People scramble for toilet paper at Coles in Chatswood in the midst of coronavirus fuelled fears. Picture: Rohan Kelly
People scramble for toilet paper at Coles in Chatswood in the midst of coronavirus fuelled fears. Picture: Rohan Kelly

Coronavirus jokes aren’t ‘too soon’, they’re just on time

People, now is not the time to lose your sense of humour.

And yet that seems to be just what some of us are doing.

At the morning news conference at The Daily Telegraph an anecdote unfolded where a colleague told a coronavirus joke to a group of friends online and was instantly hauled over the coals - "This isn't time for jokes! People are dying!"

And only a few days ago I shared what I thought was a funny meme on Facebook - 'NSW praised for acting quickly on Corona by shutting down all public events 5 years before outbreak.'

Now, the worst thing you can do with humour is to deconstruct it, but in this instance the joke was simple - it's a satirical commentary on the NSW government's reputation for banning things - greyhounds, music events, lockout laws, plastic bags - it makes sense they'd get in early for the coronavirus.

Whatever your political persuasion, the meme was hardly outrageous - even the Premier can be surely see the silliness of the idea - but within seconds I received a message hammered out in high indignation. 'You're not funny, never were!'

Some of our behaviour following the outbreak of coronavirus warrants humour – toilet paper hoarding included. Picture: AAP/James Gourley
Some of our behaviour following the outbreak of coronavirus warrants humour – toilet paper hoarding included. Picture: AAP/James Gourley

I'm not sure if the angry response was because the joke was about the coronavirus or about the state government, but I can take the criticism on the chin for two reasons: 1. I didn't come up with meme, and 2. I wish I had.

In recent years we seem to have been collectively installed with a high-dudgeon/outrage switch which is slammed on at the first whiff of something running counter to some 'responsible' narrative.

Certainly the coronavirus pandemic is frightening - bordering on terrifying - but we are all in this ghastly contagion together and to inject some levity into a dark chapter in our lives can only be a good thing.

 

Like most of us I've never experienced real suffering. I didn't grow up in a Great Depression only to find myself then fighting in a world war, so I really don't pretend to know what true hardship is, but I have found it startling to watch the absurd over the top antics of Australian shoppers fighting over dunny paper.

A month ago we were lionising the selfless behaviour of Australian volunteers during an unprecedented bushfire season and next minute we're involved in fisticuffs in aisle three over value packs of two-ply.

If you can step back from the frenzy for a moment and take a look at how comical the situation is you can't help but giggle at how silly we are.

Let people joke about the NSW government shutting things down. Picture: David Gray-Pool/Getty
Let people joke about the NSW government shutting things down. Picture: David Gray-Pool/Getty

It's the things we're unfamiliar with - shortages in supermarkets, face masks, isolation, obsessive hand washing - that are all so unexpected and so new - the situation is ripe to be made fun of.

Historically, the Australian sense of humour was borne through hardship - convictism, anti-authoritarianism, drought, the bush, crime, war - it was a kind of egalitarian pressure-valve - everyone was in the same barbed-wire canoe up a certain creek so we might as well have a laugh.

This peculiar Australian type of humour has been broadly hauled in under the umbrella of larrikinism - generally defining youthful rowdyism. The original Larrikins however, weren't generally a humorous lot - in fact they were teenage ne'er do wells who roamed the slums of Sydney and Melbourne sleeping rough, engaging in fights and living the hard life.

Hardship - and comedy - are the great levellers. Then, of course, is the old saying 'Comedy = Tragedy + Time.

Every now and then someone will say something funny but slightly off colour about a recent, unfortunate event followed by the cheeky, meek disclaimer of "too soon?"

The scramble for toilet paper ranges from hilarious to terrifying. Picture: Rohan Kelly
The scramble for toilet paper ranges from hilarious to terrifying. Picture: Rohan Kelly

Possibly one of the best examples of this is the sinking of the Titanic - a benchmark catastrophe if there ever was one, claiming 1517 lives. But the image of the sinking ship, the iceberg, the band playing, people shuffling deck chairs has been a mainstay for comedians and cartoonists almost as soon as the mighty ship hit the bottom of the Atlantic over a century ago.

The humour is not lampooning or laughing at the gravity of the tragedy itself; rather, it's an abstract instrument to play on our natural fears and then alleviating what is an unthinkable situation into something humorous.

The same with the coronavirus - yes, people really are dying and yes, we are frightened and our lives have been turned upside down. But we're all in this together so why not try and find a way to have a laugh? It's important to take the Mickey out of things that frighten us and or even repulse us. It helps give us balance, a bit of a reality check when we're veering down the path of panic.

And if you can't find something humorous in a bleak situation imagine Abraham Lincoln's wife when she was asked, "Apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"



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