Humor us — take steps to prevent comedy from becoming tragedy

“Dying is easy – comedy’s hard.” The origin of the Hollywood aphorism is murky, but its truth is undeniable.

April 15 may be America’s annual day of dread, but for those who advise student publications, it’s April 1 — the day that hundreds of Sara Silverman wannabes find out that they’re much less funny than they think they are.

Student journalists at Columbia University got off to an early start this year. In February, the Morningside Post newsmagazine came uncomfortably close to the truth in a satire article about a professor’s unforgiving lateness policies. The humor piece got picked up and redistributed by some literal-minded online news outlets as a genuine crime story about a student mugging.

Misfired attempts at humor can have real consequences, both to the reading public and to the well-being of the publication. At Georgetown, an outcry over racially insensitive portrayals in a 2009 April Fools edition of The Hoya actually resulted in exploding a nearly finalized agreement to grant the newspaper autonomy from the university.

In this article for the National Scholastic Press Association, SPLC attorney Mike Hiestand describes some of the ways that student would-be humorists have suffered blowback from misfired April Fools pranks. Among the lessons he flags is making sure that individual stories are clearly identifiable as parody if the publication is posted online, since pieces may be read — and forwarded — without context and without disclaimers.

As a journalistic matter, there are legitimate arguments against giving over an issue to humor. The lifespan of a student journalist flashes by in a blink. Is there honestly so little “real” news that one edition can be squandered on “fake” news? And since student publications already struggle to be taken seriously, does it help matters to fill up an issue with pee-pee jokes?

If your publication is determined to produce an April Fools issue, then at least take advantage of the opportunity to learn basic principles of libel law – including the principle that, to be protected against a libel claim, humor must be so plain-as-day as to leap off the proverbial page. April 1 may be a time for good-natured humor, but it is no time for subtlety.