Humor often comes at the expense of other people, as we recently saw in the response to the calamitous Fyre Festival. As news of the fiasco broke, the Internet spun it into comedy gold.
The Fyre Festival was advertised as a luxury music festival on a private island. Ticket prices were insane, with one highly publicized package going for $12,000. As guests arrived, the island's infrastructure was still weeks away from completion. In place of luxury lodging, they found disaster relief tents. Instead of a gourmet dinner, guests were offered, well, this. Understandably, the bands slated to perform pulled out.
Comparisons to Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games abounded on social media. For every actual attendee documenting the experience, there were dozens of people making up apocalyptic stories about wild dog attacks and gangs of cannibals. I'm not going to take the high ground here. I, like many others, think the Fyre Festival is hilarious. The guests, after all, were some of the most privileged people in the world. For college students that can drop $12,000 on a weekend getaway before finals, this is probably the only brush with hardship they'll ever have. As far as most of Twitter is concerned, a weekend of fighting over mattresses may have brought them down to earth. To many it was a simple joke, to others a quasi-Marxist victory over the perceived ruling class.
There's simply no denying that the response to the Fyre Festival shows a lack of empathy. We can't honestly assume that every attendee deserved that. And yet, that realization doesn't stop me from laughing. The Fyre Festival makes such great comedy because it fulfills the rule of punching up. Punching down, making fun of someone less fortunate than yourself, can seem mean-spirited. Making fun of people more fortunate than yourself is the safest way to avoid controversy while savagely mocking people.
However, punching up is just a rule applied to an inherently lawless pursuit. Comedy is subjective, and there is no clear line between an acceptable and unacceptable joke. Making light of a recent tragedy will provoke responses of "too soon." 9/11 jokes won't be well-received for years, and Pearl Harbor could still be questionable, depending on the age of the audience, yet nobody will bat an eye at a Titanic joke. Pompeii is probably a safe target, too. So how many years do we have to wait before we can joke about death and destruction? However many years it is, it's totally arbitrary.
Perhaps we make these rules to avoid the inherent link between comedy and a lack of empathy. The main difference between a horror movie and a horror comedy, for instance, is that one might try to shock us with a decapitation, while the other tries to make us laugh. Even innocent, old-fashioned slapstick expects us to laugh as people are injured. Have you ever sat on a train and watched the automatic doors shut on people trying to get through? I have, and it's amazing, but I should probably feel bad about that. Can these quintessentially human traits, humor and empathy, actually be at odds with one another?
I'll laugh at plenty of jokes that could be seen as in poor taste, yet there some topics I simply can't laugh about. I'm sure other people feel the same way, about different jokes. Limit comedy to the universally wholesome, and you wouldn't have much left.
Perhaps comedy shouldn't be about avoiding the unpleasantness of the world, but confronting it. Maybe we need to laugh about terrible things sometimes, or maybe I'm just making excuses for myself. I may never know when I should or shouldn't laugh, but that's not going to stop me.