The Onion's timeless masterpiece, 'That's not funny: my brother died that way' is a useful reminder that nothing is funny for everyone, everywhere. This lack of a universal determinant for humour can collide with our natural desire to make jokes and make light of difficult topics: people can feel that a joke is 'too soon' or 'that's not a funny subject' but there is no law about what is too soon, or what is (and isn't funny). Is this happening with coronavirus? I haven't seen many jokes that get beyond the frankly relatively simple humorous relationship between the name of the kind of virus and the name of a beer. Indeed, it appears that this same relationship has been enough to make the stock market lose some faith in the Corona beer brand. So maybe we are due a really excellent Coronavirus joke that can start to cheer everyone up.
But would we be more likely to object to the jokes? We're certainly very keen to police humour nowadays – and social media provides us with an instant route to both making and complaining about jokes. The response to Rosie Jones' rather funny joke about Greta Thunberg, made on a funny programme where she, a comedian, was paid to make jokes, certainly suggested that people were quite keen to at least be seen to take offence. Has this situation changed? Are we now more likely to say that things are not funny, or too soon? I'm truly not sure. Humans have always made jokes, and dark or shocking humour is an effective way of dealing with stress and to promote bonding. And humans have always found things to be unfunny: my partner is eloquent on the topic of how extremely unfunny his dad found the famous 'One leg too few' sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Having lost a leg at the age of 11, his dad was not especially minded to see the funny side of someone with two legs hopping around to comic effect. This was of course decades ago, and maybe the only difference is that now he could have taken to Twitter and completely sledged everyone concerned for their blatant ableism. Maybe we're not more easily offended, maybe now it's both more easy to share jokes *and* one's views on the value of those jokes.
- Sophie Scott is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.