The Last Laugh: The Moral Quandary of Comedy in Capital Punishment Discourse Commentary
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The Last Laugh: The Moral Quandary of Comedy in Capital Punishment Discourse

Recently, the Alabama Supreme Court approved a request by the state to execute Allan Eugene Miller with nitrogen gas. This will be the second time Alabama will attempt to execute Miller and the second use of nitrogen gas for the purpose of execution. Alabama wants to kill with nitrogen gas despite widespread reporting of a torturous death on the first go around. The facts of execution do not obviously lend themselves to comedy, yet the satirical news site The Onion posted a story about lethal gas execution. This is not The Onion’s first foray into stories about capital punishment.

Serious subjects like capital punishment don’t appear to lend themselves to comedic portrayals, yet comedy can sometimes disarm subjects otherwise inaccessible. To cope with tragedy, we must make fun of what feels existentially unacceptable. It, therefore, must be true that jokes about capital punishment can be funny, even hilarious. The deeper question here is a moral one. Should we permit humor around certain subjects? Do we ban it, or do we double down? When The Onion attempted to make a joke about execution, the real transgression might not be the subject matter per se. The real problem might not have been that the joke wasn’t funny but that it wasn’t funny enough. Contemplations about comedy reveal our attitudes toward capital punishment by a method not generally utilized.

As a place to begin, consider the example of a joke. Regarded as the prototypical form of verbal humor, a joke has two basic elements: the set-up and the punchline. The set-up is a narrative or dialogue, and the punchline leads to a re-appraisal of the set-up in the form of surprise. The set-up creates a moment of tension, and the punchline breaks the tension. The relief of tension causes laughter, a stereotypical physiologic reflex without an obvious biological reason apart from tension relief. Humor is elusive, and genuine laughter reveals it like the irrefutability of a lightning strike. Humorous language cannot stand on its own since language makes sense only in the position of discourse, that is, in the situational and cultural context. Discourse analysis can function as a tool to understand humor by considering who is speaking, who is the intended audience, and why some jokes fall flat.

In “The Act of Creation,” Hungarian-born and unfunny author and journalist Arthur Koestler illustrates a principle of comedy with a joke that was also a favorite of Freud.  As the joke is told, the Marquis in the court of Louis XV enters his bedroom to find the bishop making love to his wife. After observing them in flagrante, the Marquis calmly steps to the window, opens it, and extends his arms, blessing the people on the street below. “What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife. “Monseigneur is performing my functions,” replied the Marquis, “so I am performing his.”

Koestler explains that the joke works because the Marquis’s behavior is “both unexpected and perfectly logical—but of a logic not usually applied to this type of situation.” A reasonable reader of this joke would naturally expect the Marquis to respond with anger or violence but instead considers the situation and instantly reconfigures his own job in an undeniably logical but absurd fashion. The reader is instantly relieved – humor turns the tension of humiliation into laughter.  Koestler was interested in the deeper question of the broader nature of creativity and defined it as the “defeat of habit by originality.”

Humor is a response to this clash of rules. Context produces the comedy. Koestler writes, “The tension that was felt becomes suddenly redundant and is exploded in laughter.” To Koestler, laughter is “the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.” Koestler knew that humor was not trivial. At the root of humor lay aggression and apprehension. Implicit in laughter lies the insult, and the powerful go to great lengths to thwart anyone who might laugh at their expense. Koestler knew dictators feared laughter more than bombs, and tyrants drive humor underground.

Israeli writer Etgar Keret claims that humor is a form of protest of the weak against the strong. The documentary film “The Last Laugh” further unpacks this point by examining the question about the ultimate taboo as comedic material – can we make jokes about the Holocaust? The film explains that making fun of the weak isn’t funny, or, put in another way; Nazi jokes are OK; Holocaust jokes aren’t. Jokes about rape are similarly considered. A rape joke can be about our clueless culture that demeans and devalues the sexual agency of women. Comedian Amy Schumer takes this on expertly in a parody of Friday Night Lights, where football players can’t understand the coach’s rule against rape; “Can we rape at away games?” These sorts of jokes can only land when our sympathies are with the victims.

Donald Trump turns this pattern upside down. His well-known style mocks the powerless. What is uncomfortable about this style of humor is that it reveals the truly seditious nature of comedy—sometimes, even the powerless are absurd despite hoping otherwise. There will always be things we want to say that we are uncomfortable saying. Comedy provides plausible—or implausible—deniability. An explanation of humor can cover up objectional claims based on the wrong idea that an idea or statement bites less if it is seen as a joke. The bigger the laugh, the harder the bite.

Jokes about capital punishment must first address the question of who has the power. When former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen were convicted, don’t drop the soap jokes – a reference to homosexual prison rape, became common internet posts. This is a false joke as it reveals the teller’s cruelty and not the humor. Broadly, our attitude towards prisoners is grim. Though we recognize prisoners are commonly victims of broad social inequity, our actions reveal the current cold lack of mercy. Any review of the current culture wars demonstrates a large portion of the population supports both thinking and government policy that continues to disenfranchise the poor and communities of color that also make up the largest part of the prison population. Prisoners on death row experience prolonged incarceration. Of all prisoners currently on death row in the US, more than half have been waiting there for more than 18 years. This is long enough to create a community and a culture. In conversations with death row prisoners, comedy is present and welcomed. Joke-telling and wit are part of daily life.

In Executing Freedom, historian and author Daniel LaChance makes the interesting observation that the American public’s trust in government is inversely proportional to support of the death penalty. A similar inverse logic might apply when considering whether a death penalty joke is funny. Our reaction to death penalty humor tells us more about how we feel about the death penalty than what we think about comedy. If one imagines prisoners to be powerful, a joke at their expense might be funny. If, by prolonged incarceration and rehabilitation, we now believe prisoners have been transformed from perpetrator to victim, state corrections must be the punchline.

In The Onion joke, the set-up is a report on a story that Arizona intends to carry out executions with a refurbished gas chamber that will use hydrogen cyanide, the same gas used by the Nazis at Auschwitz. In the spirit of investigative journalism, The Onion seeks commentary on the story from the man on the street. In the punchline, a passerby remarks, “It must be a relief to have so much strong data on effectiveness.” Who gets the last laugh? Humorist Erma Bombeck remarked on the thin line separating laughter, pain, comedy, and tragedy. Incarceration is, by definition, a loss of power. If Alabama succeeds in executing Allan Eugene Miller with nitrogen gas, it will be a tragedy. Tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Any attempted joke at the expense of a prisoner is no joke at all.

What do we call a prison joke that isn’t funny? A sentence.

Joel Zivot is a practicing physician in anesthesiology and intensive care medicine and a senior fellow in ethics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Zivot is a recognized expert who advocates against the use of lethal injection in the death penalty and is against the use of the tools of medicine as an arm of state power. Follow him on “X”/Twitter @joel_zivot

Olivia Zivot currently works as a middle school special education teacher. Since 2017, she has performed stand-up comedy in the Czech Republic and the US. She credits her entry into stand-up when a comedian she respected made the mistake of telling her she was funny. Olivia has a BA in psychology and an MA in history and sociology. Follow her on Instagram @oliviajokes 


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