What Is “Too Soon”?

Casey Anthony is fun to hate. She’s a relatively attractive woman. She’s a compulsive liar. She leads the kind of small town party life that is somehow both hokey and titillating. She probably killed her daughter. Fun to hate.

So when the “Not Guilty” verdict came down on her trial, Twitter was aglow with jokes and jokes and spaghetti. I wrote a bunch myself. Although I wasn’t really following the trial — which, let’s face it, is literally every person’s response when discussing it — Casey Anthony was easy to hate. And from my whole total five minutes of reading headlines about the circus, I guess she seemed kind of guilty? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer. But I am a comedian, so jokes!

Under all the bits about Casey Anthony doing porn / meeting O.J. Simpson (another celebrity to kill someone and go free lol!) was a muted response of shock and disappointment to the jokes. For a lot of people, it was just attaching too much emotional weight to a trial that really had nothing to do with them.

But for a bunch, it was just “Too Soon.”

There wasn’t enough time between Casey Anthony’s verdict and jokes about Casey Anthony. A child had died! Regardless of the fact that it was three years ago and the jokes almost entirely focused on an emotional stand-in for every cheerleader who’s never left town, a lot of people were upset that comedians didn’t give the verdict a chance to breathe.

It’s a reaction that’s pretty common. It was “too soon” for Bill Maher to joke about what the word “coward” meant after 9/11. It was “too soon” for Tracy Morgan to joke about gay bullying after the series of suicides caused by that very thing.

Although critics might argue either joke would never be appropriate, the proximity to tragedies is what both developed the jokes and made them noticeable to the public at large. Calling a terrorist brave before 9/11 wouldn’t make sense to most Americans, who saw terrorists as fake movie villains. And while, obviously, threatening to stab a gay person isn’t funny in any situation, America as a whole probably wouldn’t have been as sensitive to it before the “It Gets Better” campaign.

That is to say, “Too Soon” isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I would say that “Too Soon” ruined a very good point made by Bill Maher (that terrorists are human beings driven by human motivations), but also made us more aware that violence towards a group of people isn’t a punchline. As easy as it might be to dismiss all tragedies or all comedy as untouchable and free from criticism, the reaction seems far more complicated than that.

Case in point, “Too Soon?” is also the type of tag bad comedians love.

The precursor to a “Too Soon?” tag is almost always a bombed joke. Or a hushed “ooooooo,” as if the comedian just started a fight with History itself. Sensing, enjoying, and paradoxically dreading the silence, the comedian smirks and says, “What? Too soon?”

The audience laughs and applauds, the tension of the moment released by the admission that, yeah, it was a little too soon. It plays on the taboo. It’s simultaneously an escape and an ironic gesture similar to, “This guy knows what I’m talking about.” It’s a cliche that works because it’s a cliche.

“Too Soon” is more nuanced than the calendar days since an assassination. It’s a stew of authority and quality and ironic distance. Would Tracy Morgan’s joke have had the same media attention if it were funnier? If, instead of getting uncomfortable, the crowd had rolled in the aisles? Don’t kid yourself, of course not. Maybe a few people would’ve objected, but no more than usual during Morgan’s insane sets.

It wasn’t that Tracy Morgan made a homophobic joke. It’s that he made a homophobic joke that wasn’t funny and was too close to a real problem that recently came into the public spotlight.

Or with Casey Anthony. When she was acquitted a common punchline was, “So, she’s going to do porn, right?” Because she’s kind of skanky and trope of a low-level media personality is doing porn. It’s funny because it fits who she was before the trial, and what happens to similar people after similar trials. It made sense, and whether or not you think she’s still guilty, her impending freedom gave us a little cultural leeway to make fun of what happens to her body.

But if she were convicted, would asking to see her breasts have been as funny? No. Of course there would’ve been other jokes — prison rape, probably — but the idea of her being a well-paid sex star after a jury said she had murdered her kid would’ve been gross to most people. Not unthinkable, because this is America, but still little bit gross.

“Let’s see them tits!” would’ve been too soon.

Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and Nintendo. He’s also a stand-up or something, I guess.

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