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When and what kind of joke is “too soon”?

They fall under the umbrella of dark comedy and became prominent in the early 2000’s.  Just a few weeks after the September 11th attacks comedian Gilbert Gottfried made an attempt at a 9/11 gag that didn’t go over well with the audience, which caused someone in the crowd to yell “too soon.”

Thus the phrase “what, too soon?” has developed into a kind of social constraint that arises when a current event is deemed too sensitive to be the topic of a joke.

On paper “what, too soon?” jokes sound terrible and not at all funny; yet, many people consider these jokes to be hilarious. When does making light of a topic become acceptable and when is it actually “too soon” to joke about something?

Puget Sound traditionally is a very politically correct campus.  Respect is super great, but what happens when an issue or topic gets glossed over for fear of offending someone?  The fun and—more importantly—the conversation stops.

There always is going to be someone somewhere who gets offended by something.  Sometimes it’s necessary to step on a few toes in order to get a discussion rolling, and particularly when the subject is causing pain.

It may not always be appropriate or even the most graceful of tactics, but “too soon” humor is one way to come at something, get people talking about emotionally processing an event.  These jokes can diffuse a situation that you can’t do anything about, and sometimes the most positive thing you can do is laugh.  As the cliché goes, laughter is the best form of medicine, so it can help us heal by distancing us from the emotional impact of a subject.

Of course, there is a big “but” that comes with this type of joke.  There is a line between joking about something that may or may not be considered “too soon” and something that is irrefutably offensive.

In order to avoid straight-up offending someone, a “too soon” joke should be focused on events, issues, and topics rather than groups of people or an individual.

Always, you have to judge if enough time has passed: too soon jokes don’t work well with raw emotions. But, the following is a general guideline when mentally weighing your options of “do I or don’t I make the joke?”


It does not apply to our country at all

There is a scandal

It’s a social issue (i.e. meninism)

SNL has already taken a stab at it


National security is threatened

There is a death toll

Children/disabilities are involved

Abuse/assault has occured

Too soon jokes revolve around proximity: how much time has passed (the bigger the tragedy, the longer you have to wait); how affected we are (physically, emotionally, and socially) by the event; and our general societal opinion of what has happened.

Some things are so taboo it will always be “too soon.”  These jokes should only be made in the privacy of your own home and between close friends and family.

Such jokes include 9/11, the holocaust, natural disasters, or “it’s been less than a week since any given event.”

Above all else, know your audience.  You might not want to start spouting jokes about Bill Cosby being a sex offender, Ebola, or Malaysian airline crashes while seated at a table in the middle of the Sub surrounded by a bunch of people you do not know; there is a high probability that something will go over poorly.

“Too soon” jokes are meant to be told in hushed, reverent tones.  Clear intent coupled with an air of “oops” adds to their charmingly offensive nature and makes them funnier.

While “too soon” jokes are almost always controversial to someone due to subject matter, they have their place in our world and our hearts.