Humor of horrors: O. J. Simpson jokes make rounds as form of 'release'

June 25, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Do you know what the L.A. Rams and the Los Angeles Police Department have in common?

Neither are very effective against the run.

That's one of the kinder and cleaner ones.

If you haven't heard, O. J. Simpson jokes have already been making the office, home, phone and computer rounds. If you haven't heard, murder charges were filed June 17 against football Hall-of-Famer Simpson in the deaths of his ex-wife and a male friend. The jailed, 46-year-old Simpson has denied any involvement in the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Dark humor never waits for due process. While Mr. Simpson's saga was unrolling that unforgettable Friday, people were hatching Simpson jokes. They were even overheard at a funeral. People are saying things such as how did Bart Simpson get into all this trouble. These one-liners will take their place in the bin along with jokes about Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Bobbitt, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding and Pee Wee Herman -- to name a few.

"I don't feel bad. Simpson's a millionaire. Anyone in the spotlight is fair game," says employee Jimmy McClain at Stadium Sports at Harborplace. He just heard the line about Mr. Simpson's alibi -- the night of the murders he was waiting to be served at Denny's. "I laughed. I admit it," says Mr. McClain, 25.

Kathi McMillan, 28, works at Stadium Sports, too. "We joke about Simpson because we don't want it to be true," she says.

Others find the jokes offensive. Listen, "it's no joking matter," says Georgia Foster, 39, who works at Maryland National Bank in downtown Baltimore. "Two people lost their lives, and there's nothing funny about that."

Mr. Simpson's situation, like other mile-high-profile cases before his, exposes that close and mysterious relationship between comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about it.

Dark hours beget dark humor. It's only human.

"It is a release," says Dr. Peter Fagan, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University. So-called gallows humor is sometimes the easiest and safest way to react, he says.

"It is an attempt to manage anxiety. It's also a distancing from the threat of a situation," Dr. Fagan says. "It may be as much of an adjustment as the person can handle at that time."

Quip it away, so people don't have to try reality on for size. In this case, two children named Sydney and Justin have lost their mother, who was brutally murdered. Rather than think about that, it's easier to wonder aloud whether Mr. Simpson raced through the Chicago airport, dodging passengers as he did in Hertz commercials.

"Dark humor is a form of denial," Dr. Fagan says. Also, "it blocks an empathetic understanding of the situation."

I heard that Hertz just renewed O. J.'s contract.

Only now he's making license plates for them.

It's said that comedy is tragedy plus time. But not much time. As fast as someone can say "movie-of-the-week," dark humor follows a tragedy. For example, soon after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, one of the first jokes hustled into general circulation was: What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.

"There's always a little humor in a tragedy," says Thurman Zollicoffer, a prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office in Baltimore. Mr. Zollicoffer, 31, had a good belly laugh Friday over a Simpson joke a buddy told him. What does O. J. stand for? Orange jumpsuit.

Simpson jokes proliferated right after he was charged with both murders. Dozens of Simpson one-liners are on Internet, a global computer network and occasional repository of tasteless jokes.

A comic on the cable channel Comedy Central has come out with a Simpson joke involving a new recipe for "a bloody screwdriver." In a much more benign bit, comedian Jerry Seinfeld brought up Mr. Simpson during his Saturday performance at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Americans will watch anything on TV, Mr. Seinfeld told the audience.

"We're all watching O. J. in a car, just driving," the comic said. "It's just a car doing 48 mph."

Notice how Simpson jokes aim the humor toward Mr. Simpson or the public and far away from the victims (no one is making Mrs. Simpson jokes). On "The Tonight Show" Jay Leno has been joking gingerly about Mr. Simpson this week. But before delivering his punch lines, Mr. Leno issued disclaimers:

"Don't get me wrong here, not talking about O. J., not passing judgment on that," Mr. Leno said during Monday's monologue. "I don't want people to think we're talking about O. J. and the terrible thing that happened."

Then, the joke: "The local channel had a sports reporter on the bridge as O. J. goes by . . . They're going, 'O. J. . . . he's on the he's on the 91. He's going home, he's going home.' "

But for other comics, this L.A. story is so touchy it has rendered Mr. Simpson untouchable as joke material. Don't expect to see a David Letterman Top Ten List about Mr. Simpson "because of the sensitivity of the issue," says a "Late Night" spokesman.

On Wednesday's show, Mr. Letterman and his guest, CBS anchorman Dan Rather, didn't bring up the subject of Mr. Simpson. And the show's fabled Top Ten List was vacation tips from Michael Fay, the young American caned in Singapore.

Did you hear that O. J. confessed today?

Yeah, they had to squeeze it out of him.

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