Dear Dr. Plume,
I just got back from a stand-up comedy show and the guy was telling jokes about Steve Irwin. Some idiot behind me kept saying “too soon." I've always wondered about the history of that phrase.
-Tim in Houston, TX
The “too soon” retort. This phrase, or variations on it, have been a part of the human experience since the very beginning of tasteless jokes.
Anthropologists have uncovered some cave paintings from the last ice age where, it appears, someone made a humorous painting about a fellow caveman's mauling at the hands of a woolly mammoth only to have the painting smudged with water by an angry widow or friend who, it is believed, felt it was "too soon" to joke about such a thing.
The earliest recorded instance (in the A.D.) occurred in 453, several minutes after Attila the Hun choked to death during a celebratory feast. In a poor attempt to lighten the mood, Jeffery the Hun shouted out “I'll have what he's having!” Delivering the “too soon” was Margaret the Hun, mistress of the deceased.
The longest span between the event and a “too soon” situation occurred at a symposium on ancient Assyria, when professor Fredrick Pines from UW-Milwaukee spoke of how King Sennacherib had been killed by two of his sons, Adramalech and Sharezer, adding humorously: “I guess he should have thought twice about sending them to their rooms.” After a pause, professor Alexander Meachum of Columbia University shouted: “Too soon.” After 2,688 years, Meachum had still not healed emotional wounds from Sennacherib's untimely death. Though, some speculate he just didn't understand how the "too soon" thing works.
The shortest span occurred in New York city in 1929. As his business partner jumped out of a 61st story window on Black Friday, Harvey Weldton said to his secretary: “I guess he should have invested in a parachute!” The secretary replied: “Too soon.” Technically, this “too soon” joke occurred within -1 seconds of his partner's death.
Some people may ask, how long is “not too soon” enough. I have made this handy chart that I refer to when preparing jokes for various functions.
- The corpse is visible from where you are standing: Too soon.
- Wreckage has not completely been removed from the site of the accident: Too soon.
- The deceased person's television show has not finished airing it's episodes filmed beforehand: Too soon.
- The trial of the suspected murderer has not yet reached the appeals process: Too soon.
- The appeals process has begun, but you are the one being prosecuted: Too soon.
- Somewhere they are still printing t-shirts with the name of the particular disaster you're joking about followed by the words “relief volunteer”: Too soon.
- It is one hour or more following the death of the person who married a rich elderly man for his oil fortune, had an obnoxious television show, and appeared at multiple public events severely intoxicated: Ok.
Sorry, that was all a little morbid, but it needed to be said.
As an aside, a friend of mine once told me he heard a woman shout “too soon” after a male comedian used the phrase “too soon” in a joke. My friend jokingly said, “It was too soon for his too soon joke.” I said, “I suppose that just makes him early.” Wow. As you can imagine, that one gave me quite a chuckle.
Very Truly Yours Me,
Dr. Douglas H. Plume*
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Dear Dr. Plume,
**Expert meaning: having earned an advanced degree in, taken a course on, read a book about, or watched a brief television segment concerning said subjects.