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Director Mel Brooks speaks onstage at the screening of ‘High Anxiety’ during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 7, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,’ Mel Brooks, pictured above, once said. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg says he can relate.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

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A laugh amid the pandemic? It’s harder than you think

The Sun-Times was right to ask comics for COVID-19 jokes. So why didn’t it quite work?

The hard part about 9/11 for me — and I have to emphasize the for me part, because for other people the hard part was burning to death in a pool of jet fuel — was that nothing was funny anymore.

There was no ironic distance. No sense of relief, no minor mastery over circumstances that comes with finding humor in a situation.

It was all sincerity — George W. Bush-level sincerity, the really strong stuff, 151 proof sincerity. We were defenseless, carried along by the torrent of history without the stout paddle that a solid sense of humor gives a person.

For about a week.

And then, I was watching TV news — that great font of unintentional comedy — which introduced a segment with a logo. You know: flickering candle, weepy soundtrack. I looked at the screen and thought, “I’m sorry all those people are dead ... but if I have to hear ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ one more time, I’m going to puke.”

And with that, normality — my normality anyway — whirred to life, like a computer rebooting. Blank screen then, zing, back in business again.

So it was with admiration and interest that I approached our Sunday front-page feature, “WE COULD ALL USE A GOOD LAUGH ABOUT NOW.” The Sun-Times dragooned 10 Chicago-area comics to share their COVID-19 jokes with our readers.

If you haven’t read them, please do so online now at suntimes.com — or go back and look at your Sunday paper.

Done? Good. We’re all on the same page.

None of their jokes were remotely funny, right?

“Listen, Chicago: Do your part, and keep hair clippers out of the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing with them ... ” Not a line you’d repeat to someone else, right?

In defense of these rising stars, comedy relies upon delivery. You build a rapport with an audience. The word “bacon” is not itself funny. Unless you’ve heard Jim Gaffigan’s riff on bacon. “Yay, bacon!” Then it’s hysterical.

“You know how good bacon is? To improve other food they wrap it in bacon.”

Ouch. That just sits there. You need to hear Gaffigan’s voice. “I want more!” — the “more” vibrating like a muted trumpet.

So, now, if you can, go online to suntimes.com and actually listen to the comics deliver their jokes.

A little better, right?

After both reading and watching, it’s clear our 10 comics might have had tied one hand behind their backs. No jokes about death or old age. Prudent. Comics have to read a room. What might send an audience at Zanies into hysterics at 11 p.m. Saturday might look merely cruel at 11 a.m. Sunday on the printed page.

Still, they could have been a bit edgier, taking on those protesting to open up states under quarantine. How about:

Why are you standing on the Statehouse steps with a sign reading “I need a haircut”? It’s not like you need permission from the government for your mom to slap a bowl over your head ...

I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of finding humor lately. My own regular-life efforts have been duds. I went to Sunset Foods with my wife Saturday, to get out of the house and help with the heavy stuff, like wrangling the soda. They had every single type, except my favorite.

“This s--- just got real,” I gravely informed my wife. “They’re out of Fresca. And here I hoped we’d get out of this unscathed.”

Tough audience.

The paper, introducing the 10 comics, mentioned “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” That isn’t quite right. Humor has a briefer shelf life than milk.

I prefer Mel Brooks’ definition: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” The trouble comes when friends of the person who fell into the sewer overhear the crack.

Which brings to mind another truism: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” At least from the perspective of those attempting the latter. To those enduring the former, I imagine, not so much.

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