Feb 26, 2009, 10:06AM

Laughing, at the end

Death humor seems to come perfectly naturally to us—no use in fighting it, might as well do it as well as we can.

Moral? Go out with a bang and a good joke:

The cake can be even tastier when the object of these posthumous putdowns is famous, like Nixon, and, also like him, not universally venerated. “Joe McCarthy’s death,” Daniel Boorstin growled at Arthur Herman, “isn’t that the fifth proof of the existence of God?”

In one of the wickedest and choicest bits of repartee from the famously no-holds-barred Algonquin Round Table crowd, Robert Benchley informed Dorothy Parker of the death of the legendarily taciturn Calvin Coolidge:

Parker: How could they tell?
Benchley: He had an erection.

The shock value of what might be called death humor can be heightened by a number of factors, including the public profile of the jokester. Parker and Benchley were notoriously ruthless wits with surgical scalpels for tongues, but what of Red Skelton, the gentle former vaudevillian who ended each episode of his long-running comedy sketch show with the platitude “May God bless”?


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