When it comes to knock-knock jokes, it helps to be 5 years old: You can slap your head, roll your eyes and run outside and play.
In a courtroom where the defendant is charged with second-degree murder, a knock-knock joke has all the appeal of a bar of soap on the shower floor.
It is difficult to imagine how Don West, defense attorney in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, worked through the thought process that led him to slap his own forehead and say to himself:
Thus, when Zimmerman’s trial began Monday — in a courtroom where the parents of the victim were present — he offered a little joke:
“Knock-knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? All right. Good. You’re on the jury.”
No one cued the laugh track. Lightning is funnier.
West’s opening-day thud may have seemed amusing over coffee in his own kitchen, but even he knew it was inappropriate.
Because everyone is a comedian these days. Or at least everyone wants to be. Comedy, rather than providing relief from our too-serious times, has become the currency of choice.
Ever since Jon Stewart told CNN’s “Crossfire” hosts in 2004 that their left-right political slugfest was bad for America (and then-CNN president Jon Klein soon after killed the show), the power of the comedian has surged past the serious commentators.
Who wants to be the straight man when the funny guys get all the girls? Not that comedy isn’t commentary. But time and place are as important as the punch line.
After much criticism, West sort of apologized for his lapse in judgment. He was sorry if anyone was offended, but he still thought it was funny.
Humor has a role in public life, obviously, and comedians make valuable contributions to our understanding by casting a light on our hypocrisies and self-righteousness. Nothing quite delivers a memento mori like a well-placed barb. But that barb best be sharp, and it better be well-placed. West’s joke fell flat because it was neither.
The only imaginable use for humor in a murder trial — and this is a stretch — would be spontaneous and self-deprecating, which rarely goes wrong.
The poor jurors in Zimmerman’s trial were told more or less that they’re so uninformed that they just might be stupid enough to buy the rest of his defense. Let’s hope West has better material in his briefcase or Zimmerman, should he be convicted, may have unique grounds for appeal: His lawyer couldn’t tell a joke.
KATHLEEN PARKER is a syndicated columnist of The Washington Post, a regular guest on television shows like The Chris Mathews Show and The O’Reilly Factor. She also is a member of the Buckley School’s faculty.