Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: Determining Whether Five Principles of Comedy Derived from Ancient Writers Apply to Attempts at Humor by Contemporary Comedians

Jeff J. Koloze
Copyright 2020, Dr. Jeff Koloze Paper prepared for the Annual Conference
of University Faculty for Life
Reproduced with Permission

Abstract: Based on comedic theory from ancient sources and considered by literary critics since then, this research determines whether five principles of jokes apply to three instances of humor attempted by comedians on the life issues: an abortion joke by Louis C.K, the "dead baby jokes" involving infanticide, and the Teri Schiavo episode from the television show Family Guy .

The ubiquitous "Why did the chicken cross the road?" jokes are an enduring feature of childhood and beyond, and the delight engendered by the jokes seems to depend on one's chronological development. A child's punchline to "Why did the chicken cross the road?" ("To get to the other side") is easy. An adult being asked, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" may be met with a political punchline ("Because North Korea's long range missiles can't reach that far") or a severely metaphysical reply, such as "Why am I crossing the road?" Whether designed for a child or an adult, the chicken-crossing-the-road jokes persist in our sophisticated culture because they are not only simple (they involve a question-and-answer format which is easily remembered), but also innocent. Although there are some versions of the joke format online which may not be suitable for some, the dominant impression that a chicken-crossing-the-road joke leaves is that it is a category that all ages can enjoy.

How then did the culture get to the point where jokes include something much less innocent (or indecent, vulgar, or offensive), like Michelle Wolf's relatively flaccid abortion joke: "Mike Pence is very anti-choice. He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don't knock it til you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You've got to get that baby out of there"? Similarly, how does one account for the following more aggressive abortion joke by Louis C.K.?

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one. In which case you better get one. […] I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one. Don't fuck around. And hurry! Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a shit[;] that's how bad that is. It's like not taking a shit. That's what I think. I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit. It's one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a shit. Or it isn't. It is or it isn't. It's either taking a shit or it's killing a baby. It's only one of those two things. It's no other things [sic]. So if you didn't like hearing that it's like taking a shit, you think it's like killing a baby. That's the only other one you get to have. (qtd. in Felsenthal)

The above are only two examples of attempts at humor involving the first life issue of abortion. A quick Internet search will identify not only many more attempts to make abortion comedic, but also jokes involving the remaining two life issues, infanticide and euthanasia. For brevity's sake, only three jokes in each of the categories of the life issues will be considered thoroughly in this study.

My reading of comedic theory from ancient sources and considered by literary critics since then yields five principles which pertain to jokes. First, comedy is distinct from tragedy, with which it was born as one of the two major categories of literature. Second, jokes allow great liberty in examining and commenting on ordinary matters in human life, ranging from bodily functions and employment to other simple concerns of daily life. Third, a corollary of the above yet distinct enough to merit being a separate principle, jokes are often bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene since sexual topics are freely discussed within the genre. Fourth, jokes often contain a civic or social element, allowing the comedian to criticize politicians and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change. Finally, and most importantly, the intent of all jokes is to produce humor, simply to make one laugh.

Excepting research within the past half century on the "dead baby joke" cycle, and granting that comedy on infanticide is rare, there are a larger number of attempts to make the remaining two life issues comedic. Louis C.K.'s joke will be considered as an attempt at abortion comedy, five of the dead baby jokes will be reviewed as attempts at infanticide comedy, and the episode involving Teri Schiavo in the Family Guy television series will be analyzed as an attempt at euthanasia humor.

Louis C.K.'s Joke as an Attempt at Abortion Comedy

Louis C.K.'s abortion joke has been criticized for its stark and offensive treatment of abortion, yet audiences laugh at his humor. Here again is the joke as recorded by Felsenthal:

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one. In which case you better get one. […] I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one. Don't fuck around. And hurry! Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a shit[;] that's how bad that is. It's like not taking a shit. That's what I think. I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit. It's one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a shit. Or it isn't. It is or it isn't. It's either taking a shit or it's killing a baby. It's only one of those two things. It's no other things [sic]. So if you didn't like hearing that it's like taking a shit, you think it's like killing a baby. That's the only other one you get to have.

Tackling Louis C.K.'s joke according to the five principles may be difficult because one is struck immediately by logical fallacies obvious throughout the joke. The multiple negations in the joke, from the first line ("should not get an abortion unless") to the simpler "It is or it isn't", impede the understanding of the attempt's possible humor. Also impeding an easy understanding of the meaning behind the joke is the vulgarity throughout. Louis C.K. does not use "fuck" as the low register term for marital sexual activity; instead, he uses it as an alternative to "hesitate", where "Don't fuck around" means more "Don't wait" than the sexual denotation of the term. Similarly, Louis C.K. does not use "shit" as the low register term for excrement. He uses the terms as interjections, which may appeal to the audience as a shock value, but the terms do nothing to advance the intent of the joke.

These initial objections aside, considering whether the five principles apply to this joke is relatively easy. First, the joke falters on an essential point of not distinguishing between the tragedy of abortion and anything which could be comic. Certainly, some people may find abortion funny; the comedians considered here attest to that. However, even their attempts at making abortion comedic fail because there is always something which manifests the inherent tragedy of abortion. Louis C.K.'s joke itself recognizes the inherent tragedy of abortion. Admitting that one alternative way of thinking about abortion is explicitly naming it "killing a baby" should give even the most jaundiced pro-abortion audience pause. The term "killing" still maintains its negative connotation, even after nearly five decades of Roe v. Wade 's anti-life ideological attempt to force the positive sounding "pro-choice" linguistic distortion on the nation.

On the second principle, Louis C.K.'s joke does cover a common bodily function, and one can admit that there could be much humor in the activity. (Anyone who changes a baby's diaper will ineluctably find humor in the situation to erase the displeasure of the activity itself.) However, the purpose of Louis C.K.'s joke is not to comment on the bodily activity, but to compare it with the killing of a human being. Louis C.K.'s choices offered to the audience are clear: "I think abortion is exactly like taking a shit." If the use of the low register term was intended to generate the desire to laugh, then the ability to move from generating the desire to laugh to laughing outright falters. The bodily function of excreting is not comparable with killing a human being; both cannot be combined in the abstract category of excretion or elimination. The activities occur in different categories because one is truly a bodily function; the other is a violent act perpetrated on a body.

Discussing the cognitive dissonance between bodily function and the act of killing a human being which Louis C.K. confuses in his joke leads to an evaluation of the third principle: the naughtiness of the joke itself. Here, too, the joke fails. Is the intent of anything in the joke either "bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene"? Of course, the effectiveness of the power of the terms is not obvious in their alphabetical listing. Something which is "naughty" is relatively innocent, but something "obscene" is the polar opposite; what constitutes bawdiness or eroticism as items between those poles would occupy much more space than is required here. It is sufficient to say that there is nothing in the joke which is bawdy, inducing to eroticism, which should be the proper quality to encourage sexual activity between a husband and a wife. Also, while the act of excretion could be naughty, it is not obscene since it is a necessary bodily function. The obscenity of the joke resides in connecting a natural bodily function with killing a human being.

Beyond the obvious (that his joke concerns the contemporary issue of abortion), whether Louis C.K. intended to comment on contemporary political persons or to effect change is unclear. Perhaps Louis C.K. is arguing that abortion should remain legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever (current US law) since, "If you need an abortion, you better get one." Using "better get" suggests that the legality of abortion is tenuous and that the mother who wants to have the child killed should do so before the first civil right to life is reestablished. However, absent outside evidence, Louis C.K.'s intention cannot be determined based on the words themselves. Therefore, Louis C.K. fails to meet the fourth principle.

Finally, although this paragraph of commentary may seem redundant (repeating the first principle), it is important to note that, if the intent of all comedy is to produce humor, then it is not possible to read or to hear Louis C.K.'s joke and laugh. There must be something funny about the joke, a judicious reader may ask. Perhaps. The indecisiveness of the speaker could be comical. The hesitation between asserting one choice over another can be laughable. The humor in the joke, therefore, is not about abortion itself, but the dramatic effect of the presentation of the joke. Can anything else be humorous about the joke? Answering that question must be relegated to others whose ability to deconstruct pro-abortion nonsense and agitprop is better than mine.

"Dead Baby Jokes" as Attempts at Infanticide Comedy

Alan Dundes' research on dead baby jokes is noteworthy not only for having collected several popular jokes in the cycle, but also for providing commentary on the sociology behind such jokes. Dundes notes that the jokes are delivered as riddles, often beginning with the interrogative "what", as in that example which he identifies as "probably the most common dead baby joke […] What's red and sits in a corner? A baby chewing (teething on, eating, sucking on) razor blades" (Dundes 151). Gruesomeness is characteristic of these jokes, as in the following example, which aligns itself with the innocuous joke which begins this study: "How did the dead baby cross the road? He was stapled to a chicken" (Dundes 152).

Sociologically, Dundes tries to attribute the popularity of such jokes as a reaction to "the visual reporting of the Vietnam war with its unending pictures of carnage and death" or to "the growing fear of technology" (Dundes 153). "But the most obvious interpretation of the cycle," Dundes argues,

would seem to be a protest against babies in general. The attempt to legalize abortion and the increased availability of improved means of contraception, e.g., the pill, have brought the debate about the purpose of sexual activity into the public arena [….] Women's liberation ideology may have contributed too by insisting that women's place was not necessarily in the home and that motherhood was not the only career open to women. More and more, babies were perceived as a perfidious male plot to keep women subjugated. "Keep 'em barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen" is a folk dictum expressing this male chauvinistic point of view. Thus for women to be liberated, they need to keep from getting pregnant, or if they become pregnant, they might wish to consider abortion as a means of retaining their newly found freedom. (Dundes 154)

Dundes' conclusion about the dead baby jokes is trenchant: "Folklore is always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes and so whether we like it or not, the dead baby cycle is a reflection of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s. If we do not like the image, we should not blame the mirror. If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor" (Dundes 155). It is not anachronistic, but prophetic to say that this statement applies to the culture of 2020 as much as it did to the culture of 1979 when his research was first published.

The following are five jokes discussed by Dundes which will be evaluated according to the five principles. For easy reference, the jokes are arranged in alphabetical order:

The first matter to address regarding the above sample dead baby jokes is that they are not entirely about infanticide since they concern mutilation of corpses of newborns. The first three jokes meet this criterion while the remaining two properly involve a born child being killed or in the act of dying; whether the narrator is a participant in the killing is irrelevant. Thus, on the first principle, it could be correct to place the jokes in the category of comedy instead of tragedy since the death of the human being, the newborn child, has already occurred. That is, it is "safe" to find humor when the person who might suffer from the attempt at humor is no longer living. The ability to classify these jokes as comedy is enhanced because, like many abortion jokes, the dead babies are not named. That is, the joke does not involve the threat to the life of an actual human being named Miroslav when he plays with razor blades or to the dying or dead body of an actual human being who is or was once named Catherine which is impaled on a meathook, but a nondescript, unnamed baby, identified only by either the definite or the indefinite article. Even with such tortured rationalization, however, abuse of a corpse is inherently a tragic and not a comedic act.

The dead baby jokes nuance the second principle (commenting on ordinary matters in human life) since they invariably place ordinary objects in extraordinary situations. This juxtaposition is a typical comedic strategy, where the expected use of an object becomes unexpected and therefore humorous. For example, the many uses of a whipped cream pie include displaying it in a bakery window, eating it, having it accidentally fall onto the floor, etc. Comedy results when such a pie is not being eaten but thrown into the face of one of the Three Stooges. In dead baby jokes, however, the extraordinary placements of things like staples, bowling balls, pitchforks, nails used to affix things to walls, razor blades, and meathooks are used not within, but beyond their ordinary classifications.

While the dead baby examples are not bawdy, erotic, or naughty, they are gruesome like contemporary horror films which do not hesitate to show the act of killing or blood gushing from a victim's body. In this way, dead baby jokes fit the designation of obscene in the etymological sense. In the ancient Greek theater, anything "obscene" was, literally, "off stage", unlike the contemporary denotation of the term which restricts it to pornography. An obscene event was something which occurred off stage and was related on stage by a messenger or servant. Think, for example, of the servant in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex , who relates not only how Jocasta hanged herself, but also how Oedipus gouged out his eyes using the brooches from his mother's dress. In the ancient Greek mind, these horrifying events could not be performed on the stage; one hopes that contemporary viewers would not desire to see these bloodthirsty events occur on stage, on their televisions, or on their streaming devices.

Similarly, the dead baby jokes involve actions on the babies' bodies which should never be shown on stage, on televisions, or on streaming devices. Stapling a baby's body, thrusting a pitchfork into a baby's body, nailing a baby's body to a wall, or meathooking a baby's body are actions which are irredeemably gruesome and horrifying - in short, obscene.

Determining the implicit "civic or social element" of the fourth principle should be left to scholars like Dundes, but some commentary can be provided about the political intentions of the dead baby jokes from a pro-life perspective. For example, although many, including Dundes, might see the jokes as manifestations of feminist ideology gone awry or a greater need for artificial contraception to prevent babies being born in the first place, I suggest that the dead baby jokes give those who read them a perception of infanticide killers that they never would have entertained. That is, what person is so cruel that he or she would staple a baby's body, or thrust a pitchfork into it, or not only nail a baby's body to a wall once but then delight in extracting it from its nailed condition, or, worst of all, meathook a baby's body as though the body of that child were equal with an animal's? The reader of the jokes would rightfully conclude that the hidden actors of the dead baby jokes, the agents who perform the infanticides or mutilations of the corpses, should be condemned, ostracized, imprisoned, or institutionalized for the criminally insane. Such psychopaths do not have a place in a life-affirming society.

Finally, regarding the fifth principle, the question asked of the abortion jokes generates a significant reply here regarding infanticide. Is there anything funny about the dead baby jokes? Can the jokes induce one to laugh? While a direct answer is no, quite possibly, the dead baby jokes illustrate how easily comedy can be frustrated. That is, with the exception of the first three sample jokes which explicitly mention "dead baby" in the interrogative portion of the riddles, the jokes follow the expectation that such riddles will be amusing and clever, so the auditor or the reader is already predisposed to finding the joke humorous. However, the second portion of the dead baby jokes deflates the expectation of humor since the punchline is anything but comical; as was explained above, the gruesome actions against the bodies of the babies do not merit humor or even the slightest snicker, let alone laugh. If this interpretation is accurate, then the essential cathartic value of comedy is frustrated, and the dead baby jokes become unfulfilled opportunities either to effect change or to delight readers with humor. The opportunity that the dead baby jokes can fulfill, however, is being documentary evidence justifying Dundes' claim that, "If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor" (155).

The Teri Schiavo Episode in Family Guy as an Attempt at Euthanasia Comedy

The episode on the television comedy Family Guy which mocks Teri Schiavo is now infamous in the litany of broadcast media attacking pro-lifers and those who are victims of the euthanasia movement. The visual component of the attempt at humor in the episode is as important as the verbal, just as, no doubt, the performance of the comedians cited above as they joked about abortion may have contributed to the reception of the joke.

Although the visual rhetoric of the show must be relegated to future research, since this study is focused on determining if the five principles apply to this contemporary example of euthanasia humor, considering the linguistic component only must suffice. The following is a transcription of the opening sequence of the episode:

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Hi Doctor, it's me, Michael Schiavo. How's my wife doing?
Child 2 (Doctor): She's a vegetable.
Child 3 (Doctor): I hate vegetables.
Child 2 (Doctor): Don't worry about her, Mr. Schiavo. She's being kept alive by medical science.
Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Gee, look at all this stuff. How does it all work?
Child 2 (Doctor): Well, I'll tell you.
This one keeps her liver clean.
This one checks her pee.
Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): How about this one over here?
Child 2 (Doctor): Oh, that's just the TV.
Chorus: Ha ha ha
[Child 2 (Doctor):] This one checks her heart rate.
This one checks her veins.
And this dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.
Chorus: Oh oh oh
Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.
What a lively little bugger.
Bass child doctor: Maybe we should just unplug her.
Chorus: Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.
The most expensive plant you'll ever see.
Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): There's only one solution.
It's in the Constitution.
We've got to pull the plug! ("Terri Schiavo: The Musical")

Whereas it might be possible to classify the dead baby jokes as comedy because the dead babies were not named, the attempt to classify this example as euthanasia comedy fails significantly, for the person dishonored in the joke was a real human being who was starved to death. Even the depiction of Schiavo as a cartoon character does not eliminate the inability to classify the joke as an example of comedy; the audience sees a cartoon character, but the audience also knows from common knowledge that the cartoon is based on a real human being. Thus, regarding the first principle, this attempt at euthanasia humor exists not in the genre of comedy, but of tragedy; nothing comic can be said about the starvation and dehydration death of Schiavo.

The episode violates the second principle of trying to create humor in two ways: first, Schiavo is simply reduced to an entity whose bodily functions are monitored by medical equipment; second, Schiavo's medical condition is such that the machines used to assist her were viewed not as ancillary means of supporting her physical life, but as crucial instruments of her being. Therefore, although medical technology often intervenes in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, the severity of Schiavo's situation does not fall within the realm of humor; if anything, a respectful attitude towards the seriousness of her medical condition is warranted.

Also, while some bodily functions can generate humor, the impossibility of humor in this situation is predicated on the disrespect towards the integrity of the person at the center of the joke. That is, no human being is merely an entity on whom a machine works to "keep her liver clean", "check her pee", or "check her veins." The ultimate insult against Schiavo's humanity precedes all these technological assertions when the cartoon character of Schiavo's husband reduces her to a "vegetable" (to which the audience in the episode eventually laughs). Dehumanizing Schiavo with the vegetable metaphor continues when the doctor describes a machine which "dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains." A final consideration for this second principle is that Schiavo is recognized not as a human being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, but as "The most expensive plant you'll ever see", an additional dehumanization, varying the vegetable metaphor.

The same opportunity to designate the dead baby jokes as obscene, a term used in the third principle, occurs in the Schiavo episode as well with an important qualification. The Schiavo segment aired on national television on 21 March 2010, so the audience knew that Schiavo was starved and dehydrated to death five years earlier. Unlike the dead baby jokes, where unnamed babies either were dying or were killed, this circumstance clearly identifies an actual human being who was starved to death and whose legal situation was debated and broadcast continuously on American media. In a sense, then, even though she was imprisoned in the seclusion of a tightly guarded nursing home room, Schiavo's killing was obscene in that it was not committed "off stage" (the etymological sense of "obscene"), but "on stage", if one considers that television and streaming services provided immediate communication of Schiavo's condition and conflicts between protesters for and against her killing. There was nothing private about the starvation and dehydration which Schiavo endured, and the joke does nothing but add to the tragedy of her killing.

The fourth principle suggests that this attempt at humor does indeed "comment on current political persons and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change" in a significant way. However, the political criticism of the joke affects the cartoon character of Schiavo's husband, Michael, and condemns him for his sheer ignorance. Towards the end of the song, Michael ignorantly claims that "There's only one solution. / It's in the Constitution. / We've got to pull the plug!" Michael's character is blissfully unaware that he is engaged in an either/or logical fallacy, thinking that Schiavo's medical condition warrants only the two choices of either "pulling the plug" or not. Factually, of course, the US Constitution (the term is lower case in the original transcription) does not contain a provision of allowing the starvation and dehydration of human beings, yet Michael thinks that he has the constitutional authority to exercise control over Schiavo to the point of securing judicial approval of her killing.

Regarding the fifth principle, is it possible that the attempt at euthanasia humor in the Schiavo episode could produce enough humor to the point of making people laugh? I argue that this is not possible because what could have been humorous is deflected in every case. A doctor's response to Michael's question about Schiavo's condition contains the commonly misinterpreted and medically inappropriate abbreviation of "persistent vegetative state" to "She's a vegetable"; this reply then becomes another doctor's petulant declaration, "I hate vegetables." Why is it necessary to deflect Schiavo's medical state to a declaration of another person's distaste of a food group? Further in the song, a doctor replies to Michael's question about the function of a medical device with the casual "Oh, that's just the TV." Confusing a medical CRT screen with a television is possible, but how likely is it that a presumably intelligent adult like Michael Schiavo, who had been around medical equipment to assist his wife for a long time, could confuse the two? A final example from the song involves another machine which "dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains." That a doctor would utter such an admittedly illogical statement and try to pass it off as a joke in a serious medical environment is not humorous, but reprehensible.

This examination of attempts at humor on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia by contemporary comedians has documented specific examples showing that such efforts have failed. Not only that, but modern comedians' attempts at comedy on the life issues indicate that what passes for humor on these issues is inconsistent with five principles of jokes. Granted, twenty-first century life may be technologically, materially, and culturally different from how humans lived in the ancient world, but the psychology behind comedy as an art form providing education and entertainment different from tragedy has not changed over the past two thousand years, an insignificant amount of evolutionary time in which humanity's essential nature could have changed. Moreover, the addition of vulgarity and illogical statements presented by contemporary comedians as decisive argumentation to advance the killing of the unborn, the newborn, or the elderly or medically vulnerable in lieu of logical and creative literary effort neither adds to nor negates the five principles of comedy discussed here.

Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply ignorant of what constitutes comedy. If so, then modern comedians need to study the fundamental principles of their profession; they could begin their ascent from leftist indoctrination by reviewing the cartoons of Wayne Stayskal, cartoonist of the life issues extraordinaire, especially those found in his " - Till Euthanasia Do You Part?": Cartoons . Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply hack partisans in a life-denying movement which believes that adherence to leftist ideology devoid of respect for human life replaces established principles of comedy and logic in the creation of literary items meant to create laughter. If this is the case, then modern comedians need to abandon their illogical anti-life positions and support the lives of their fellow human beings - which is the existential purpose of all great literature, in either category of tragedy or comedy.

Works Cited