There were a lot of dumb, strange and poignant things said this in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, but one phrase was conspicuous in its absence: "Too soon." Nobody really batted an eye as the expressions of sadness and horror on social media turned to half-baked wisecracks almost as soon as the smoke had cleared. First came the wave of Schrodinger's Cat gags about the confused news reports of a suspect's arrest on Wednesday. When photos of the suspect were revealed, it unleashed another torrent of jokes about the bro-y appearance of the two alleged bombers. And when the two were revealed last night to be Chechen immigrants, the amount of jokes that used "caucasian" as a punchline to mock early reports of a "dark-skinned" subject grew to the point that Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell issued a preemptive notice this morning: "For those just tuning in, everyone has already made the 'Caucasian' joke." And throughout it all, a never-ending barrage of Good Will Hunting references and Boston accent gags.
It seems like the "too soon" window has shrunk around national tragedies from about three weeks after 9/11 to roughly three minutes today. Of course 9/11 was an few orders of magnitude greater of an event. But it's hard to imagine that today Gilbert Gottfried could get booed off-stage for a joke three weeks after even the biggest national tragedy, as he did after 9/11, mostly because it's hard to imagine he could come up with a joke that hadn't already been made by one thousand people on Twitter.
The end of "too soon" can be traced to the fact that so much of the conversation around national tragedies happens on a social media populated by millions of moonlighting comedians unfettered by professional concerns to say whatever they're thinking about the news of the moment. There is no stopping the hive mind when it seizes on some detail of any story, no matter how horrific, that can be used as the hook for an easy one-liner. There is probably some evolutionary explanation for the fact that when groups of people come together the unfailingly make dumb jokes to each other. In any case, there's safety in numbers, and you can't really get mad at some respectable journalist for cracking a bro joke about a terrorist when everyone following them is. In fact journalists have always been known for their gallows humor—"If it bleeds, it leads"—but they just kept it in the newsroom. Now that everyone with a Twitter account is a citizen journalist, bleak newsroom humor has become the default sensibility of savvy twitter users.
Social media also has a compounding effect in that it highlights a bunch of bullshit only tangentially related to the core tragedy that people can mock without seeming insensitive to the victims. For example, the ham-fisted hunt by Reddit for a suspect, the tragic cancellation of Playboy's #FriskyFriday or the tone-deaf liberal-bashing of a buffoonish Southern politician.
I'm not complaining here about the end of "too soon." I think it's healthy to joke about even sad and horrible things. And the trend is tied into a more general thawing of discourse around tragedy that lets important political debate flow in the aftermath of shocking news events that might have earlier been hushed up, disingenuously, in the name of respect. The people who most loudly shouted down attempts at humor in the wake of 9/11 were also probably the ones most likely to label you a traitor for opposing the invasion of Iraq.
But the sheer repetitiveness of Boston Marathon-related jokes produced by the internet this week does suggest one compelling reason to hold off on your jokes, whether faced with tragedy or not: To make them funnier.