This Taboo Topic Is Comedy's Final Frontier
In a radio interview with Entertainment Weekly earlier this month, comedian Amy Schumer revealed that Comedy Central nixed one of her sketches because of its sensitive subject matter. The bit was about a man who, "tried to kill himself and had a failed suicide attempt, but then still had to come to work on Monday ... but he didn’t get his work done, and he is like, 'Well, I didn’t think I was going to be here.'" According to Schumer, the issue was with the content: "I think they were like, 'that’s too sensitive or too personal.'" The interview sparked articles from Flavorwire and Salon about the taboo surrounding suicide in comedy (unfortunately, Salon might be right to suggest that Schumer's delivery was part of the problem). While attempted suicide has long been used in even mainstream comedy — Scrubs and Kids in The Hall both used it as a gag fairly regularly — the portrayal of death by suicide is significantly less common, and it's easy to see why.
Suicide is a sensitive and complicated topic — so complicated, in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Mental Health, World Health Organization, and other authorities created a media guide on talking and writing about it. As with all touchy subjects, comedians will find their own ways to grapple with the issue. Schumer's rejected sketch raises several interesting questions: What are the limits of a successful joke that refers to or incorporates suicide? And can suicide be joked about in a way that is healing, instead of harmful?
In her much-discussed article about a separate hot-button issue, jokes that address rape, Aisha Harris suggested that our litmus test should look at who or what the joke is making fun of: if the butt of the joke is the rapist, or cultural issues surrounding rape, it's OK; if the victim is the butt of the joke, it's not. While that seems reasonable, it would be difficult to apply a similar standard to suicide. When a suicide occurs, everyone has lost.
As comedians, part of our job is to take the least funny and most difficult things in life, and find ways to laugh at them, bring new a perspective to them, and generate open and frank discussions. The most successful comedic pieces involving suicide create some emotional distance from the subject (either through anonymity or over-the-top goofiness), ask more questions than they provide answers, and connect us back to the humanity and reality of the situation. George Carlin, for example, has a very deft routine about the practical difficulties of suicide and the episode of Louie titled "Eddie," while dark, was very well received. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie Airplane made light of suicide, but did so in a non-triggering way.
In the words of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “The more one suffers, the more, I believe, one has a sense for the comic.” As such, comedians may be the right people to help us move forward in holding open conversations, and improving suicide prevention. What do you think?
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.