The classic television comedy show Saturday Night Live, or SNL, as its fans often call it, on Dec. 15 opened with the New York City Children’s Chorus singing “Silent Night.” There was no punch line—just the lovely Christmas hymn with the particularly appropriate refrain “sleep in heavenly peace.”
SNL, during its 37 years on the air has featured topical humor, drawing from whatever is in the news that week. But the day after a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that ended with 28 people dead, including 20 children, SNL producers wisely decided not only to avoid trying to draw humor from the situation, but in a rare departure from its usual irreverent posture created a tender tribute.
An Associated Press report noted, “It was the night’s sole reference to the tragedy and struck just the right tone.”
Two other television comedies not known for sensitivity responded to the horrific news event as well. According to Associated Press, Fox pulled new episodes of Family Guy and American Dad –both known for bold, often shocking treatment of even the most delicate subjects—that had been scheduled to air Sunday because their content was inappropriate in the wake of the Connecticut incident. The Family Guy episode had Peter telling his own version of the nativity story and the American Dad episode told the story of a demon who punished naughty children at Christmas. Both cartoon comedies substituted reruns.
My father once told me that the difference between what’s tragic and what’s funny often depends on how close you are to the event. Watching a stranger slip on a banana peel might be funny, but if the person slipping is your 80-year-old mother who may suffer a broken hip there’s nothing to laugh at.
There can be no Sandy Hook jokes, because we’re all close to the incident. Anyone who has ever loved a child, anyone who has ever admired a teacher, anyone who values the basic human right to go about one’s business without becoming the victim of random violence is close to the events in Newtown, Conn.
Among comedians, especially television comedians, usually everything is grist for the mill, but it’s good to know there is a line that even those who mock everything and everyone in our society won’t cross. Knowing that they recognize some boundaries—even if their boundaries are much broader than mine—makes me more comfortable in enjoying their humor even when it’s a bit edgy.
It’s good to know that in a world in which violence seems commonplace and even heartbreaking events seem to be fodder for jokes, there are occurrences that stop us all in our tracks.
As the biblical book of Ecclesiastes notes there is season for everything and a time for “every purpose under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Right now, we are in a season of mourning. A time to laugh will come another day.