When Tragedy Plus Time Equals Tragedy

Okay, I know I promised that I was done with posting about OJ, but I can't resist just one more, this one on the decision by the News Corp (parent of Fox and HarperCollins) to cancel the tv special and book in which OJ would have told the world how he "would have" murdered his ex-wife and her friend. As Rupert Murdoch acknowledged in his announcement and apology, the project was "ill-considered." Although it certainly struck me and nearly everybody else to opine on the subject that way, we might still fruitfully ask why the initial decision to green-light this project was so preposterous.

According to an unnamed Fox executive quoted in a NY Times story on the canceled program and book, the company made a miscalculation that enough time had passed so that Simpson would no longer be a pariah. This reasoning jibes with a saying (variously attributed to many different people) that tragedy plus time equals comedy. So a comedy sketch involving Napoleon (responsible for countless deaths) or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius will not be deemed offensive, while a comedy sketch involving an ongoing tragedy (a genocide, say) will surely and rightly be deemed offensive. But this then raises the question of how much time needs to pass. The answer, I think, is that it depends. Certainly it helps if the victims and their surviving close relatives and friends have passed away, but this is hardly a necessary condition. The original version of The Producers, featuring the song "Springtime for Hitler in Germany," was released in 1968, when the Nazi Holocaust was still a relatively fresh memory. And while there were certainly many people who found the number offensive, many others understood that the point was that it was offensive; that's what made it funny.

But I'm willing to bet that if OJ tries again with his book in another 15 years, he'll be met with the same reaction he got this time around. The relevant comparison would be a version of The Producers starring not Mel Brooks but, say, an actual Nazi. It's hard to see that going over very well. By contrast, even during the Simpson criminal trial itself, late-night comedians thought the case was fair game. But it's hard to imagine that Simpson himself will ever be able to make jokes about how he got away with murder.