Traffic was backed up for four miles on the southbound lanes of I-35 near Huxley, Iowa on Tuesday afternoon as crews labored to clean up a spilled semitrailer load of Jell-O pudding cups. Meanwhile, a mere 25 miles away, former Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby was a featured speaker at the Get Motivated “business seminar” in Des Moines. These are indisputable facts, and for some reason, they are funny. Even the Associated Press coverage of the accident, which mentioned neither the brand name Jell-O nor the nearby presence of Cosby, was amusing, mainly due to the line “Pudding cups littered the interstate.” The heart of the matter is this: a pudding spill is funny.
Of course, it is unlikely that the semi driver has joined the chorus of chuckles. Although he escaped uninjured, he did endure the harrowing experience of driving down the highway and suddenly discovering that his trailer was on fire. After pulling over to the berm and detaching his cab, he awaited the arrival of emergency crews while his trailer became engulfed in flames. His cargo spilled from the side of the trailer onto the roadway. Far from being amused, the driver was likely grateful to be alive while overwhelmed by the practical implications of the incident. What was the cause of the accident? Who, if anyone, was responsible? Were the trailer and its contents insured? What needs to be done next? Meanwhile, I doubt that cleanup crews found much levity in the unenviable task of removing the mess while impatient motorists backed up mile after mile.
And yet, the pudding bit is funny, at least to the detached observer with no stake in the matter. As Mel Brooks famously observed, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” A comic exaggeration, to be sure, but it helps to explain the critical role of perspective in perceiving humor. Had anyone been seriously injured or killed, certainly a probable outcome of such an incident, the funniness would have evaporated for most of us, sociopaths excepted. On the other hand, if a responding police officer had sped to the scene and consequently engaged in an ultimately harmless series of 360-degree spins in a quarter-mile pudding skid, we would all be LOL-ing at the viral YouTube footage.
Just hours before the Iowa pudding debacle, a semi truck passing near Dayton, Ohio along I-75 jack-knifed and hit a bridge wall. Its driver was uninjured, but approximately 100 gallons of diesel fuel were spilled into the Great Miami River. Nothing funny here, just a minor environmental tragedy, a lot of inconvenienced motorists, and one lucky truck driver. However, had the trailer been loaded with commercial tubs of Jell-O instant pudding, the contents of which had spilled into the river and whipped the Great Miami into a chocolaty froth, we would all be having our days lightened by grinning co-anchors teasing the story with, “And finally, can you say Jell-NO?”
So when it comes to potentially lethal spills of cargo on the highway, the perceived danger of that cargo is inversely proportional to the humor. Diesel fuel is harmful in nearly every circumstance other than safely burning it as fuel, and therefore it is not funny. Jell-O pudding, however, is tasty, fun, harmful only to the waist, and carries that mirthful Cosby connotation, and therefore it is worthy of a giggle in all but the most extraordinary situations.
Beyond the cargo, though, it also helps one find the funny if the mishap doesn’t happen to you. Years ago I was driving home through Columbus on 315, traveling south along what is known among local traffic reporters as “the hospital curve” because of its proximity to Riverside Methodist. Ahead of me in the center lane was a pickup truck with an unsecured wheelbarrow in its bed. Luckily I was maintaining a good bit of distance between us, arguably a lifesaving factor when the wheelbarrow suddenly rose like a kite and clattered onto the pavement. It was one of those adrenaline-filled moments when there is no time to think and just the barest window within which to respond instinctively. I swerved into the next lane without so much as a glance to check for traffic, and thankfully no one was driving in that space. Having narrowly missed a collision with the wheelbarrow, I continued along the highway with a pounding heart and mounting anger at the rubes whose irresponsibility put lives in jeopardy.
Now, it really would not have made any difference to me had that pickup been filled with pudding cups, a case of diapers, or a full load of bananas. Even if these bozos had dropped a shipment of inflatable Brutus Buckeyes and E. Gordon Gee bobbleheads, I would have perceived nothing more than an imminent threat to my safety, and that is not funny. Although I must admit, I can laugh at the thought of my obituary reading, “felled by an airborne bobblehead of E. Gordon Gee.” But then I wouldn’t be around to tee-hee about it, would I?
It’s a fine line, then. Werribee, a small town in Melbourne, Australia, had a cow spill on the very same day as the Iowa pudding spill and Ohio diesel fuel spill. The driver had minor shoulder injuries. Unfortunately, some of the forty cows were killed, and others were injured. Obviously not funny. Had all living creatures escaped unscathed and oncoming drivers were merely inconvenienced by a herd of confused cows, though, we could all have a laugh about it.
A couple days earlier, traffic on the Trans-Canada highway near Sintalua, Saskatchewan was halted by a truck crash and its consequent spill of lobster tails. Minor injuries to the driver and a passenger. Mildly funny due to the incongruity of lobster tails on the roadway.
There were no injuries near Jonesville, Indiana on April 19 when 20,000 pounds of chicken manure were spilled onto Indiana 11. Funny. Not to anyone involved in the cleanup, of course, but otherwise funny.
And then there was the April 30 incident on northbound I-65 outside of Columbus, Indiana. A crash resulted in a semi spilling its load of peanut butter. According to Central Indiana CBS affiliate WISH-TV, “Bartholomew County Sheriff’s officials said peanut butter was spread on the roadway for about an eighth of a mile.”
Now that’s funny.