When calamity becomes comedy

From time to time over the past few years, my roommates and friends have engaged in an activity shared by college students across the country: getting drunk while playing Cards Against Humanity. For those of you who don’t know, it can be summarized as Apples to Apples with a twist: instead of matching cards like “Puppies” with “Cute,” players must decide whether “Preteens,” “Tentacle porn” or “Getting naked and watching Nickelodeon” is the most appropriate—used loosely— answer for the question “In Michael Jackson’s final moments, he thought about ______.”

If you haven’t gathered this already, Cards Against Humanity is inherently designed to offend. Yet, despite its graphic and grotesque content, it’s also designed to entertain and, more often than not, elicit laughter. Comedy seems nearly impossible when a single hand of cards could contain concepts like “Auschwitz,” “Date rape,” “An Oedipus complex,” “Wifely duties,” “Brown people,” “Subduing a grizzly bear and making her your wife,” “Ethnic cleansing,” “Snorting coke off a clown’s boner” and “Dead babies.”

Despite touching on nearly every historical tragedy, contemporary controversy and societal taboo, Cards Against Humanity remains a game associated with jovialness because it relies on the same concept as black comedy films: humor through catharsis. While many cards are emotionally charged, the novelty of them combined with outlandish situations gives you the propensity to laugh.

Though I love Cards Against Humanity, I was recently pushed to question it.  I recently purchased the fifth expansion and within it there is one card that fellow players have told me to put back in the box, rip up or burn: “September 11th, 2001.” As every person playing agreed that that no one could ever make this card humorous, I began to think: are there some subjects that are never funny?

I’ve considered this before when, during a game, the “Date rape” card appears. While I admit to chuckling during its pairing every once in a while, I’m extremely conscious that the Center for Disease Control has found that one in four female college students has been sexually assaulted. If I’m playing with several women, knowing that one of them (or one of the male players) could have had such a traumatic experience, that undeniably sobers the game. But does that mean that rape jokes are never funny? I would argue that they have potential comedic value as long as they don’t trivialize the tragedy or disparage the victim, and instead provide a commentary that traditional narratives are unable to accomplish. That said, I accept that when a joke can be a triggering experience, all bets are off.

I believe this idea of connection gets to the crux of the issue. September 11th is a hallowed topic among my peers because we have a connection. We all remember waking up to go to school and seeing the flames on the TV. But what of the Americans born on September 12th, 2001? Sure, they’ll see it as a tragedy, but I doubt they or the people they give birth to will have the same visceral reaction that we did. I recently felt validated in this opinion when I walked past a shop selling Titanic ice cube makers. Maybe it’s crass, but I don’t think anyone is up in arms. Some might, dare I say… find it funny.

When asked about the genesis of comedy, performer Steve Allen said, “comedy is tragedy plus time.” Cards Against Humanity, I would argue, is great because it allows people to confront what offends them. It gives us catharsis, and in a world filled with so much shit, isn’t that a priceless commodity? That’s why I’m thankful for CAH. That, and for giving me the opportunity to write “clown’s boner” in a college publication.

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