Is it too soon to joke about COVID-19?

Is it too soon to joke about COVID-19?

How comedy can re-engage us with current affairs

There’s nothing funny about COVID-19. But in a news environment that is saturated with breaking news that in normal times would likely be front page stories for days, but may now only be the biggest story that hour, comedy can help a story break through.

Telum spoke to The Weekly’s Charlie Pickering and FBi Radio Up For It! Executive Producer and comedian Issy Phillips to get the rundown on how and when comedy can help disseminate important information in situations, and how it might even be more successful than traditional hard news stories.

The Weekly with Charlie PickeringAfter 9/11 there was debate about how soon was too soon to start being funny again. Now we’re in the middle of a slow moving horror movie with even more people impacted, so is it OK to be funny? Charlie Pickering told Telum that the impact of the pandemic may surpass 9/11 and the Global Financial Crisis in terms of impact:

“There is literally nobody in the world unaffected by this. Also, when there is just so much news flying at us, it is impossible to take it all in and stay sane. And in that situation, comedy becomes even more important. We have to be able to laugh at the shared experience we are having. If we don’t laugh, we are lost.”

The Media Climate
With so much news and so many places to find it, not all reputable, the media needs to find a way to make their content stand out if they want to retain our attention. Charlie believes comedy is an effective tool that can be used to make an audience take notice of a news story:

“They will be laughing at a joke before they realise they’re learning about an issue or an important story. There are people who watch The Weekly who probably don’t sit down and watch any other news shows. The jokes are the way to get them watching.”

Why Comedy?
Issy PhillipsIssy Phillips says that hard news stories “pave the way”, while comedy is a tool that can be used to pierce through the noise to convey the importance of those vital stories. In climate change coverage, for example, fear and guilt are often the audience's resulting emotions. Issy suggests these emotions are “hardly conducive to engagement.” She advocates for using laughter as a means of re-engaging audiences with politically charged issues brought to their attention by hard news in the first instance.

“Comedians have been tackling emotionally charged and taboo topics for decades, so it feels right that climate comedy has become an extension of the genre.”

Recently, satire title The Betoota Advocate ran the headline “Scotty from Marketing selfishly cuts week-long Hawaiian holiday short by 45 minutes”. That one line summed up Australia’s frustration at the Prime Minister’s actions during the early stages of the recent bushfire crisis, in just a few words. “Scotty from Marketing” has since become a meme; it trended on Twitter and continues to feature across social media. Charlie says that joke won’t fade any time soon:

“Of all the hours of news coverage of the fires and of the PM staying in Hawaii, that headline is the thing that stuck. It became not only a persistent nickname for Scott Morrison, but has set itself in the public’s perception of him like concrete.”

Picking your battles
While any topic can be joked about, the audience won’t necessarily appreciate it - and the target of your humour must be chosen with care, Charlie emphasises, “If you are going to joke about COVID-19, you aren’t going to joke about anyone who has died. But you can joke about the politician who let in the boat that caused the spread that caused the death," he said.

“When I worked at The Project we were able to bounce from tragedy to comedy on either side of an ad break and it was fine. But with The Weekly, funny is our top priority. That said, we have the ability to be serious when we need to and they have been some of our best moments. Sometimes (particularly on the ABC) it is a comedian expressing a serious opinion that will cut through a lot of the other noise in the media.”

Issy told Telum she takes her time to deconstruct her jokes and considers each angle a joke could be perceived from.

"Comedians, writers and artists fulfill an important role in society by helping audiences make sense of the world they're in - both the good and the bad. However, this comes with a great sense of trust and if you're committed to making a joke on a sensitive topic, it better be the best joke there is." 

When it comes to comedy and journalism, there are a surprising number of similarities. Charlie and Issy agree that the ability to frame a story with a unique and interesting angle is a key attribute of both professions.

“There are thousands of ways to tell a story, you have to find the best one for your purpose," points out Charlie. He adds that the importance of conveying the truth is a second key similarity, “In comedy, the truer something is, the funnier it is. In news, your job should be to find the truth - which is getting harder and harder these days.”

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