Hitting a Nerve

Sick humor


This past June, during the search for the Titan submersible, and since then, we’ve had a not-entirely-unexpected development: Sick humor.

There was a lot of it. The Subway owner who got reprimanded for putting “Our subs don’t implode” on his sign was minor league compared with other things circulating on the Internet. One example that was sent to me showed the late Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s co-owner, as the new spokesman for Cap’n Crunch.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Of course, this is nothing new. People have made jokes about awful situations since to the dawn of civilization.

Why do we do this?

Humor is a remarkably human trait. There’s evidence other mammals have it, but not to the extent we do. We’ve created a multitude of forms that vary between cultures. But there isn’t a civilization or culture on Earth that doesn’t have humor.

Why we developed it I’ll leave to others, though I assume a key part is that it strengthens bonds between people, helping them stick together in the groups that keep society moving forward.

Sick humor is part of this, though having grown up watching Monty Python and reading National Lampoon magazine I’m certainly guilty of enjoying it. To this day I think “Eating Raoul” is one of the greatest comedies ever.

It’s also pretty common in medicine. I’ve been involved in plenty of hospital situations that were quite unfunny, yet there are always jokes about it flying as we work.

I assume it’s a defense mechanism. Helping us cope with a bad situation as we do our best to deal with it. Using humor to put a block between the obvious realization that someday this could happen to us. To help psychologically shield us from something tragic.

Years ago I was trying to describe the plot of “Eating Raoul” and said “if you read about this sort of crime spree in a newspaper you’d be horrified. But the way it’s handled in the movie it’s hysterical.” Perhaps that’s as close to understanding sick humor as I’ll ever get. It makes the unfunny funny.

Perhaps the better phrase is the more generic “it’s human nature.” We seek relief in humor, even (maybe especially) in bad situations of our own and others.

Whether or not it’s funny depends on the person. There were plenty of people horrified by the Subway sign, enough that the owner had to change it. But there were also those who admitted they found it tasteless, but still got a laugh out of it. I’m sure the families of those lost on the Titan were justifiably upset, but the closer you get to a personal tragedy the more serious it is.

There’s a fine line, as National Lampoon put it, between funny and sick. But it’s also part of who we are.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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