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Is the pandemic funny yet? by Rosalie Minnitt

I'm sitting in a London theatre and I’m grinning widely. An 87 year old woman, adorned head to toe in a glamorous blue sequined gown, takes centre stage and delivers a joke about zoom with all the gumption of a seasoned stand up: "I thought I'd finally gone deaf! Turns out I was just on mute!" Her rheumy eyes twinkle, as a poignant chuckle ripples through the audience. Then, there’s a pause. It’s not awkward, just heavy and charged; people shift in their seats, fiddle with cups and clear their throats. Out of nowhere, tears reel down my cheeks.

Packaged neatly into that punchline, this glamorous matriarch asks us to steal a look back in that rear view mirror; back to the long, dark tunnel we’re slowly starting to emerge from, and, with a heavy heart, light a candle for the world we left behind. In that poignant pause, we remember what, and who, we’ve lost. The show is cycle of nine plays about key workers at the Almeida. It’s heart-warming, tender and an absolutely essential response to the darkness we’re all endured; everything community theatre should be, and more. So, why do I feel that all too familiar tightening in my chest?

Laughter is as complicated as it is powerful. According to Freud’s superiority theory, when we laugh at what scares us, we win back some semblance of control, something that was robbed from us during the morbid dance of lockdowns and restrictions. Laughter also takes the edge off; it’s cathartic and democratic, binding us together in our shared joy and suffering; a mirror in through which we catch a glimpse of our common humanity. It’s no wonder we’ve turned to it in times of acute crisis. When the Black Death struck Italy in the 14th Century, Boccaccio was inspired to write The Decameron, a collection of witty stories and skits set in plague-ridden Florence. It’s in our nature then, to walk that tricky tightrope between tragedy and comedy.

But how soon is too soon? Is there ever a right time to make art about tragedy and, crucially, is the pandemic actually funny yet? Are jokes about face masks and musicals about hand sanitizer (there are bound to be about 17 at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe) evidence of a society starting to heal and process our collective trauma? Or are we just burying our heads under layers of deflection and self-deprecation? Hannah Gadsby reminded us in her ground-breaking show, Nanette, that comedy isn’t always healthy and sometimes, it just isn’t enough to heal us.

In February, isolation rules came to an abrupt end in England and our Prime Minister, medical marvel that he is, effectively declared the pandemic over. Brilliant. Cheers, Boris. But it’s not, and the spectre of Covid-19 looms large. People are still shielding, getting really, really sick and, tragically, dying because of this virus. Not to mention the widespread and largely unspoken mental health implications of lockdown, the scale of which we’re only just beginning to comprehend.

Despite that, the pandemic has proven to be quite the comedic muse in Hollywood too. The 2022 meta ‘comedy’, The Bubble, starring a rag-tag crop of Hollywood’s comedy royalty, parodies the chaos and foibles of a pandemic-era film set. But, dubbed a ‘pandemic dud’ by the Radio Times, Judd Apatow took a mighty swing at tragedy and, largely, missed. Between that and Locked Down starring Anne Hathaway, it seems that poking fun at the pandemic is a lot harder than it looks. Maybe we’re not ready. Or maybe those films were just flops, mercilessly trying to capitalise on our collective tragedy, and doomed to join the pile of countless other multi-million dollar moon shots.

So, is the pandemic funny yet? I suppose, like most things, the answer lies somewhere in that murky hinterland. Humour is as old as time and, when deployed correctly, helps us feel less alone. We need it now more than ever but we should treat it with the care and dignity it deserves. In short, if you’re going to make jokes about the pandemic, make sure they’re worth it. We’re looking at you, Apatow.

I thought I had felt uneasy in that theatre because laughing felt reductive; as if the suffering over the last two years might somehow be erased by a single punchline. I was scared that my story, our story, could become an object of ridicule, or that laughter might shatter all proof that it had happened at all. I realise now that I just felt incredibly vulnerable. I’d been using the pain, isolation and heartbreak I endured during the pandemic as a bit a shield, an emotional anorak to hide under when things feel hard, or when I need to make up excuses. I wasn’t worried that my story would disappear. I was just worried that I might, finally, have to let it go.


 

Rosalie Minnitt is a writer and comedian based in London. She's written for CBBC, BBC Radio and is currently working on a new character comedy show. Her writing has been featured in The Times, Funny Women, Footprint Magazine and more.