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The Piano Teacher
Part 3: The psychology of sick humor
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Part 1: An inspirational story?
Part 2: Something's rotten in the state of Oklahoma

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Oklahoma City Bombing and Memorial
Jokes & Humor

The terrorist act that took 168 lives in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 shocked and horrified Americans. Folklore being an expression of the emotional sensibilities of a people as well as of its beliefs, it's not only understandable but predictable that legends would arise - some true, some false and others a blend of fact and fiction - to express a shared sense of grief and perplexity over such a tragic event.

Somewhat harder to understand but no less to be expected is the dark side of that same phenomenon - the dissemination of sick jokes whose only purpose seems to be to mock genuine emotion. "The Piano Teacher" does the latter with such deadpan earnestness that many people don't even realize it's a hoax.

Folklorists have long noted that tasteless humor is one inevitable human reaction to atrocities like the Oklahoma City bombing. Behind every example of the genre lie anxieties about facing, understanding and accepting the very existence of such horrors. "The expression 'laughing to keep from crying' has a good deal of merit," writes folklorist Alan Dundes. "Jokes are told about only what is most serious." Among other things it's a strategy for distancing ourselves from the unthinkable.

Also underlying the eruption of sick humor in all of its forms is the impulse to break taboos; to say what is not supposed to be said. This is a form of infantile regression, Dundes argues in a Freudian vein, an attempt to vent anxiety by flouting the social restraints limiting self-expression. When we laugh at someone else's misfortune, in part it's a giddy outburst of relief - one might even say glee - that the same thing didn't happen to us. But such behavior is socially acceptable only up to a point, and some people find ego gratification in transgressing that unspoken limit. Since part of the thrill derives from shocking others, it's ultimately a form of aggression, meaning in a case like this that some people will end up feeling victimized, perhaps even doubly so: once by the atrocity itself and once by this hoax, which simultaneously makes light of a horrible event and suckers of those who buy into the bogus story.

Small wonder no one has stepped forward to take credit for it.


Special thanks to readers Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, Jim Melko and Melanie, whose detailed comments were a great help in the analysis of this story.


Sources:

  • Dundes, Alan. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes. (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1987): viii, 42-44.
  • "Oklahoma City Bombing." Court TV Online: Famous Cases.


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