If your line of work requires you to see the worst of humanity and the worst situations imaginable, then you probably already know the answer to this question. If you're facing dark stuff every day, heavy doses of inappropriate humor are indispensable in seeing your way through to the other side with some of your sanity intact.
One of the worst and most hilarious things anyone has ever said to me came from a fellow soldier while we were preparing for a combat mission in Afghanistan. Don't worry. I've done the favor of passing this same horrific comment onto lots of other people since.
We were gearing up, doing our pre-mission checks, rehearsing the battle plan, and the guy looked at me, smiling:
"Man, I think it'll go all right, but I just got a bad feeling that you're not going to make it." And then silence. I was a little shocked. And then I laughed. It was the worst possible thing for a soldier to say to a soldier right before combat–and that's why it was hilarious.
The poignantly inappropriate horrific humor from someone else who understands–that's called Graveyard Humor. All the military, police departments, all EMS and anyone that's ever had a really dangerous job or been around a lot of death–they all share a form of graveyard humor.
To people on the outside, it looks incredibly insensitive. It looks disrespectful and crass–because it is. And it serves a very important purpose.
While it may not work in most daily-life circumstances or around most people, when it comes to the people in the dangerous professions, it can help you weather the storm.
Graveyard Humor Helps You Bend Without Breaking
Warriors and first responders have the best and hardest jobs in the world. They're actually making a difference in the world and people's lives, but the stress level and potential exposure to traumatic scenes and situations can test your mental resolve.
In a storm though, like in a hurricane, it's the tree that bends best that breaks last. There are many ways the mind responds to horrible things, and humor is among the most powerful at helping make you into a bending, resilient tree.
Graveyard humor "communalizes" discomfort, misery, and even trauma into decipherable pieces of experience for everyone involved, becoming a sort of shorthand among brothers, a grave and somber inside joke that elicits genuine healing laughter for those who know just how terrible it really was.
So there is genuine and proper emotion being experienced inside the genuine laughter among people who've experienced tragedy, but the graveyard humor momentarily lifts them above the tragedy or memory as an act of mercy. And that is a powerful thing, considering how terrible things can sometimes get downrange.
Graveyard Humor Builds Courage
Some of the toughest and most dangerous people I know have learned the skill of humor to get through the worst of times. Comedians are masters of drawing humor out of tragedy, usually because they had tragic pasts and learned early just how well laughter can work as a headlamp through all sorts of darkness.
Both acute and chronic darkness and the stormy moods of their miserable parents. This is why the funniest people on the planet have seen and experienced some of the worst things ever–and they had the intelligence to package it up in brilliant jokes.
Case in point–a Lieutenant I knew from Second Ranger Battalion. One of his soldiers was wounded pretty badly in the zipper region of his pants, that Lieutenant's words of encouragement? "Don't worry, son. We've got some of the best prosthetics around."
In Afghanistan, where we were constantly confronted with the common and horrific practice of selling young boys as "squad boys" to Afghan soldiers, we reciprocated with a good dose of inappropriate humor. We repeatedly tried to sell one of our guys into sex slavery.
True story. And it was hilarious. Because, number one, that guy wasn't going to be anyone's toy, and, number two, it helped us identify and confront the terrible thing in a humorous way so we could get home alive.
Graveyard Humor Has Its Limits
PRO TIP: Don't try to sell a fellow Army Ranger into sex slavery unless he agrees to it when fully sober. Some people, no matter what they've seen, just aren't built for certain types of humor in the face of tragedy, and only you can know there's enough rapport for the humor to help.
If the rapport and personalities just aren't there, then your humor might be the worst idea you've ever had. Please don't, for example, try your graveyard humor as laugh therapy on a grieving widow you barely know. She's going to punch you in the nose and then I'm going to, too, because you're just a terrible person.
But in the right place at the right time, humor can be a bit of a superpower.
Train hard. Train smart. And make fun of each other. Because it's hilarious. And profound.