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'SNL' Zoom skits and 'Coronavirus Rhapsody:' The benefits (and limits) of pandemic parody

It's important for us to maintain our sense of humor during this frightening crisis — just as long as we don't overdo it.
Saturday Night Live - Season 45
Host Tom Hanks during the "Saturday Night Live At Home" monologue on Saturday, April 11, 2020.NBC

Over the weekend, "Saturday Night Live" decided to do something groundbreaking, remotely broadcasting its show from cast members' homes, with Tom Hanks hosting from his house. Despite the eerie lack of a laugh track — and "Weekend Update" admittedly fell flat in this format — it hit many of the right notes. There were Zoom meetings gone wrong, desperate singles willing to hook up with anyone they met online and Alec Baldwin's Trump giving us alternatives to the racist "Chinese virus" slur (among them, "General Tso's Revenge" and "Hong Kong Flu-y"). Serious PSAs reminded us of the heroes risking their lives daily, and the cast, united in split-screen song, honored their longtime music producer and guru Hal Willner, who died last week after battling the coronavirus.

As Hanks aptly remarked, it's a weird time to be funny.

It can be hard to laugh about something when you know others are suffering because of it. As soon as I heard the hilarious gallows humor of the parody song "Coronavirus Rhapsody," I immediately shared it with my friends on Facebook. With quarantine cabin fever and COVID-19 anxiety running high, the relatable lyrics and singing of comedian Dana Jay Bein and vocalist Adrian Grimes were a joyous relief. But knowing that two friends of mine recently lost someone to the disease, I adjusted the settings on my Facebook page so they wouldn't see it. I didn't want to be insensitive.

Humor can help us conquer the stress brought on by the pandemic and our collective quarantine. We have never felt so together, yet alone. And if Michael Che, who just lost his grandmother to COVID-19, can joke around, I guess we can, too.

In the weeks since much of America retreated indoors, people have been trying to find ways to maintain their optimism. Numerous song parodies, some in multiple versions, have emerged, including "Coronavirus Rhapsody," "My Corona" and many others, along with everything from general quarantine humor to memes parodying pickup lines.

"I have never gotten so many good jokes," says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who is a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. "I get something every day, all kinds of videos. Laughter triggers the dopamine system in the brain. It's very good for you. Dopamine gives you energy and optimism and focus and motivation, and when we laugh, we feel good. ... Laughter evolved to enable us to tolerate and overcome and move beyond tough times, and it does so in many subtle ways."

Adrian Grimes' cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn't the only Queen homage making the rounds, but it does seem to be the most popular. Millions of people have watched the song on YouTube and Facebook.

"I've got some amazing comments telling me that I sound just like Freddie Mercury, so that's been tremendous," says Grimes. "But I've also been really touched by the number of health care workers that have reached out to me and said, 'Thank you so much for drawing attention to this.' After a long day at work, someone shares this with them and they can smile again."

Grimes says he changed a couple of comedian Bein's original lyrics, including the closing line, which now says, "It's your responsibility." He wanted to stress that it's everyone's duty to stay home and not act selfishly during the pandemic. It's a personal issue for him: His wife is a pharmacist in a rural clinic outside their home base of Madison, Wisconsin.

"Every time she goes to work, we're thinking: Is this the day the wave is going to crash? Are we going to have to isolate her and stop her from hugging the kids for two weeks?" says Grimes. "I'm very well aware of how dramatically people's lives can be changed by this, so I really did want to point out that we're not laughing at you. We're trying to help by pushing this message."

(He just put out the follow-up cover, transforming Queen's "We Are the Champions" into "You Are The Champions" to honor health care workers.)

Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee is known for his irreverent sense of humor, and his recent Instagram posts have parodied quarantine conditions, including videos of him jumping off his balcony and a post about how people need to stay inside so Mötley Crüe can go ahead with its stadium tour in June. (Obviously the band's tour remains in limbo, along with all other summer events.)

Lee says the response has been mostly positive. "People were like, 'Stay inside, man, we want to rock out. Don't f--- this up,'" he says. "I haven't seen anything bad, but it's just my way of saying follow some instructions for a minute, stay in and let this thing get sorted out."

Naturally, there might be some who don't appreciate such humor. "There's people out there that actually have it or had it that you have to be sensitive to, too," says Lee. "I would imagine if I had it, that seeing something like that would maybe take a little of the edge off it and then maybe it'll make it a little better. I don't know, there's so many different ways to look at it."

"People were like, 'Stay inside, man, we want to rock out. Don't f--- this up.'"

Tommy Lee, drummer for Mötley Crüe

Comedians unsurprisingly tend to be the biggest boosters of comedy during a crisis. "I think that you can joke about anything, assuming that the point of view you're coming from is essentially good-natured," says comedian Eugene Mirman, of the documentary "It Started As A Joke." "I think that it's fine to joke about hard topics. People need humor to unwind and to release their anxieties." If things aren't done cruelly, "it doesn't mean that they can't essentially be crass or something."

Mirman lost his wife to cancer in January, and he empathizes with people who may lose loved ones in isolation. "I think that's heartbreaking," he says. "When I hear of people not socially distancing, I think that they just don't really know what they're in for. They don't really know the tragedy of that."

Still, following the death of his wife, Mirman says, his friends would joke around a lot. "Not about the tragedy of it, but things that were funny," he clarifies. "Humor and sadness aren't mutually exclusive. You can have both at the same time. I don't think one erases the other. I think they're just hand in hand."

Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to timing. "It's a dangerous time," reflects the Kinsey Institute's Fisher. "For a lot of people it can work to be very useful and for some people be a stab in the heart."

So while gallows humor helps many of us get through these trying times, the majority of us should also be aware that things could be much worse. There are those trapped inside with abusive partners, adapting poorly to isolation, and those in nursing homes facing major risks. On the flip side, there are those who gather foolishly and recklessly in defiance of public orders not to congregate, brushing off the dangers of the infectiousness of the disease.

It's important for us to maintain our sense of humor during this frightening crisis — just as long as we don't overdo it. It's OK to joke in a pandemic, but our health and safety are no laughing matter.