On his late-night HBO show “Real Time” Friday, comedian Bill Maher dedicated much of his opening monologue to jokes about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The segment was largely unfunny, but the audience didn’t seem to mind the subject matter.
And Maher isn’t the only showbiz type fishing for laughs at the expense of the still-unfolding mystery. Last week, “Orange Is the New Black” star Jason Biggs fired off a snarky tweet in which he referred to the lost Boeing 777 in a comment about “The Bachelor” finale. Biggs took some heat for the comment on Twitter, but he appeared unapologetic in a follow-up tweet joking about the criticism. Elsewhere on the Web, satirical news sites like the Onion and the Daily Currant got in on the act as well.
Appropriate? That’s up for debate. While there is an unwritten rule in comedy that no topic is off limits as long as the jokes are funny, the open-season mentality toward Flight 370 speaks to a definite gray area with regard to the public’s reaction to tragedies. Had this been an open-and-shut plane crash, with bodies recovered and graphic footage of floating debris plastered all over CNN, it’s doubtful that Maher would be using the aircraft’s erratic flight path as an excuse to make stereotypical cracks about bad Asian drivers -- or at least he might have waited longer than a week after the incident happened. You might recall that two weeks after the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed into San Francisco International Airport, a KTVU co-anchor was reportedly fired after she unwittingly read racially insensitive phony names of the pilots, the result of an apparent jokester feeding the names into the teleprompter. The airline even sued the station over the incident, though it later dropped the suit.
In that incident, two people were killed and another 182 were hospitalized, and of course, the whole world saw the footage of the aircraft bursting into pieces as it hit the runway. Not much to joke about there. In the case of Flight 370, while no one knows yet what happened to the airplane, the probability that the 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers will be found alive seems increasingly slim, and the distress among the families of those on board is made no less tragic by the absence of answers. For some, the lack of closure has likely only exasperated the suffering, as the Daily Beast pointed out on Sunday.
And yet for many observers and commentators on the sidelines, the tragic incident appears to be understood as some otherworldly event that demands not the slighted hint of sensitivity. Throughout Twitter, jokes comparing the lost airliner to the ABC “Lost” abound, with little distinction between a plane full of real-life missing people and a supernatural drama about a fictional characters trapped on a mysterious island. The flippantness is understandable given all the unknowns, but there are enough tweeters upset about the jokes to suggest a real divide over whether or not they fall in the “too soon” category.
I'm the first to make a joke about something that probably shouldn't be joked about but the plane with 239 missing people just isn't funny.
â€” Aubrey Moening (@aubmoening) March 12, 2014
240 people are also missing together with that plane and some people think its funny that they can joke about it??shame
â€” Bizzo Otchuka Uja (@Mr_BTz) March 12, 2014
So many "joke" tweets about the missing plane. Its not funny, ppl have lost their lives. Grow up, sad bastards who do anything for a RT!!
â€” KIM (@KKMXOXO) March 16, 2014
And, yes, Bill Maher took a little bit of heat as well.
I was not impressed with @billmaher making jokes about the missing Malaysian jet liner last night :-/
â€” suzanne herman (@suzanneherman1) March 15, 2014
It’s true that most comedy is rooted in tragedy, and it will never be possible to get everyone to agree on what is appropriate late-night fodder and how long is an acceptable amount of time to wait before tragedies can be made light of. Years ago, David Letterman took a stand against making jokes about the O.J. Simpson case in the weeks following the double murder -- a stance that set him apart from fellow late-nighter Jay Leno -- but he eventually relented to the incident’s overwhelming penetration into pop culture. At a certain point, it becomes impossible for professional quipsters to ignore those stories that capture the country’s attention, however tragic they may be.
Flight 370 has been the top news story for more than two weeks and will likely remain so for some time. It’s hard to imagine it won’t continue to show up in some form or another on forums intended to make us laugh. Then again, as Maher proved on Friday, tired Asian-driver clichés rarely do.