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Why You Probably Haven’t Heard Many Good Amy Winehouse Jokes

When it comes to referencing a tragedy in humor that the more time has passed, the easier and more acceptable it is supposedly becomes to laugh about said controversial topics.

It’s been even simplified so neat as the following equation: tragedy + time = comedy.

Now, while every rule in art forms more or less have a gray area, making fun of horrifying events such as a natural disaster or an untimely death immediately after they occurred, more often than not, ends up being in bad taste. However, it’s not impossible to make actually funny jokes about controversial events with so little time having passed. Paul Provenza (Showtime’s The Green Room), in a recent interview, has said “I have a friend who does a lot of business in Japan, and he said you go into any bar or nightclub in Japan, and everybody is making tsunami jokes. You deal with it! But Gilbert [Gottfried]‘s the bad guy. So what, is it timing? Well, whose timing?”

The undeniable fact is that comedy is a way to cope with pain, loss, tragedy, and more. Yet, the problem that most comedians, humorists, writers, bloggers, etc. have in this regard is that they go for the pure novelty of shock rather than digging for funny. In the very untimely death of Amy Winehouse, we have a perfect a case-study of this dynamic.


As soon as the news broke of Winehouse’s body being found dead, plenty of so-called comedians took to their social network of choice and flooded the Internet with poorly conceived Winehouse jokes. To many of those people, the novelty of being so controversial somehow counts almost counts as a “comedy badge” to be proud of. It’s just as empty of pursuit as you could imagine it to be, but still there were plenty of “hack” tweets about rehab missing Winehouse or how completely unsurprising it is. Huffington Post contributor Tricia Fox even came under fire for trying to compare the death of Winehouse to the choices of small businesses and their products.

Again, the shock alone only makes it awkward and most likely enrages people to put the blogosphere-equivalent of a dunce cap on the person responsible.

Delving into one of many theories on joke writing would certainly be tiresome here, but a core principle behind making things funny is finding irregularities in what’s commonly accepted by everyone else. In anything from 70′s sitcom to hardcore drug use, there are observations to be made that most people glance over and in an unexpected way, something funny can be derived. That’s vastly oversimplifying jokes, but there is a common thread along such lines.

When the tsunami hit Japan and Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the spokesman for Aflac after making some Tsunami jokes, most though that joking about the disaster would be taboo. Only a few days after the incident, comedian Brooks Wheelan tweeted, “@brookswheelan This whole Japan thing is the biggest win dolphins have had since the ‘72 undefeated season. #LARRYCSONKA,” which I found absolutely hilarious. Granted, you have to be familiar with the Japanese treatment of dolphins and the undefeated season of the Miami Dolphins to get the joke, but it’s an unexpected turn that cleverly pointed to something most people would take for granted and not connect.

Similarly, while combing through Twitter, I found this funny tweet by writer/comedian Matt Manser only two days after Winehouse’s death: “@mansermatt Amy Winehouse’s death is a huge tragedy. Mostly because it gives Dr. Drew an extra excuse to appear on television.” In either example, an actual effort to strive for humor instead of just saying “that is some fucked up shit” was made a resulted in something that was actually funny.

Granted, that formula doesn’t work all the time (cough cough Jay Leno doing Casey Anthony joke on the day of the decision).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIDzSVCXlJM?rel=0]

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17 comments

  • @Sideburn72 kinda stole my thunder, but on Wed., my trivia team name was:
    “Amy Winehouse; Four days sober.”

    Of course, a few weeks ago we were “Casey Anthony and the Sunshine Band”

  • I agree with Claude…

    While i truly appreciate the sentiment of this article… I can’t think of anything other than Chris aka THE NERDIST’s joke at the beginning of their live podcast the day of her death.

    The joke itself didn’t bother me, however the lack of reference on the NERDIST website seems a little ridiculous.

    Nevertheless, keep up the good work.

  • Really fascinating analysis of why some of these jokes work. In the Matt Manser example I’d say it’s funny because it’s directed more at Dr. Drew than Winehouse.

  • I don’t know who the fuck Paul Provenza’s friend is but I do a lot of work in Japan as well and making Tsunami jokes is a great way to get your teeth kicked in.

    Way way too many dead bodies to joke about. Try taking trip out there before you open your big mouth again.

  • There were Amy Winehouse jokes right at the beginning of the Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Wil Wheaton episode of the Nerdist podcast from Comic Con, and I have to say I was kind of disappointed, but the rest of the show was so awesome I forgave Chris and the boys for going there. Chris started it but he also shut it down pretty quick and it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the shit I was unfortunate enough to see on Twitter. Although it’s kind of ironic that someone writing for this blog seems to have been unaware of that when they set out to write this article.

  • I heard some Winehouse jokes pretty early, but I think calling her death “untimely” might not be quite the right word. Unfortunate would be better, I think. Based on her lifestyle and the way she got famous, and the fact that she didn’t die in a car accident or some unavoidable tragedy, but most likely from drugs, I don’t think she earned the break from jokes that other people and situations get.

  • I dunno, I heard plenty of worthwhile jokes only a few hours after the news of her death, in fact, there were a few places I frequent that got choked with jokes about it. Not all of the jokes were great, but there were quite a few laughs to be had.

    Would also have to agree with eric. I personally subscribe to the “It’s never too soon, ever.” way of thinking, but without taking who makes up the people hearing the jokes into account, it seems like the best way to put the formula.

  • I remember that I posted on my Facebook page shortly after the news hit. I only wrote down, “Who didn’t see this coming?”, but I didn’t do it for humor or even irony. I knew that from all the past news stories on Winehouse that her dying young was inevitable.

    I’ve also been reminded of the musician’s “cursed” age: 27.

  • What both the “dolphin” and Manser’s Winehouse jokes have in common is a heavy layering of context (i.e. they reference circumstances beyond themselves and only obliquely related, implying new levels of absurdity). Gottfried, whose humor is typically subtle despite his personna, did not contextualize with his joke (it was simply about Japan being hit by a tsunami), and it therefore was judged in bad taste. The formula can be revised thus: (tragedy + time) / context = comedy. Time is inversely related to context–or–the more context you add, the less time between the present and the tragic event is needed in order to be funny. Less context, more time, conversely.

  • Thanks for the well-written article, Jake. It is so true… the line between shock factor and funny is not examined often enough. I went to a comedy show the other night and one of the comedians made some Tucson shooting jokes, but they just weren’t funny to me… probably because they weren’t original enough, as you discussed, and relied more on the soonness of them. Even some of the 9/11 jokes I heard (was there a recurring theme at this open mic?) weren’t so great.

    That Leno clip … whoa. Awkward! On the other hand, I am willing to forgive someone for trying something that doesn’t go over too well. I haven’t seen the clip of Gilbert Gottfried (now there’s a guy Chris should get on the podcast… out of character!), but I know we all make mistakes sometimes, so I’m all right with stuff like that, even if it isn’t so great in the moment. If someone’s usually funny, and at the end of the day they didn’t actually mean to hurt anyone, it’s cool, I’ll still tune in next time.