Why does AIDS humor seem to be on the increase? Why is even the city of Los Angeles seeing enough value in it to subsidize it?
(The Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department recently awarded a $3,500 grant to writer Rondo Mieczkowski, to create humorous stories about dealing with AIDS and to read those stories at bookstores and HIV support group meetings.)
"I think the human condition is inherently hilarious," says Mieczkowski. "When people find out that I'm HIV-positive and they go, 'Well, what are you going to do,' I say, 'Well, be glamorous.' . . . People say 'How can you laugh at people who have AIDS?' . . . I'm not laughing at people who have AIDS. I'm laughing at my own life."
Some observers attribute the increase in non-homophobic AIDS humor to the fact that a growing number of people believe laughter is healing. Others note that people may be more willing to joke because many AIDS patients are now living far longer than was expected.
"The emergence of the drug AZT in 1985 was a turning point. Before that you were seen as being dead in 18 months, if that long," says HIV Watch columnist Botkin. "People who were friends of HIVers didn't feel like making jokes about it. Now that the prospects of living or living longer are much better, it's easier for people with HIV and their friends to see the humor in the situation."
The upswing may also be a response to continuing homophobic humor, says Richard Jennings, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Los Angeles.
In 1989, GLAAD, along with other gay rights organizations, got Warner Bros. Records to include information on AIDS transmission with recordings by comedian Sam Kinison. The records contained AIDS jokes that the organization considered to be anti-gay and inaccurate on how AIDS is spread.
Jennings says the material violated a guideline that can help determine whether comedic material is offensive to homosexuals: "Is it making fun of homophobia or is it making fun of gays and lesbians?"
Jennings acknowledges that gays and lesbians may take greater liberties in joking about AIDS while the same jokes told by heterosexuals could be considered unacceptable.
"There are certain things an oppressed group can say about itself, whereas if the same terms come from the outside, it's continuing the oppression," he contends.
When it's done sensitively, Jennings has applauded AIDS humor created by heterosexuals. He sent a congratulatory note to "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau last year when Andy Lippincott, a character in the strip, died of AIDS after a 10-month struggle.
According to Lee Salem, editorial director of Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Doonesbury, reaction was strong: "The positive ranged from private individuals to AmFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research). The negative response was pretty much by private individuals, generally in two groups. One group thought the subject should not be on the comic pages at all. The second group misconstrued the strips and thought Garry was making fun of the disease. Of course, that was not the case."
Is it possible to laugh in the face of death and disease without offending people?
The Rev. Doug Adams, who often tells the favorite jokes of the departed when he preaches at their funerals, thinks he's found a way to satisfy most of the critics. He points out that it's important to cry and to laugh when dealing with death and life-threatening issues.
"The crying is the recognition that a person is dying or dead. Let's not pretend. The person is dead. It's a way of saying yes, that's true," says Adams, who teaches Christianity and the arts at Berkeley's Pacific School of Religion. "The laughing is a way of saying that's not the whole story. That's not the end. It's not the final word.
"The bottom line is this. If you and I can't laugh about a subject, we stop talking about it, because we can't sustain solemnity on any subject for very long. If it's solemn, it's just not real."
Editorial library researcher Peter Johnson contributed to this article.