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Furthermore …

Itís a funny thing when it comes to humor

Longtime “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno once made a joke about the assassination of John F. Kennedy on an anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

Audience members groaned as though Leno had punched them.

“Too soon?” he asked, and promised to try the joke again the next year.

Funniness, Mel Brooks believes, depends on how personal the situation is. “Tragedy,” he observed, “is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Mark Twain, like Leno, looked upon jokes more temporally. Humor, he said, is tragedy plus time.

But whether they come too soon or cut too close to home, some jokes just … cross the line. Consider Joan Rivers’ crack about how small her room is on the reality show she stars in with her daughter, Melissa. “I mean, those women in the basement in Cleveland had more space.”

Rivers was referring, of course, to the three kidnapping victims who escaped last May after being held captive in a Cleveland home for up to 10 years. Two of them said they were hurt by the remark and asked Rivers for an apology. She refused, advising everyone to move on.

In truth, there’s not much to be done to repair the damage when a joke offends. But it’s a teachable moment for those of us who try now and again to make the world a funnier place. Even if time and distance seem to be on your side, maybe you should stop and think before you make a potentially hurtful remark. Even Mark Twain and Mel Brooks tried to avoid jokes about the looks of someone’s baby, religious figures or crime victims.

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