Ethics & Public Policy Center

An Unfunny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021

Published in The Wall Street Journal on December 1, 2020


Humorlessness has become a national comorbidity. Besides the other afflictions of 2020, the country is suffering from a comic deficiency that has weakened the social immune system. “A horse walks into a bar . . .” Forget it—bars are closed.

Americans have sailed into an almost perfect storm of humorlessness. I have not heard a single good joke about the virus—and only a few bad ones. In the past, anxiety, dread and anger have sometimes been good for laughs—but not this time. Fear of invisible floating drops, stifling masks, the jittery adjustments of “social distance,” and the sense that life has gotten weird, normality as emergency and emergency as normality, as if the universe had shifted a few inches while we were sleeping—such immediate dislocations merge with the larger, existential distress (isolation, claustrophobia, financial suffering, children at home, mortgage or rent unpaid, empty refrigerator) to produce an atmosphere that is toxic to humor.

That’s only the beginning: Add the bitter politics, the disputed presidential election, the yammering provocations of cable television news and the surreal quality of the memes on social media, of Rudy Giuliani, bug-eyed and sweating streams of black hair dye.

Click here to read the rest of this piece at the Wall Street Journal’s website.

Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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