The Corner

Black Humor in an Outrage Culture

Black comedy — I should make explicit here that I refer to comedy that violates social taboos, not comedy by African Americans — throve in the 1960s, with such luminaries as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce mocking some of our national foibles. It can be much easier to engage in dark humor in a self-confident society (as ours was in the early Sixties) than one that is uneasy about its future and confused about its identity. I just this evening happened to be reading the 1973 essay collection Evelyn Waugh and His World, put together by David Pryce-Jones (who is now an NR senior editor). Anne Fleming, wife of the famed creator of James Bond, offers this recollection of Waugh in the mid-1960s (shortly before Waugh died): “The change in the Mass upset [Evelyn] dreadfully, and so did the Pope’s visit to America. With a return to the old levity, knowing that my son Caspar has a weakness for fire-arms, he wrote offering him a bribe if he would go to New York to shoot the Pope.”

In its cultural context, this joke by Waugh would have been entirely uncontroversial: Everyone would have agreed that it was in very poor taste, that Waugh was quite a bad boy, and “Have you read his new book yet?” But imagine Waugh making a similar joke today, about assassinating the pope or the president of the United States or some other august personage. In the 24/7 media thunderdome, wouldn’t the denunciations be immediate, and escalate rapidly toward the hysterical — “anti-Catholic!,” “racist!,” “Communist!,” etc., etc.? I’m not idealizing the culture of the Sixties — I recognize that there were easily outraged people back then, too — but I think that in our current cultural moment, our outrage gun has a hair trigger; and that this is a symptom, not a cause, of our discontent.