Comedy in a Time of Crisis

Comedy has always been my biggest crutch. In a time of crisis we are flung into a debilitatingly passive state; the bad thing happens at us, and we try to dodge its punches as best we can. From as far back as I can remember I’ve always felt that if you can laugh at a calamity then you can wrestle back some kind of authority over it. As Eric Idle tunefully taught us from high up on his crucifix: “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Maybe it comes from being bullied as a kid, endlessly hearing the age-old advice that the best way to undermine a bully is to laugh at them. I have to say it’s not so easily done when the year seven boys are setting fire to your food tech homework over the communal hob, however, it’s slightly more doable when the bully is a virus and you’ve got a blanket fort and the entire Netflix catalogue as a safety shield. It’s quite difficult to get your timing right if you’re having to deliver your punchline over the sound of John Goodcraft declaring to the rest of the art room that ‘you’re a spotty boff’, whereas at least COVID-19 has had the decency to let us structure our comebacks in relative peace.

When something truly disastrous happens we are rendered utterly useless. Whether it’s a personal catastrophe or something that shakes the foundations of the planet, one of the worst things about true adversity is our inability to fix it. It’s one of the things I hate about flying. If something went wrong mid-air, there is precisely zilch I would be able to do about it. I’d just have to sit there like a lemon and watch the tragedy steamroll over me.

I was flying back from a lovely break in Switzerland two weeks ago after visiting my brother and his family, acutely aware that it might be the last time I see them for a very long time. The atmosphere on the plane was sombre and the smiles were few. To add insult to injury, my aforementioned aerophobia reared its ugly head in the form of a particularly savage panic attack about 20 minutes after takeoff. I was heartily convinced that death was imminent and that if the plane didn’t get me then surely the virus would.

I silently screamed into my neck pillow and said goodbye to my family, my brain doing its best to assure me that whatever was around the corner was unspeakably horrific. And then from nowhere, presumably out of options, my long-suffering boyfriend and flying companion – which as anyone who has ever sat next to me on a plane will know is not an easy job – cracked a joke. Not a very good joke, but a joke all the same.

Taking inspiration from our neverending battle over the thermostat (he’s always overheating, I’m permanently hypothermic) he declared loud and proud through a particularly bumpy bit of turbulence, “Oh well, at least you’ll be warm in Hell.” And I laughed. I didn’t have time to analyse the politics of the gag, I didn’t stop to question whether it was ok to laugh at such a thing – should I be offended that he thinks I’m going to hell? Is his apparent belief in such a place inherently problematic? And if we do now crash, will it be God swatting us out of the sky with his vengeful hand, outraged at such religious trivialisation? The truth is that in that particular moment, it really didn’t matter. All I knew is that I was laughing, and it felt good. For one brief moment, I experienced some respite in what was fast becoming a pretty harrowing ordeal.

Of course, when it comes to finding humour in a globally deleterious situation such as the one we now find ourselves in, we must always be mindful of what we are laughing at. As with any kind of satire, the target must be right. Punch up, not down. Never make light of another person’s misery, and where possible, always make fun of yourself. We are embarking on what looks set to be a very grim few months; we must do what we can to keep ourselves out of self-isolation induced despondency. And if having a chuckle at the fact that B&Q has run out of bidets provides a temporary lift, then at least that’s something.