17 April 2007

Jokes About Murder

I've missed the actual anniversary by a couple of days, but I'll say something on point regardless.

It was on April 15 that John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln.

In recent decades, there has circulated various versions of a joke that has the punchline, "Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was your night at the theatre?"

But I've been told that its bad taste to tell the same joke, ending it with, "how was the open-air ride through Dallas?"

Is it just a matter of the passage of time? How does that work? In the 1960s, a broadcast network aired Hogan's Heroes, deriving humor from a Nazi prison camp. That would suggest a twenty year moratorium on jokes about such tragic circumstances, after which they become fair game.

But then, the "open air ride" joke should be unobjectionable.

Of course, Hogan's Heroes wasn't very funny. But I suspect that's just because it was written by network hacks. The Producers, in its various incarnations, was the creation of geniuses, and was very funny.

I'm just wondering, as always, whether there are some implicit rules I've never quite been clued in on....


Henry said...

"Hogan's Heroes" is not exactly analgous to the Lincoln joke and the Kennedy joke. The humor of the Lincoln and Kennedy jokes derives from their minimizing the tragedy in question, whereas, though "Hogan's Heroes" arguably minimized the horror of the Nazis, it is not from that minimization that its humor derived; its humor derived more from the minimization of the Nazis' intelligence; i.e., by portraying them as bumbling fools. (Keep in mind that Nazi POW camps were not comparable to Nazi concentration camps; at least when French composer Olivier Messiaen was in a Nazi POW camp, the guards gave him a private room in which to compose and then allowed the work he came up with -- Quartet for the End of Time, one of the great pieces of 20th-century classical music -- to be performed by four prisoner-musicians for guards and prisoners.) This is not to say that one should be comfortable watching "Hogan's Heroes" portray Nazis as buffoons. Its doing so seems comparable to Slate's continuing series of "Bushisms." To highlight Bush's verbal infelicities while he continues to imprison people and torture people without even filing charges against them arguably minimizes the horror of Bush.

Henry said...

I see another difference between "The Producers" and "Hogan's Heroes," in addition to the differing talent of their respective creators. "Hogan's Heroes" portrayed Nazis as buffoons, whereas "The Producers" portrayed a theater producer portraying Nazis as buffoons. The fact that the portrayal of Nazis in "The Producers" was once-removed makes it less offensive. It is comparable to the difference that exists between an essayist expressing obnoxious ideas in his own name, and a fiction writer writing in the first person and having a character express those same ideas.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.