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When dark humor is the best medicine

Marc Maron presciently named his new Netflix comedy special "End Times Fun."
Marc Maron presciently named his new Netflix comedy special "End Times Fun."Adam Rose/Netflix

Sixty years ago, Time magazine condemned a new generation of stand-up comedians, calling their cynical brand of humor “sick.” The main offender gleefully titled his next comedy album “The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.”

We’re all having sick thoughts now. There’s nothing funny about the prospect of sheltering in place, or the untold casualties we will experience until a vaccine is developed. But trying times often bring a silver lining: the pressure valve of black comedy.

Last weekend, Norm Macdonald posted several minutes of coronavirus material to his YouTube channel, recorded live at a California comedy club (back in those olden times, when people were still congregating). As a society, we’re well prepared for the coming isolation, Macdonald suggested, what with our fixation on our screens and our TV shows.

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“The last step between us and happiness, anyway, were people,” he joked.

Arguably funnier were some of the responses. One guy posted, narrator-style, “Norm’s last set was one of his greatest . . . [He] and his audience will be greatly missed.”

“I won’t need coronavirus,” wrote another. "I just died from laughter.”

It’s a good time for misanthropes. The late Bill Hicks would have had a field day with our selfish responses to the pandemic. There’s nothing exceptional about humanity, he once said, in a brief bit entitled “People Suck.”

“We’re a virus with shoes, OK?”

Dark humor can work as a reminder that we’re all in this together, whatever the clear and present “this” may be. Jonathan Swift set the template for modern satire with “A Modest Proposal,” which pitched an outrageous solution to the problems of poverty and starvation. Stanley Kubrick’s absurdist “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) summed up the horrible specter of nuclear destruction with an unsubtle bang.

Just a week ago Marc Maron released his latest Netflix special, bearing the apt title “End Times Fun.” “It’s pretty clear the world is ending, I don’t want to shock anybody,” he says. The show was taped months ago.

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He jokes about the climate crisis. “We did everything we could,” he whimpers. “We brought our own bags.”

Just in time for the coronavirus doubters, Maron calls out the anti-vaxxer crowd. Have they been subjected to polio lately? Whooping cough? Mumps? No, because vaccinations work. At one point he pushes his glasses up and vigorously rubs his eyes — the universal sign of exasperation with your fellow humans.

But don’t do that. Don’t touch your face.

On social media, people have been attempting levity with the hashtag #Quarantinelife. Even as we practice social distancing, we’re still sharing plenty of commonalities.

For instance, there’s Ali Wong on staying at home. She wrote this bit about being a new mother, but it might apply to parents now bracing for weeks indoors with bored, cranky schoolchildren.

Before she had her first baby, she says, she was naive. She thought staying at home would be fun.

“I did not understand that the whole price you have to pay for staying at home is that you’ve gotta be a mom. And that’s a job. . . . You get no 401(k), no co-workers. You’re just in solitary confinement all day long with this human Tamagotchi.” Worse, there’s no reset button, “so the stakes are extremely high.”

Everyone has their own tolerance level for transgressive comedy. On rare occasions, nearly everyone can agree that it’s inappropriate, at least in the short term.

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After 9/11, the comedy world seized up; late-night hosts replaced their comic monologues with paeans to first responders and heartbreaking tributes to the victims. Comedians asked, in all seriousness, when it might be OK to be funny again. (It was Rudy Giuliani who gave the all-clear on “Saturday Night Live.” It was another time.)

But the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding differently. For most of us — at least for now — it’s a surreal new ghost world, a weird, agonizing waiting game with entirely too much time on our hands to think about canceled plans, dwindling finances, and chapped hands. A little dark humor could be just what the doctor ordered.

Laughing about death is one of the oldest jokes in the book. It is, after all, a — the? — universal subject. Anthony Jeselnik claims to love jokes about death. Doug Stanhope has a good bit about how he’s annoyed when people say someone “died too soon.” If it’s Stanhope who keels, maybe he didn’t have any good material left anyway. The joke is called “Died Right on Time.”

Macdonald, in his impromptu routine last weekend, observed that “it’s funny how we all now know how we’re gonna die. It’s just a matter of what order at this point.”

The last word should go to the late George Carlin, who was preparing to release a new HBO special called “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die” in late 2001, when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers. (He changed the name.)

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Two years earlier, in a show called “You Are All Diseased,” Carlin dismantled our obsession with germs. (Again, it was another time.)

Our immune systems need practice, Carlin argued. None of the kids in his New York City neighborhood in the 1940s contracted polio, he claimed. Why? Because they cooled off in the Hudson River.

“We swam in raw sewage,” he said.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.