men’s stilted exchange insisted that laughter wouldn’t be another casualty of the attacks. Instead, like New Yorkers—like Americans—it was resilient. The applause that met Giuliani’s quip was defiant; you could also detect in it, though, a note of relief. Time would march on. And it would sweep people up in its forward movement.

The SNL performance, of course, was just that: a performance. It was also wishful thinking. Humor is approximately as complicated as human beings are; it does not respect prescribed boundaries (“in good taste,” “offensive”) with easy compliance. The jokes of the post-9/11 moment, at least the ones offered by the mass media, were willful: Late-night hosts were soon back to mocking Britney Spears and the malapropisms of George W. Bush. But the jokes were also blithe: They tended to gloss over the fact that what some Americans might have experienced after 9/11 (patriotism, maybe, or defiance, or pride) was immensely different from what many other Americans were experiencing: violence, xenophobia, outrage, fear, shame. In the name of national unity, the jokes often underplayed, and downplayed. It’s not too soon to laugh, they insisted. Even though, for many—for the people who lacked the luxury of chuckling at the world from the safe distance of a TV screen—it very definitely was.

A key quality of quarantine comedy is that it does not make claims about what is “too soon” or in-bounds—in part because its humor involves no sense of narrative movement at all. War is not the correct analogy for the COVID-19 crisis, but one thing the comparison gets right is that no one knows when, how, or—terrifyingly—whether the pandemic might end. Comedy, the adage goes, is tragedy plus time. But “time,” right now, is a deeply uncertain variable. The new virus is patient. It hides in plain sight. Days, weeks, months, years of this: Each is a possibility. And so the pandemic doesn’t simply consume time, eating away at the hours. It also nullifies time as a reliable concept. The virus makes a mockery of schedules and calendars and, as it turns out, comedy as an outgrowth of ethics. Is it too soon to laugh? is not a useful question when there is no way to know what “soon” really means.

Quarantine comedy reacts to that state of affairs with a nihilism that is entirely reasonable. It lives in the moment. Many of the best quarantine jokes, their actions looped, their moods loopy, come from a place of boredom—and that is generally preferable, they implicitly acknowledge, to a place of grief. The jokes tend to look away from the reason quarantine is required in the first place: In their tiny worlds—worlds of horse-humans and operatic gummy bears and chain-smoking toilets—there is no talk of pandemic. There is only easy escapism. This week, some people constructed a tiny wooden picnic table, hooked it to a fence, set a tiny bowl of nuts on it, and waited until a squirrel came for a feast. When I saw the picture that resulted, I laughed. (A squirrel! Picnicking!) I also felt extremely fortunate that I still had the laughter in me. Very soon, I might not.

What quarantine humor knows is a version of what other forms of humor have understood as well: Laughter is a blessing. Laughter is also, quite often, a coping mechanism. Abraham Lincoln, physically removed from the carnage of the Civil War but otherwise intimately involved in it, depended on humor—bad jokes, escapist anecdotes, his own version of the improvised squirrel picnic—to get by. Confronted by the “fearful strain that is upon me night and day,” he once put it, “if I did not laugh, I should die.” The term humor derives from ancient physicians’ assumption that the human body was governed by four elemental liquids (“humors”), which determined a person’s health and temperament. Mirth is elemental. Quarantine jokes understand that. Their humor—silly, small, lo-fi, low-stakes—has a humanism to it. “Do you know what I like about comedy?” Stephen Colbert asked in 2012. “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”

Colbert, notably, has deployed the logic of quarantine humor in his own recent comedy. (Before The Late Show returned this week—in segments shot from his home—he performed a monologue from his bathtub.) Comedians who once helped people navigate thorny questions of “how soon” and “how much” are now offering comedy that … isn’t really sure of the answers. Their shows—shot in woods and on stoops and in hallways and in hoodies—telegraph uncertainty. They ask more questions than they answer.

And that is, it turns out, reassuring. The future is profoundly uncertain. Pretending otherwise would be dishonest. We’re muddling through the unknowns together—with the help of whatever jokes we can think of, and whatever laughter we can muster along the way. Some professional comedians are, in a way, doing what they did in the Before Times. Trevor Noah, in a series cheekily renamed The Daily Social Distancing Show, recently interviewed Anthony Fauci, the country’s top medical expert on the coronavirus crisis. Seth Meyers continues to offer regular excoriations of Donald Trump’s political and moral failings. The entertainers are still finding ways to acknowledge that comedy tangles with tragedy.

But they are doing something else too: They’re conceding something to the chaos. James Corden, this week, hosted a prime-time telethon that was notable not only for its tone of socially distanced defiance, but also for its feeling of frenzy. Noah and his Daily Show colleagues offered an extended joke about their utter inability to regulate time. Too soon? the old question goes. No, the new comedy answers, still. But it’s no longer as certain as it was before.