Laughing at the End of the World — is that okay?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world lately and what life will be like in a post-Covid-19 world. Everyone is paralyzed by fear, so we sit on our couches, scroll through our phones, and grab our flasks in an attempt to drown out the overwhelming sadness. Now add on the police brutality that continues to plague citizens — especially people of color who have shown to be a constant target of the police — the riots, the protests, killer hornets, and…the list could go on and on.

All these matters are serious, and all these matters require delicacy. What they also require is change, and that’s what leads me to the question:Do we have to only feel sadness at a time like this? Yes, we can feel anger, but what about those who sadness, fear, or anger don’t reach? Is it okay to use comedy?

NBC’s long-running late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live, has proven that comedy can be cathartic. In the first episode of SNL after September 11, 2001, the show  walked the line of acknowledging the losses everyone felt while also bringing comedy back into our lives. The episode began with a somber tone. On stage stood Lorne Michaels, executive producer, and then-Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, and first-responders that had been down at Ground Zero.  Michaels turned to Giuliani and asked “Can we be funny?” and with a smirk Giuliani responded, “Why start now?” Giuliani gave us permission to laugh, and we did.

Humor is a coping strategy that’s meant to lighten our burdens, give us hope, keep us grounded, and — yes — even initiate change. Data shows that laughter fires up and then cools down our stress response. This increases and decreases our heart rate and blood pressure results in the relaxed feeling we crave in times of crisis. So, when Giuliani made fun of Michaels (one of the biggest names in comedy) we were able to relax. 

Today, we find ourselves terrified of both invisible and visible killers; yet, our comedy outlet isn’t allowed to come together and create a release for us.

For the first time in SNL history, the show was broadcast from the cast members’ homes, as well as the host, Tom Hanks’ home. The decision to use Tom Hanks as the host was a joke in itself, considering Hanks was one of the first celebrities that tested positive for COVID-19. He explained that it’s an odd time to be funny and said, “Will it [the show] make you laugh? Eh. It’s ‘S.N.L.’.” This ending line of the monologue, although worded differently, is reminiscent of Giuliani’s opening. The self-deprecating jokes provide us with something to laugh at, so we can then begin to laugh with each other. 

Comedy is about observing our behavior then turning around and making fun of it. A mirror is a great catalyst for change, and comedy reflects more than meets the eye. During the at-home episode of SNL, the sketch titled “How Low Will You Go?” is a perfect example. It’s a game-show parody with a Love Connection-style dating contest. Beck Bennett was the game show host and Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, and Ego Nwodim were cast as single women just released from quarantine who are ready to connect with someone. When Bennett introduced each woman, Nwodim said she “broke her vibrator,” followed by Gardner saying she “broke two vibrators and an electric toothbrush.” Bryant went further saying she “murdered” all her vibrators and thinks the last one was a suicide because “it left a note that reads ‘you did this’.”  This sketch was inspired by the rapid increase in sales of sex toys and the increased use of various dating apps. These sales and app usage are reflective of the overwhelming desire we experience for physical touch and how we react when we don’t have it,  provoked by the impact of social distancing on human connection. One of the first male contestants is named Tip who is unemployed and lives in his car, but Nwodim said she’s just trying to “smash,” so it doesn’t matter. SNL is mocking just how alone and horny we all are during quarantine and although the reality sucks, the bottom line is it’s hilarious and relatable. 

The show continued to tease us by imitating the problems we face as we try to work from home using Zoom. In three months, Zoom’s daily users jumped from 10 million to over 200 million forcing us to learn as we go. The sketch is of a Zoom work meeting that featured two older receptionists, played by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, struggling to use the new technology. McKinnon unknowingly set her avatar as Wayne Brady while Bryant brought her computer into the bathroom as she peed. Chris Redd asked whether people hate their kids yet, and Heidi Gardner kept talking about her dogs. Each character in this sketch can be found in any real-world Zoom conference call. We can watch the sketch and giggle while identifying the “overwhelmed parent,” the “cat lady,” or worse “the boomer inept with technology” that are in our own meetings. Once again, SNL turned our fears and anxieties about the things we must adapt to into something we can laugh at. 

In the episode after 9/11, Paul Simon performed “The Boxer.” He sang, “In his anger and his shame/‘I am leaving, I am leaving’/But the fighter still remains.” Simon and SNL reminded us that we are fighters, and this tragedy wouldn’t be the end of us. The at-home episode of SNL featured Chris Martin covering Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” Martin sang, “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm/Come in, she said/I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.” Although we are sheltered in our homes either because we’re scared of what or who is outside, it’s also important to find shelter in the form of our friends, family, and laughter. We need the comfort of our loved ones to help us push through this. It’s possible for tragedy to bring us together and both of these performances served to remind us of this. So, allow yourselves to laugh. We all need it. And who knows? Maybe we’ll learn how to love and respect one another. It’s a goal worth aiming for. 

Here are some links for laughs: 

This piece was written for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The ongoing series, “Coping with Corona” is a live curriculum project where students investigate and report on the missed angles of Coronavirus coverage. 


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