This was a human being, who suffered and died

Once when I was the news editor in Wichita, Dave Barry came to visit. Since he was Knight Ridder’s biggest star, an opportunity was set up for him to meet and bat the breeze with some folks from the newsroom.

It was a light, banter-filled session. At one point, newsroom comedian Dennis Boone challenged Dave by asking, with mock indignation, why he and the rest of us, who worked for the same company, had to sweat away at hard work for long hours while Dave got paid to crack jokes. Barry smiled a satisfied smile and answered with one word: “Talent.”

I had a question I wanted to ask, too, but it felt out of place. It’s one I’ve thought of a lot over the years with regard to humor. It would have gone like this: “Do you ever feel guilty about cracking jokes to a mass audience? Do you ever wonder, when you make a real killer joke about, say, cancer, how many people reading it just lost a loved one to cancer, thereby making your bon mot like a knife to the heart?”

But I decided the question was too dark for the venue — downright weird, really — so I didn’t ask it that day. Nor did I when I ran into Dave again in Atlanta in 1988, where he and I were both covering the Democratic National Convention. We were in the makeshift KR work area in the World Trade Center, and he was telling me about some practical joke that he and others were pulling on Mike Royko over in the next press encampment (I forget what form the gag took). Again, not the right time.

I like a joke as much as the next guy, and probably more than most. I’m generally the guy most likely to go off on a facetious digression in a serious meeting, if only to keep myself interested. I’m guilty of a great deal of the kind of gallows humor that people in newsrooms use to distance themselves from the unpleasantness they report on. (I have my limits, though. I’ve never participated, for instance, in a death pool.) And sometimes I’d forget myself and act that way outside the newsroom. Early in my career, when I’d hardly had time to be jaded (the youngest, least-experienced journalists are often the worst, anxious to show how hardened they are), I was playing tennis one evening with another guy while my wife watched us. There was suddenly a loud, horrible screeching sound followed by a tremendous crash on the nearby busy street that was just out of sight. I said with a grin, “Let’s play that point over; that noise distracted me.” My wife was horrified, and when she pointed out that someone may have just been killed, I felt the appropriate regret, or at least I like to think so. But I knew that we said things that cold all the time at work, about all sorts of human tragedies. We might even dignify it by relating it to professional detachment.

Over time, that sort of humor became less and less the special province of journalists, cops and others who dealt routinely with the uglier sides of life. Starting about the time that “Saturday Night Live” started its long run, society as a whole started accepting an ironic approach to terrible things. A landmark might have been Dan Akroyd’s hilarious sketch in which Julia Child is bleeding to death from a wound inflicted while preparing a meal. Over the years we devolved from that down to laughing at “South Park” and “Family Guy.” We got hipper and hipper and more and more ironic.

Now, with the Web, the lines between professional and audience are largely erased, and everyone competes to be the biggest wiseacre on the Twitter feed. But I was struck today by a gag among professionals that I felt crossed the line — to the extent that there still is a line:

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee

Was he on a plane? RT @TheFix: Man who handles poisonous snakes dies from….wait for it…a poisonous snake bite.

To interpret for those not familiar with the Twitter syntax, @TheFix (the feed of the blog written by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post) said “Man who handles poisonous snakes dies from….wait for it…a poisonous snake bite.” He also provided the link to this story, “Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite.” Then, Celeste Headlee, the co-host of The Takeaway, which I regularly enjoy on public radio), added “Was he on a plane?”

Keeping the ball rolling, Steve Skinner — him I don’t know — added “….and was Samuel Jackson on said plane?” (Such overexplication is, of course, a joke-killer, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)

At this point I decided to play wet blanket — the Harry Hairshirt, the Captain Buzzkill, the Church Lady — and replied:

This was a human being who suffered an untimely and painful death, folks.

No one answered, and that was merciful of them. I had committed such a gaffe, slathering on the self-righteousness like that.

But come on, people.

By the way, if you read the story at the link, it’s appropriately and sensitively done. After all, it’s written by someone who actually got to know the victim in the course of profiling him. That’s an interesting thing about journalistic facetiousness — the reporter out in the field who gets to know sources as human beings is almost never as cynical as the desk types who never leave the newsroom. To the reporter, this wasn’t just some redneck yahoo who took his Bible too literally — which these days is a stock character tout le monde is encouraged to laugh at. He’s a human being who believed in something, rightly or wrongly, and died for it.

Died horribly, in case you don’t know anything about snakebite (and if you don’t, the story sets you straight).

Yeah, I know I was acting like a prig, and that’s no way to get followers on Twitter. But there it is.

54 thoughts on “This was a human being, who suffered and died

  1. Brad

    Oh, and on the theological question… as it happens, I was thinking about snake-handling just the other day, because we read the relevant passage at Mass:

    “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

    Me, I’m more into looking at the Bible as a whole, which means I remain mindful of:

    “Jesus answered him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”‘”

    But I try not to be smug about it. I admit, I don’t always succeed.

  2. bud

    This explains a lot about the disgusting dead horse cartoon Arial did and you approved for the editorial page. I still get sick to my stomach when I think of that. Whatever point Arial was trying to make was completely lost to about 9/10 of his audience. The line wasn’t just crossed on that one it was obliterated.

  3. Brad

    Bud, that was not even a case of insensitivity. Nobody, but nobody, was saying it was funny that a horse was dead. The cartoon wasn’t ABOUT a horse. It was about Hillary Clinton. The horse was a metaphor. She was beating a dead horse by staying in the campaign. (And of course, the image was timely because there was a dead horse in the news.) If I had written that, you’d never have batted an eye. But a cartoonist DRAWS his point…

  4. Silence

    Of course, if he’d been going by Warthen’s Snake Rules he never would have gotten bitten.

  5. `Kathryn Braun

    I dunno. It’s one thing if someone is in an accident doing reasonably safe daily activities; it’s something else if he is delusional enough to handle venomous snakes. For one thing, leave the darn snake alone to be a snake. For another thing, if you taunt death, and it gets you, you open yourself up to being laughed at–it’s the Darwin Awards sort of thing.

  6. Silence

    It’s funny that these snake handlers are biblical literalists and then they end up as candidates for the Darwin award.

  7. Doug Ross

    Comedy = Tragedy + Time

    As one who enjoys “roast” style humor, all I can say is that Celeste Headlee appears to have made an asp of herself.

    Fangs a lot for the post, though.

  8. Brad

    Folks, the man was in horrific agony for 10 hours before he died. Bud is concerned about horses. Well, a horse would not have been allowed to suffer that long. Nowhere near that long. Because we’d be too compassionate.

  9. Brad

    My lack of a sense of humor on this is related to something else that I worry about sometimes…

    During my years at The State, I was well aware that I was always on the warpath attacking things that working-class folks, or perhaps I should say, non-elites, tended to like. Flying the Flag at the State House. Video poker. A state lottery. I was aware that often, the faces on the other side of these hot-button issues tended to be very much alike, and often were the same people.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, these things often looked like a sort of class warfare between rednecks and eggheads. And I didn’t like that. I’m far from being a populist, but I am not at all comfortable in a position where someone might think that I was thinking of myself as one of the enlightened, who were taking it upon themselves to correct the errors of the benighted.

    I don’t even know if I’m explaining this well. It was more a gut feeling than a fully-formed thought, but it made me feel uneasy to always be on the opposite side of the salt-of-the-earth types. (Even SAYING that seems snotty, because it presumes that I am of the elite, or one of the wise ones, or extraordinary in some way, and truly that is a debatable point. But I felt the uneasiness all the same.)

    Having inadequately explained that, I will get to my point, which is that phenomena like this bring out the same feeling in me. I’m very wary about presuming to look down upon such dissenting Protestant, charismatic doings from a high liturgical, more intellectualized faith perspective.

    But I guess I shouldn’t worry about it. All a matter of perspective. Many of those folks look upon us Catholics as weird idolaters, and my atheist friends think we’re ALL a bunch of deluded idiots, without distinction…

  10. Silence

    Fortunately, Mammon would never demand that his followers “take up serpents.” Unless there was a profit in rearing them.

  11. `Kathryn Braun

    Look–the guy was trying to prove something by handling a lethal creature and epicly failed. If a left-wing elitist was trying to prove s/he was immune from the effects of some lethal object and ended up dying from it, it would be equally up for ridicule. It’s really not a class thing. I feel sorry for the families of the college kids who do incredibly stupid fatal things–like, um, hook up atop a tall building and falling off it to their deaths, too, but I smirk sardonically at them, too.

    The fact that he believed had a religious reason to do this places him in the category of suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots–sadly deluded and dead.

  12. Mark Stewart

    So if shooting a horse between the eyes when injured is compassionate, then physician-assisted suicide ought to be open to discussion, no?

    May not have been appropriate in this situation. But for others…?

  13. Karen McLeod

    Whatever side you’re on, this man honestly believed that what he was doing was demonstrating his faith in the Lord. I don’t agree with him, but I’m not at all sure that I have the courage and trust to truly follow what I believe our Lord asks of us.

  14. Tim

    I don’t know why you decided to twist up over this, when you stated that you had just engaged in gallows humor on the Tennis Court. Doubtless, it was the worst day of someones life on that highway, as they were texting OMG to their BFF. Its terrible. Really is. And you said something tasteless. And what, now you want to make someone else feel as guilty as you?

    Me? I don’t respect the moronic view that God makes his saints immune from poison. If it were, the dude just proved one thing… he wasn’t one of God’s elect.

    Other than common decency, I don’t give him the respect I give explorers who put their lives on the line for increasing human knowledge. I don’t give him the respect I give to firefighters or soldiers or cops.

    He was just this: A thrill-seeker. Maybe he was a kind and generous soul to his fellow man. But he encouraged people to do the same damn dumb thing that killed his father. At 37. Yup… his own daddy played with snakes and lost, proving God didn’t much care for him either.

    Sorry. I don’t have any sympathy for someone who could have gone to the hospital and been walking around now. Ever hear that old joke about the man in the flood who waves away the cops, the rowboat, and the helicopter saying “God Will Save Me?”, and then drowns?. If anything, the people he loved are best served by making him look the fool that he was.

  15. Steven Davis II

    “Folks, the man was in horrific agony for 10 hours before he died.”

    He handled poisonous snakes. You play the odds, his luck finally ran out. It’s called stupidity.

  16. Norm Ivey

    This whole discussion reminds me of the death of Chuckles the Clown episode from the Mary Tyler Moore show. When Chuckles (dressed as a peanut?) was killed by an elephant, everyone makes these types of crude jokes at Chuckles’s expense, except Mary who chastises everyone for their insensitivity–until the funeral, when she can’t contain her laughter. It illustrated a natural human characteristic–using humor to cope with things that makes us uncomfortable.

    A snake handling pastor who dies as a result of a snake bite inflicted during a worship service–the concept is funny. Unfortunately, this was real, and not a sitcom. Pastor Wolford is beyond caring what we think, but his family deserves compassion, not ridicule. I only wish someone could have convinced of of the folly in his theology. Maybe his death will serve to do that for another, making his death neither untimely nor stupid.

  17. bud

    Mark brings up a good point. I think it’s time we have a discussion about the merits of physician-assisted suicide. Probably won’t happen though. This country has move so far to the right it’s one of those issues forever lost for public debate. Instead we talk about whether the president is actually an American citizen. Go figure.

  18. Silence

    I think I said this before, but it’s worth repeating. “If you handle poisonous snakes, it’s not if you’ll get bit, it’s when.”

    I growed up in Appalachia and there were plenty of sarpent handlin churches around. Every few years someone would get themselves all bitten and die. After that, DSS would go in and take all of the children away. The parents would then go all civil liberties and claim that they were being targeted b/c of their religion and try to get the kids back.

  19. Phillip

    This same Twitter exchange happened with the case of the carjacker at SMU a couple days ago who holed up in the cab of a construction crane and then jumped to his death as SWAT teams moved in. There were several pretend-Twitter accounts “from” the guy, including after his death. Then some in the Dallas press said, hey, that’s not so funny. I know what you mean about everybody trying to be snarkily ironically funny these days…interesting point about dating it to SNL. I wonder if it was the show so much as those times (the post-Vietnam post-Watergate boom in cynicism and a loss of American “innocence”) themselves. One thing is for sure: whatever you want to call that trend in American society, it’s exploded exponentially with Twitter. In 140 characters, everybody has to be entertaining, a wise-a… You said it yourself, not being that way is no way to gain followers.

  20. Doug Ross

    There were plenty of parody songs about Hitler back during WWII. I think one was called “Der Fuerer’s Face” and had lines like:

    “When der Fuehrer says, we is the master race, then we Heil (bronx cheer) , Heil (bronx cheer), right in der Fuehrer’s face”

    If there is a LESS humorous subject than Hitler, I’d like to hear about it.

    And I suppose enough time passed from Jesus’ death for Monty Python to make Life of Brian, right?

    The jokes are about the circumstances… I’m sure people weren’t going up to the family of the deceased and cracking wise.

  21. Doug Ross

    Here’s a link to a Wikipedia post about (no joke) Disney propaganda cartoons featuring Donald Duck during WWII. I’m guessing the folks in Germany and France were rolling in the aisles watching them.

    Today, newspapers are afraid to even print cartoons that MENTION Mohammed.

  22. bud

    The parents would then go all civil liberties and claim that they were being targeted b/c of their religion and try to get the kids back.

    Religious freedom can certainly take on many different and bizarre forms.

  23. Brad

    Some quick points, Doug:

    — Newspapers aren’t “afraid” to publish cartoons mocking Mohammed. They recognize it as a gross insult to Muslim readers, as well as a potential threat to human life in parts of the world where people go murderously nuts over such things. There is no “courage” in an editor publishing something that doesn’t put HIM in danger, but gets somebody killed on the other side of the world.
    — Ummm… Muhammed is not Hitler or Tojo. He’s the founder of one of the world’s largest and most respected religions — and one that teaches that such images are blasphemy.
    — There is zero connection between making fun of some backwoods minister who gets himself killed because of his beliefs, and propaganda meant to support morale in a fight to the death with one of the monsters of the 20th century. None at all. Humor in the face of adversity, mocking a powerful enemy, is a tribute to the American spirit, which detests pomposity of the sort we saw in the fascists. Mocking a poor unfortunate on the margins of our society is contemptible.

    Going to Norm’s point… The problem is that mocking someone in a widely published medium — including Twitter — IS mocking him to his family’s face. It’s like the difference between gallows humor in the newsroom, and actually putting it in the paper.

    And Phillip — thanks for seeing what I mean about what has happened to us. I can’t claim credit for pinning it on SNL — that’s something that’s been said before. SNL was a real departure, which is what made us all sit up and take notice when it went on the air. And it was timely, and clicked, in part because of all those other things you mention.

    Remember, just a few years before, the Smothers Brothers lost their show for much, much milder stuff. Before SNL, much of its material was unimaginable. It was what you got when “National Lampoon” editors went to television.

  24. Doug Ross

    I guess since I grew up on Mad Magazine, Cracked, National Lampoon, and Spy, I have a higher tolerance/ability to separate humor from maliciousness.

    I’m sure when Dick Harpootlian was joking about Mark Sanford having an STD in his interview with you that he was just kidding around. No malice intended.

  25. bud

    Or Lee Atwater joking about Tom Turnipseed’s bought with a mental disorder by suggesting he was started with jumper cables.

  26. Brad

    Tim and Doug, I think both of y’all are forgetting what network television was in those days. It was the shared experience of the entire society, back before cable (or rather, back in the days when “cable” was something you used in a small town to enable you to get the three networks).

    Now, the television audience is fragmented, so there is much to appeal to narrower interests. Now, it’s as diverse as publishing was in the days of Mad, and movies in the days of Dr. Strangelove. Those media had self-selected audiences.

    But with TV, all the public had was what was “on” at a given moment on the Big Three. So it had to be lowest-common-denominator fare, that more or less entertained as many as possible and offended no one.

    That’s what did in the Smothers Brothers, even as NBC was pushing the boundaries with “Laugh-In.” But of course, “Laugh-In” was ridiculously tame stuff compared to SNL.

    As I said, SNL was — almost — National Lampoon brought to network TV.

    As a reminder of what that meant, I share an anecdote. In the early 70s, when I was in college, my Dad found a copy of Lampoon that I had left in my car. After looking at it, he came to me and said that I could read what I wanted, but that I was not to let my little brother see that.

    I was really embarrassed. I thought about the kind of gross, deliberately offensive humor that was regularly found in Lampoon, and thought of my Dad reading it and associating it with me, and felt pretty bad about it.

  27. Brad

    Doug and Bud — y’all are both talking about public figures, which puts it in a different category from joking about this pastor.

    But even within that category, there are differences. Both the Sanford and Turnipseed remarks were tasteless and inappropriate, and say more about the characters of the men who offered the remarks than about the subjects of them.

    But between the two, the Atwater remark was worse. Dick was talking about a Big Boy who had publicly put a big target on his back regarding a sexual matter, and making a joke transparently meant to be seen as a joke (I’m going by your description, since I don’t remember the STD remark).

    Lee was picking on the troubled adolescent Tom had been when he got those treatments (if I remember the story correctly), which takes it to another level. He wasn’t picking on the Big Boy his candidate was running against, but mocking a troubled kid.

    Both were tasteless, but Lee’s was worse. Of course, you could make a case for defending it on the grounds of truth, unlike Dick’s remark. But bottom line, both were inappropriate.

  28. Tim

    Yeah, you are probably on to something, although I was sneaking Cheech and Chong albums into the house before that. I don’t know that its a bad thing, necessarily, though. If this is a means of getting at we should not ever have a laugh at the expense of fools doing foolish things. Sorry… this is not a tragedy. There is a service in pointing out that both this guy and his dad were killed by the same dumb belief. Definitionally its irony. People need to warned, and if it takes making them a laughingstock, its a good thing. If we get to a point where we have to walk on eggshells around someone’s looney beliefs because someone may say we are all in glass houses, well, then you have the SC General Assembly.

  29. Doug Ross

    So your theory is that TV is responsible for creating the snarky attitudes? or does it just expose what exists already in people’s minds?

  30. kc

    Well, a horse would not have been allowed to suffer that long. Nowhere near that long. Because we’d be too compassionate.

    Um, yeah, a horse would have been put down.

  31. kc

    but I am not at all comfortable in a position where someone might think that I was thinking of myself as one of the enlightened, who were taking it upon themselves to correct the errors of the benighted.

    That may be the funniest thing you’ve ever posted.

  32. Brad


    Just because I’m a snotty elitist doesn’t mean I want to think of myself as a snotty elitist.

    And Bud, you’re right. Lee converted to Catholicism and got his mind right. 🙂 No, seriously, he had a deathbed conversion and repented of the things he had done. A lot of people scoff at that sort of thing, but I don’t. I’m glad he was able to do that.

  33. Doug Ross

    “No, seriously, he had a deathbed conversion and repented of the things he had done. A lot of people scoff at that sort of thing, but I don’t. I’m glad he was able to do that.”

    Here’s me being snarky:

    Yes, and we can hope all the rest of the political consultant profession suffers a similar conversion. The sooner the better.

  34. Tim

    Did you see what Mary Matalin said to Ed Rollins in the “wiki” article?

    ‘Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package,’ which just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end.”


  35. `Kathryn Braun

    Vis a vis Lee Atwater’s alleged deathbed conversion: How convenient!

    I think popular humor evolved to the ironic and snarky after Watergate,but that also coincided with a general raising of consciousness that the sort of ethnic/religious/gender stereotyped,”take my wife, please,”Johnny-Jackie-Joey comic type of humor was not kind or terribly funny–although my fellow Rotarians seem to slap their knees at it.
    SNL came out of the improvisational comedy scene at Second City, where “Truth in Comedy” was (and is) the handbook. In that type of humor, you look at things that are more or less real/truthful and find a twist and heighten it. Seinfeld perfected it–the slightly-heightened reality observed.
    Guy handles snakes to prove he’s one of God’s chosen and dies when bitten is not far out of line with this approach–it is, indeed, why we find the Darwin Awards funny.

    Phillip’s story is more a case of true mental illness–the man seemed to be psychotic, no?

  36. Susanincola

    Snake handlers don’t do it to prove they’re one of God’s chosen, and they are fully aware they may die. I think they see it as just obeying scripture literally, and that if they die from it, that’s God’s will for them, so it is OK. So it’s about trusting God with their lives (and deaths) in a very literal way on a regular basis.

  37. Mark Stewart

    Lee Atwater was a psychopath. Or something like it. Whatever. Repented? As likely as iceburgs on Lake Murray in June.

    It strikes me as likely that many of these political operative types are among the most psychologically stunted of souls. Repenting requires good deeds, not different lies.

  38. Silence

    @ Susan & Brad – If snake handlers are true believers and they die, aren’t they going to go to join the Lord in his heavenly kingdom anyhow? It’s no fair for them to get there first, but I guess I’ll let ’em.

  39. Brad

    Oh, absolutely. If they’re willing to do that, the least others could do is let them cut in line.

    Susan, I appreciate your explanation. That’s the way I understand their beliefs, and I appreciate them on that level. The talk by sensible people to the effect that they are idiotic, or that the fact that they die proves their wrong, misses the point. If you’re guaranteed divine protection against snakebite, then it doesn’t take a lot of courage of convictions to pick a rattler up. Knowing that you COULD die a painful death is a form of taking up one’s cross.

    I don’t hold with it, but I do try to appreciate those who do on their own terms, to the extent that I’m able.

  40. Tim

    And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

    Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

    Okay. I guess that’s why they don’t drink poison. Thats just boring. Drink it and Die. Sorry, these nuts are thrill-seekers, just claiming to do it in God’s name. They don’t exhibit any of the “signs” they base their faith on. This stuff is loopy and dumb and bad and does not deserve any respect. I guess its okay they raise their children to do this? Kids have died in these churches from untreated snake bites. What if it was jumping off bridges? As far as I am concerned, once he was bitten and refused medical treatment, its suicide, barely any different than Jim Jones. Do you give him a nice tip of the hat? How about Heaven’s Gate? Were you similarly incensed with anyone who had a chuckle at that?

    I don’t advocate banning them or taking their kids away, but to lend some sort of respect to them is wrong. Taking up one’s cross?

  41. Mark Stewart

    I think more condescension than empathy is warranted here. Some of each, but definately more of the former.

  42. Brad

    I agree with you only if you mean “condescension” in the sense of what Lady Catherine de Bourgh so generously bestowed upon her humble servant, Mr. Collins.

  43. Mark Stewart

    She is like a master spy of language; all double and triple meanings. The fact one makes the decision to downshift one’s address still says it all.

  44. Silence

    OK, there’s some confusion here regarding Mark 16: 17-18. It is ONLY referring to the folks who were preached to by the original eleven disciples mentioned in Mark 16:14.

    If you heard the gospel second third or fourth hand (especially if you are a Gentile or a Samaritan), the taking up serpents and drinking poison bit does not apply to you. It’s pretty clear that not just anyone can cast out devils and whatnot in the name of the Lord. Sheesh.

  45. Tim

    I suggest you send your comments to the fellow who runs this website:

    The owners seems like a personable, thoughtful fellow, open to re-examining his ideas based on logic and reason. Oh, wait, I should have read farther. According to him God does not use Reason; Satan uses Reason. Now the scales have fallen from my eyes.

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