It was maybe ten years ago, sitting in a Greek restaurant on the west side of town, eating lunch with Radley Balko, when we talked about how one keeps one’s sanity when one’s job is trying to survive a system that’s stacked against you.
“I make jokes about it.”
“Gallows humor,” Radley replied.
“Exactly. What else can you do? Crying about it won’t change it. You just keep fighting, and so I make jokes.”
You can’t do that anymore. You can’t make jokes about taboo subjects that aren’t funny, which may well be why too many young lawyers are filled with anger, are depressed, and struggle to cope with the life they chose. They sometimes put on brave faces, pretend they’re winning the fight and present themselves as fierce warriors for the cause. But then, someone twits about how they cry in their car, and a thousand others chime in. “Me too,” they admit, to the emotional approval of their clique.
Whether they’re good lawyers, an iffy question as their self-assessments often differ markedly from those of their supervisors, who knows? But that they’re emotional wrecks in desperate need of validation is clear. But when this happened, they locked arms in outrage. How dare Ellen make a joke about something so horrific.
During her show on Monday, DeGeneres revealed that she was now filming from the comfort of her home that she shares with wife Portia de Rossi. After thanking first responders, emergency workers, doctors, nurses, and other essential pandemic workers, DeGeneres pivoted to talking about her experience self-isolating with de Rossi and their dog (around the two-minute mark).
“One thing I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people — this is like being in jail, is what this is,” DeGeneres said, adding, “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone in here is gay.”
Ellen is female and gay, which might have given her the bona fides to make the joke. After all, was she not the bold comedian who came out at the height of her career, which cost her a sweet sitcom gig? How much more could she do to earn her cred to make a joke?
But that was then and this is now. Not even comedians can make jokes if they touch a sacred subject, and this one touched prison rape. Prisons alone are no longer subjects of humor; there’s nothing funny about prisons, about caging people. Rape is no longer allowed within a hundred miles of humor. To add yet another level of outrage, the usual suspects were churning out a constant stream of twits about prisoners dying of COVID-19, which makes them doubly disapproved for jokes. The unduly passionate lost their shit.
Prison inmates are disproportionately vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 during the current pandemic, with experts warning that prisons and jails could become “petri dishes of infection.”
Even during normal times, inmates face incredible challenges if they become ill or injured during their incarceration, and many fear the coronavirus could wreak havoc on prisons if left unchecked — leading to the release of some prisoners considered to be at a higher risk for contracting the virus.
Whether Ellen’s joke was funny, or would have been funny but for the pandemic, isn’t the point. You don’t have to think any particular joke is funny to appreciate that it was a joke and just a joke. It struck me as fairly obvious and banal, but then, I was never a big fan of Ellen’s comedy. Still, even if the joke was something of a groaner, it was just a joke. What it was not was a reflection of some malevolent intent on Ellen’s part, some hatred of the beloved prisoners, dismissal of homosexuality or approval of prison rape.
And no, sitting in her mansion making jokes about prison while prisoners are suffering isn’t insensitive toward the most vulnerable in society. It’s just a friggin’ joke, and making jokes about horrific things is one of the best ways to cope with the bad in the world, not to mention being far more effective in making a point about wrongs that need fixing than the constant shrieking by the usual nutjobs to their insipid followers.
It’s unclear whether the unduly passionate really hate jokes that touch on their taboos or feel compelled to be outraged because they’ve been carefully taught that their virtue is tied to their hating the things they’re supposed to hate. I’m regularly informed that my inadequate outrage in accordance with the strictures of the scolds makes me a bad man. And my joking about subjects that are no longer permissible makes me much worse. Of course, those who inform me of this seem to believe their disapproval is important, because how could anyone not want their approval? I hate to burst their baby bubble.
But as I explained to Radley years ago, it’s the ability to laugh at it that keeps us fighting, that keeps us from hating the system and crying in our cars after another crushing defeat. Call it gallows humor or just terrible jokes about subjects that are not funny, but humor is one of the most effective and useful survival techniques in the criminal defense lawyer’s arsenal. We laugh because crying helps no one.
Maybe the woke wouldn’t suffer such crushing depression if they allowed themselves to have a sense of humor, to tell an off-color joke, to laugh at awful things because it’s better than the alternative. Of course prison rape is horrible, so tell a joke about it.