Sick jokes are starting to pop up in the aftermath of the Waco tragedy that claimed 86 lives - and this isn't an unusual phenomenon, says a Utah State University folklorist.
"Anytime something happens that stirs the larger cultural and national emotions, there will be a joke cycle," said Barre Toelken, a USU professor of English and history who studies oral traditions."For example, when the Challenger disaster occurred, I heard shuttle disaster jokes within 20 minutes."
A mild Waco joke: What does "Waco" stand for? We Ain't Comin' Out. Others may push the bounds of good taste.
Although the jokes themselves are sick, the reasons people tell them aren't, Toelken said.
"Jokes are kind of a culturally developed way for us to deal with anxieties and shared concerns," he said. "When you have a loaded situation that everybody feels kind of tense about, jokes can often function to release tension in a burst of laughter."
People often make or repeat sick jokes when confronted with a situation riddled with discrepancies, when things differ between what is expected and what actually happens.
"We have a shared cultural anxiety about discrepancies in life. When the shuttle blew up, it shouldn't have," Toelken said. "In Waco, those kids shouldn't have been there, they shouldn't have died. The whole idea of a religious compound loaded with weapons and ammunition - there are so many discrepancies."
It might be described as a defense mechanism in the face of horrific events. "By laughing about things like that, we can kind of dismiss them and push them off to one side."
People often joke about things that aren't funny, Toelken said.
"The most common topics of jokes in America are sex, religion, race and politics - all of which are pretty serious topics, I would think. In Central Europe, people mostly tell jokes about politics because that has the greatest number of discrepancies about it. Among the Navajos, people joke about elements of health because that's their biggest concern.
"The only culture that doesn't tell many jokes is Japan's."