During times of national crisis, such as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, some people use a grim form of humor as a coping mechanism. These offensive or sick jokes used to defuse a grim situation are examples of gallows humor. This type of humor can be very self-deprecating in nature, as when a terminally ill patient jokingly asks his doctor for a second opinion or an extension on his bill. While gallows humor may sound too dark or offensive to outsiders, those in on the joke may find it somewhat comforting.
Other forms of gallows humor are intended to find a more universal audience. When tragic events such as the assassination of a world leader, a celebrity murder trial or a natural disaster occur, it is not unusual to encounter a spate of questionable or tasteless jokes on morning radio programs or Internet discussion groups. By sharing these jokes among close friends or co-workers, some people find it easier to cope with the overwhelming emotions attached to the actual event.
Many people who work in stressful occupations find that a little gallows humor can help put their grim or distasteful tasks in a more manageable light. Police officers and medical professionals often use gallows humor when discussing their work with other professionals. This may sound offensive or unprofessional to outsiders, but it can be a way to put some distance between themselves and the grim realities of their jobs.
As the name implies, gallows humor actually did start with the execution device used for public hangings. It was not unusual for condemned prisoners to use their final words as a sounding board for grim self-deprecating jokes, often directed towards distraught friends and family members. This practice of making jokes during a time of grief or tragedy soon became a coping mechanism for soldiers fighting in the trenches or survivors of a natural disaster.
Many of us can recall at least one joke which grew out of a tragic set of circumstances, although many of those jokes had a very short shelf life. Taken out of context, many forms of gallows humor would sound exceptionally cruel or insensitive, but they did once serve to fill a void during the uncertain days following a national tragedy.