Joking About Suicide

Comedian Amy Schumer says that Comedy Central steered her away from making a suicide joke on her TV show:

“I wanted to write a sketch where a guy tried to kill himself and had a failed suicide attempt, but then still had to come to work on Monday,” 32-year-old Schumer revealed in a recent radio interview. “And everyone knew, but he didn’t get his work done and he is like, ‘Well, I didn’t think I was going to be here.’ And we wanted it to be like he was a hipster — like, what would a failed suicide be as a hipster? And I think they were like, ‘that’s too sensitive’ or ‘too personal.’”

This prompts Emma Garman to wonder whether suicide is the last taboo in comedy. But Michelle Dean suspects Schumer’s set-up just wasn’t funny enough:

[I]t’s not that suicide is viewed as beyond comedy. It’s that a comedian who legitimately thinks the best joke about returning to work after a suicide is of the “hehe, I didn’t do my work” variety is probably not really zeroing in on what’s funny about the situation. I’m no comedian, of course, and can’t tell you what a better joke would be. I can only say, in this context, well: try something else. If you’re going to make suicide funny, well: make it funny. It shouldn’t take a genius to see that’s the only real rule of the game.

Garman cites Heathers as an example of a comedy that successfully worked the topic for laughs:

The low-budget movie, a box office flop that became hugely popular on cable, VHS and DVD, is widely considered one of the best high school comedies ever made. Yet the sophistication of the “Heathers” script, and the unremitting blackness of the humor, places it in a category of its own. High school’s toxic cauldron of peer pressure, mindless conformity and amoral superficiality — embodied in the ruling triad of popular girls all named Heather — is scriptwriter Daniel Waters’ primary target.

But he’s also savage on the self-glorifying earnestness brought forth by public tragedy. “Whether or not a teenager decides to kill themselves is the biggest decision of their life,” declares the hippie-ish guidance counselor in a TV broadcast. “With supervision from people like myself, we can help young people make the right decision.” It’s a rare film whose caustic sensibility packs as hard a punch twenty-five years on, but “Heathers” makes today’s teen comedies, even the more daring ones, seem anodyne. That suicide remains a verboten subject — at least in homegrown comedy — only underscores the audacity of Waters and the director, Michael Lehmann.