Black humour is a mainstay of newsrooms, a survival tool geared towards keeping sane amid the chaos of dramatic news events.
But it was never meant to be seen or heard by the public.
My first recollection of this goes back to 1979 when a teletype machine near the back of the newsroom began banging out a not-for-publication missive from a news agency in Great Britain.
“Question,” it read. “What’s white, and travels across the water at 1,000 miles per hour?
“Answer: Lord Mountbatten’s deck shoes.”
An hour or so earlier, the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had been killed by an IRA bomb blast while on his yacht in Ireland.
Much the same happened in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana during re-entry, resulting in the death of all crew members.
Question: What does NASA stand for?
Answer: Need Another Seven Astronauts.
All this occurred before Facebook and Twitter, of course, both of which are blowing the doors off waiting for the six o’clock news, or for your local newspaper to land on the doorstep.
It’s dark side, however, was in full force the night Hurricane Sandy raged across the U.S. eastern seaboard, making black humour an instantaneous opportunity with little or no regard for sensitivities.
But it also had its upside.
One tweet, replicated in various ways, came from Mark Hamilton, a journalism instructor in Richmond, B.C.
“Twitter as self-healing reporting?” he wrote. “Lots of rumours, unfounded reports and bogus images, but quick fact-checks, corrections and updates.”
This is true. Throughout the night, for example, various news agencies were reporting the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water when, in fact, it wasn’t.
As for “bogus images,” they were aplenty — a more dramatic one being that of a shark swimming off the starboard side of a house up to its porch in water.
By the time I got to my Twitter account, it had already been a long day — including a five-hour drive into the rainy headwinds of Hurricane Sandy before hunkering down in a motel to further weather the night.
By then, the Twitterverse was in a frenzy.
I even got into a “twittyfit” (copyright pending) with CBC star Jian Ghomeshi when he tweeted that it “seems quite clear all CNN personalities do not need to be standing deep in water right now. With respect ... the only way to deliver content?”
To which I replied, “I guess it is easier doing it from behind a radio mic 1,000 km away.”
And that got it started.
“Thank you for your sarcastic response,” the radio host responded.
“But while reporters can be in field must CNN host be as well? It’s a legit question.”
To which I replied, “Well, if you think a CNN host is more important than a reporter, then you may have a point. Although an elitist one.”
Like I said, it had been a long day and, for what it’s worth, CNN’s Ali Velshi survived, with the Toronto-raised financial news anchor later telling the Huffington Post, “We’ve done this before, we know how to keep safe.”
The next day, I stumbled upon an old tweet to Velshi from Ghomeshi.
It was posted back in February. “@AliVelshi wait,” wrote Ghomeshi.
You came to TO and got feted and didn’t invite me?? And I thought u were a brother! You’re dead to me. (But say hi to mom).”
Hmmm. Obviously there’s some history.
Still, as upwards of 60 people were dying from Hurricane Sandy’s assault, and billions of dollars in damages were being inflicted, the Twitter jokes kept coming, many of them insensitive if not cold.
“If Sandy causes major damage,” read one of the least offensive, “FEMA stands ready to deliver soy lattes to NYC’s Upper West Side.”
Even famed author Salman Rushdie got into the act: “Who’d have thought the End of the World would be called Sandy? If this was a movie, would it be played by Olivia Newton-John?”
Little wonder the ayatollahs put out a fatwa.
— Bonokoski is QMI Agency’s national editorial writer