If you’ve ever felt sad or lonely, wished you could just be anyone but yourself, and been so down in the dumps that you didn’t know what to do next, then Bo Burnham has the perfect remedy for you: kill yourself. Via an up-tempo piano ballad in his most recent Netflix special Make Happy (2016), Burnham wistfully, yet ruthlessly, indicts both the pop music stars who commodify depression as well as their fans who actively seek guidance from the artists’ simplistic lyrics disguised as empowerment, singing how “if you’re depressed / Then you need to book / A therapy session… / But if you search for moral wisdom / In Katy Perry’s lyrics, then [shrugging] / Kill yourself.” While Burnham is making a larger point about his own chosen art form (music/entertainment) by relating it to his own personal issue (depression/a suicidal disposition), his notion that the best way to solve depression is to “kill yourself” is about as cruel and insensitive as a joke can get. And yet, Burnham’s audience laughs and cheers at his proclamation, signifying not only their approval of the joke but that Burnham succeeded in delivering it. Either his audience is full of morally depraved sociopaths (which, for an audience outside of Los Angeles, is unlikely) or the joke sufficiently unearths something buried in our collective consciousness.
There are several factors operating simultaneously that allow for this joke to land: Burnham’s witty sad clown persona, the thematic material of the rest of his show, the juxtaposition of the upbeat pop song format with the dark concept of suicide, etc. It’s difficult and potentially impossible to arrive at a consensus regarding which factors are predominantly responsible for the joke’s effectiveness other than the standard setup-punchline relationship the comedian curates. But one factor that is key to any comedic social critique’s success is its capacity to exist in an ever-changing web of moral anxiety and righteousness, as defined by the culture the intended audience embodies. Comedy is a moral balancing beam in which the comedian must find a way to stabilize him or herself on the fine line between what is an ethical but unfunny analysis and what is an offensive yet humorous take on a given topic in society. The subject of suicide in particular teeters on the edge of being overly insensitive, but by carefully navigating this moral space through an understanding of his or her personal relationship with the topic, the comedian has the potential to brew effective and biting comedy from it.
Burnham is far from being the only contemporary comic to tackle suicide in his own distinctive style: In his Netflix special Louis C.K.: 2017 (2017), C.K. takes a look at how suicide parallels life’s greatest challenges. C.K.—a master of upholding complex liberal social or political stances through hilariously twisted angles—begins to explain one of his main reasons for why women should be able to kill babies (a.k.a. have the constitutional right to safe abortion practices), which is that he doesn’t believe life to be that important***. He then dives into discussing how although most people are preoccupied with the incredible wonders of life, he only “likes life” enough to the point at which he has never ended his own, adding that that’s “exactly how much I like life, with a razor thin margin.” Throughout his explanation he maintains a first person point of view of the situation, a significant detail in the sense that while viewers could interpret his claims as exuding universality, he maintains that his opinions are not only his but that they stem from and reflect his outlook on the world at large. Subsequently, in typical C.K. fashion, he stays in the bit by adding another angle to his claims, asserting (through a deadpan yet lightly playful tone of voice) that suicide “is totally an option though. I’m forty-nine, with two kids. I’ve flipped through the brochure a few times.” He ends the sentence by raising his eyebrows and simpering, purposefully implying a degree of sadness to the reason why he’s revealed this information, which—in combination with C.K.’s admittance that he has “flipped through the brochure” and considered suicide in the past—provides him with a sort of moral authority on the issue of suicide that is key to how he addresses the topic in his next bit. His personal relationship with depression and suicide sanction him with a certain amount of ethical privilege to share his own opinions on the matter, much in the same way comedian Chris Rock’s blackness and working class upbringing afford him the space to touch on the difference between “black people” and “niggas” in his notorious routine from Bring the Pain (1996).
At one point C.K. pauses to reflect on how “here’s the thing: life can get very sad and very lonely, but you don’t have to do it because you can always kill yourself.” Shifting gears, he adds that “you don’t have to do anything because you can kill yourself. If they send you a letter from Motor Vehicles that you have to come in and— ‘no I don’t, I’ll kill myself,’ you can do that. You can do that once.” Here is the where the crux of the joke comes in: by relating the extreme response of suicide to both life’s most severe problems and life’s most trivial problems, C.K. draws a moral equivalence between the rationale of those who seriously consider suicide to those who solely want to avoid the more tedious or slightly grating aspects of life. His critique then is of the very notion of suicide as an option for human beings, using an exaggerated premise to cut into the absurd foundation of suicidal thought. Although some may view this joke as an insensitive way to undermine those with real depression-related issues, his personal connection to suicide acts as a filter for his take on the way society conceptualizes it, thus diluting the ethical sting that would typically accompany the directive to kill oneself. In this way, C.K. establishes himself as an authoritative voice of reason on the matter—even if his reasoning is rather perverse in nature—and successfully raises laughter by finding the right balance between moral decency and social criticism while on stage.
Stand up comedy as an art form tends to provide the comedian with a high degree of power and authority in her arguments based on the very personal nature of the act, but not every form of comedy has this potential. One of the more recent genres of comedy that has emerged alongside the technological revolution of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is that of memes. On a grand scale, memes’ appeal rests on the perfunctory way they reflect an element of the social or cultural zeitgeist, with the best ones going viral for reflecting these thoughts on a mainstream level. However, in contrast to stand up comedy, part of what makes meme culture— and, more notoriously, troll culture—both so enticing and vicious is the anonymity that complements it. Depending on the digital platform, users have the option of hiding behind an egg or Pepe the Frog icon if they so choose, thereby completely severing their online persona from their authentic identity. This affords them with a power that stand up comics do not have: the ability to push or cross the boundaries of what is socially acceptable for a joke—but without facing the real-life repercussions.
One of the most popular memes to emerge in the past several years is the “kill yourself” meme. Online account holders use it to express disdain, disgust, or anger with something someone else has posted or said online, and its dominant form is that of a black and white sketch of a man holding his arm out impudently to signal the meme’s target to just stop. In much the same way that teen slasher films use death or murder as a form of punishment for the characters’ indulgence in sin (sex, drugs, being a minority, etc.), these meme users employ the notion of “killing yourself” as the extreme solution or response to whatever social wrongdoing the original poster has committed.
One viral application of this meme comes from an anonymous Twitter user responding to @PoppethThyPussy (oh Twitter…), who tweeted: “My HIV results came back positive. I’M CLEAN!” The meme user responded with the typical “kill yourself” meme, which generated thousands of favorites and retweets. The joke here is that the meme user’s advisement that @PoppethThyPussy should kill herself for misinterpreting what a positive test result implies is a clearly excessive response. In actuality, the joke is similar to C.K.’s in how the extreme implications of suicide and death is juxtaposed to the relatively moderate offense of tweeting out to the world a clear lack of knowledge about both the difference between what negative and positive test results suggest as well as, more significantly, the austere implications of what being positive with HIV means in society. The joke would have less impact if @PoppethThyPussy’s test results were for a much more benign disease, but the severity of HIV is something that society is collectively aware of, making her an easier—and arguably more deserving—recipient of the “kill yourself” meme.
However, while this meme has generated much traction and attention online, its effectiveness as a social critique is hindered because its user has developed only a limited amount of moral authority on the subject. Although @PoppethThyPussy’s oblivious tweet indeed warrants a measure of “roasting,” the anonymous meme user does not sufficiently qualify himself as a voice of reason on the gravity of suicide or the social significance of HIV. Unlike C.K. or Burnham, who qualify their expertise on the subject by relating it to their own struggles, due to the “one-liner” nature of Twitter, the meme user in this case can’t build his own credibility on his relationship with the detrimental effects of either suicide or HIV/AIDS. On top of this, whereas C.K.’s joke’s target was in many ways both himself and a group in society as a whole, the target of this meme is one individual whose online presence (and therefore her power in this situation) is disputably not great enough to justify her as a valid target of social criticism. In this way, the anonymous user who responded with the meme does not necessarily create any sort of moral authority for himself to criticize @PoppethThyPussy’s mistake. Through the joke he may have drawn a moral equivalence between her ignorance and the suggestion that she should kill herself, but without properly establishing himself in a space of ethical jurisdiction on the matter he’s condemning, the joke loses some of its potential for true comedic insight.
In an era in which the line between comedy and trolling is becoming increasingly blurred (has 4chan infiltrated the White House?), writing comedy about some of the darker subjects of society is becoming increasingly complicated for comedians. Joking about the implications of or the way society perceives the epidemic of suicide is a difficult moral tightrope a comedian must balance on, but specifically using the imperative statement that directly tells a target to kill herself is even more difficult to manage without crossing into repugnant territory. But in terms of highlighting and unpacking some of the most morally challenging topics in a given society, jokes are a powerful tool. We must be able to celebrate them when they are used well and criticize them when they are not, because if we lose the ability to laugh…well, then it’s a slippery slope to losing our ability to judge our own morality.
***Note: At the time of this writing, the revelations about comedian Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct had not yet been released by the investigative journalists at The New York Times. I do not condone his behavior, though I do still believe his material discussed in this paper is an apt paradigm for the larger discussion of the morality of suicide-related humor.
Chris Rock: Bring the Pain. Dir. Keith Truesdell. HBO, 1996. Film.
Louis C.K.: 2017. Dir. Louis C.K. Netflix, 2017. Film.
Make Happy. Dir. Bo Burnham, Christopher Storer. Netflix, 2016. Film.
“No Faith in Humanity | Kill Yourself.” Know Your Meme, 12 May 2016,
knowyourmeme.com/photos/950539-kill-yourself. Accessed 22 Sept. 2017.
Michael Savio is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Narrative Studies. In his spare time, Michael enjoys eating ice cream and musing over the futility of life. You may have seen him performing standup comedy in Chicago or Los Angeles, but probably not. He currently lives with his parents.